So today is the day that Harper Lee’s new ‘novel’ goes on sale. Far be it from me to question the motives of the titans of cultural responsibility at HarperCollins, but if the early returns are any indication this is not a glorious day in the history of literature:
“Watchman”s portrayal of the older Finch as a man who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting and opposes racial desegregation has already grabbed headlines because of the stark contrast to the noble lawyer in “Mockingbird” who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks described “Watchman” as “a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.”
Several reviewers found fault with the new book on artistic grounds.
David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times called it “an apprentice effort (that) falls apart in the second half” and Julia Teller at the Chicago Tribune said it was “almost unbearably clunky” in parts.
It’s quite clear that until very recently Harper Lee never intended this ‘novel’ to be published, and that until the death of her sister, who was her primary caretaker, that wish was respected. Now, amazingly, at exactly the moment when Lee is alone and also quite aged and infirm, it turns out that the kindly cultural stewards at HarperCollins have been able to convince Lee otherwise. It’s a miracle — and in particular a miracle that has absolutely nothing to do with money.
But there’s a problem, of course, and the problem is how to see this new ‘novel’ in the context of Lee’s less-infamous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Or rather it’s a problem for some, but not for anyone who has ever written, because what’s being sold as a new novel from Harper Lee is almost certainly an early exploratory draft that held great meaning for Lee not because of what it was, but because of what it led to.
When you’re a writer, and particularly when you work in long form, you learn that your initial work is not always on the mark. Sometimes you get help from others, sometimes you see a better way yourself, but in any case you try something, it doesn’t work, so you try something else. There is nothing new in this. It is the way authors have always written, even as many authors themselves prefer to cling to the self-aggrandizing (and coincidentally salable) lie that great works emerge wholly formed, without typos.
In the graphic-novel genre Lee’s new ‘novel’ would simply be considered an alternate history and discussed in that context, but Mockingbird is sainted literature. Sainted literature that may now be indelibly stained by the noble and benevolent actions of a giant corporation acting only in the best interest of its author and readers. Because many of the critics who bless literature with sainthood are themselves culturally unable to comprehend Lee’s new ‘novel’ as a work product, as opposed to a statement of some kind, the myth will be perpetuated that this new work is in fact a separate work, which it almost certainly is not.
Whatever becomes of Lee and her legacy, the lesson for other writers is clear. If you’ve got an early exploratory draft, and you don’t want someone coming along later and misrepresenting that draft as a separate work, then you need to burn or delete that draft. At which point the academics will accuse you of having stolen or appropriated the final product, because they will find no evidence of how you got there on your own.
— Mark Barrett