Readership implies ownership. It is something I have said many times before and no doubt will again. Getting a book published is a struggle in itself, hoping that book finds its audience and building up a devoted readership is even harder and takes years. Keeping that readership happy while staying true to yourself, your characters and their world is perhaps the hardest thing of all. Once people financially invest in your book and become emotionally invested in your creations, there is an implied ownership. They feel they have the right to disagree and even to pillory the author and, through internet reviews and social media comments, that has never been easier.
Such is the case with Harper Lee’s second and probably final novel, Go Set A Watchman. It’s been touted as the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning-classic To Kill A Mockingbird when, in fact, it is really a rejected early draft of Mockingbird. It was written before Mockingbird, so it is not as if Harper Lee sat down and took a chainsaw to her beloved book. We know that early drafts, especially by young writers who are trying to find themselves and their voices, can go through vast changes before the finished manuscript is ready. So be kind in your judgement of this work-in-progress. We are privileged to be able to read it. As a writing exercise, it will be fascinating to see where she started out, what was kept, discarded and shaped into what became To Kill A Mockingbird.
Ironically, in a novel with race and racism as its central themes, the characters in Mockingbird are morally as well as racially black and white. The good and evil characters are clearly delineated. While this makes it easier for readers to understand the story, it is not how people really are. We are flawed and various shades of grey, perhaps more than fifty. I have always felt that Atticus Finch was less of a realistic character and more of a mould into which we pour our noble aspirations about ourselves. He is the perfect father and the courageous lawyer taking on the case no one else wants because he feels it is right. If Atticus Finch has become the “bigot” that early reviewers claim (and I have not read Go Set A Watchman yet) then it just reflects how people can change and go against the principles of their youth. We know, for instance, that Elliot Ness, the Untouchable who enforced Prohibition and brought down Al Capone, developed a drink problem later in life. The heroic early Ness is what we focus on because we want to believe in brave, righteous people like him and Atticus. The reality is much different. No one is all good or all bad. All of us are capable of compassion and kindness or great evil. That is the imperfect human condition.
It could be one reason why people withdraw from the media tag of hero when some major incident happens. They are aware that it is an impossible ideal to live up to that will severely restrict them in the future. Harper Lee is finding that out right now with the role model she created in Atticus Finch.
There have also been allegations that 89-year-old Harper Lee, who is partially blind and deaf and in assisted living accommodation, has been duped into releasing this book against her wishes. It is as if people don’t want to believe she would willingly publish something that would change Atticus Finch so drastically. She insists that she wants the book released. I say good luck to her. Writers must be free to do as they please with their creations. That is the joy of the creative process. The racism Harper Lee wrote about was a legacy of slavery which was a form of extreme control and a denial of freedom. In a further irony, her readership is now trying to exert control to deny Harper Lee the freedom to express herself how she wants (one reviewer even went so far as to suggest that Watchman would change Harper Lee’s own legacy. Nonsense.) It is a form of censorship, and, as my old acting teacher used to say: “Don’t censor yourself, that’s when all the interesting stuff appears.” Very true.
So don’t shoot The Watchman. Welcome them in, give them a chance and listen, really listen, to their tale and the uncomfortable truths therein.
© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.