One problem with allowing people to publish their work without first taking the benevolent guiding hand of the publishing industry is that writers are left open to all sorts of potential exploitation. Just as it’s easy to take advantage of an elderly person who’s had a stroke and get them to sign all sorts of papers and statements and turn their lives over to virtual strangers, it’s easy to dupe young writers into making choices and deals that are not in their best interest.
That’s why I’m thrilled — thrilled — to see HarperCollins’ Jonathan Burnham taking such good care of Harper Lee and her recently discovered long-lost novel, Go Set A Watchman, which she apparently wrote prior to writing her rightly celebrated masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird. I get sick thinking how Lee might have been ill-served by a lesser white knight incapable of anticipating a jaded public’s dubious reaction and providing a preemptive and detailed forensic defense of such an important discovery:
“Everyone had believed it to been [sic] lost, including Harper Lee herself,” Burnham said. “You can see that it is written on a manual typewriter from the period. It has on the front of it the address where Harper Lee was living at the time in New York. But if you read the book, more importantly, only Harper Lee could have written this novel.”
Thank goodness! Because in the dark corners of the publishing world you can only imagine how easy it would have been for someone with fewer scruples to take an early draft of Mockingbird and pay a ghost writer to bash out a few new chapters on and old typewriter, using the resulting bastardized mishmash not only to exploit Harper Lee but rip off an adoring and trusting public. Fortunately, that has obviously not happened.
Still, there is concern that releasing a book which Harper Lee herself chose not to publish for over fifty years might do damage to Lee’s reputation. Fortunately, there’s no chance of that, as Lee herself makes crystal clear in a written statement also presented by Jonathan Burnham:
Although written first, “Go Set a Watchman” is a continuation of the same story, with overlapping themes and characters. But Ms. Lee abandoned the manuscript after her editor, who was captivated by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, told her to write a new book from the young heroine’s perspective and to set it during her childhood.
“I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Ms. Lee said in a statement released by her publisher.
Thank god Harper Lee had an infallible editor to set her straight or she might have ended up like all the poor deluded first-time writers who are now self-publishing their work because they have no bankable celebrity or cultural standing that a publishing house can exploit. Fortunately no damage to Lee’s reputation can possibly take place with the publication of Go Set a Watchman:
Charles J. Shields, the author of a biography of Ms. Lee that was published by Henry Holt in 2006, said he had come across references to “Go Set a Watchman” in Ms. Lee’s early correspondence with her literary agent. “’I figured it was an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ” Mr. Shields said. He also saw references from Ms. Lee’s editor to repeated revisions of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” as she tried telling the story from three different perspectives.
Mr. Shields is skeptical that the new novel would hold up against ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was an instant classic when she published it at 34.
“We’re going to see what Harper Lee writes like without a strong editor’s hand, when she’s, quite honestly, an amateur,” Mr. Shields said. “It’s going to be very interesting to see how original it is. A lot was taken from ‘Go Set a Watchman’ for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and maybe those are the best parts.”
What good fortune that HarperCollins and Jonathan Burnham are personally taking such good care of the aged Harper Lee and her reputation — particularly given these tragic events in her life:
Ms. Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and has been living in an assisted-living facility. Her sister, Alice Lee, a lawyer who was her companion and her protector from public scrutiny, died last fall.
Remember kids, leave the publishing to professionals or you might get ripped off, exploited, abused, or otherwise turned into a cash cow for soulless human beings who never wrote a damn thing in their lives. (Cynical and petty joy-killing counterpoint here.)
And yet, given the historical and cultural importance of Harper Lee’s work and reputation, and the fact that the publishing industry is a cultural steward, it might not be a bad idea for Jonathan Burnham to go on the record — perhaps even under oath — assuring an adoring nation that no ghostwiters were hired and that no changes were made to whatever manuscript was found. In fact, the original could be turned over to the Smithsonian or some other cultural repository so its forensic veracity could be independently verified, thus further burnishing Mr. Burnham’s already impressive industry credentials. That would also allow everyone to see that what is in the HarperCollins book and what was purportedly written by Harper Lee fifty years ago is entirely consistent.
At which point we can do the same thing for the newly discovered Dr. Seuss book.
— Mark Barrett