Go Set a Watchman: What do publishers and book bloggers owe their readers?

Go Set a Watchman cover

“To those whose bubble was burst about Atticus, well, Santa Claus was really our parents, Bill Cosby wasn’t really Bill Cosby, and Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner. Let’s get over it and get real about racism. How can we fix it otherwise?” Wally Lamb

“It’s being sent to us as a gift. It’s a blueprint to decode, something that we need to be better than we are.” Nikky Finney

I don’t have insider information about the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman. I know only what I’ve learned from the articles and opinion pieces I’ve read since the book came out a few weeks ago.

I’ve chosen to trust Harper Lee’s biographer, Marja Mills, who doubts that Lee would have wanted Go Set a Watchman published if she were fully functioning. Harper Lee had a stroke a few years ago and currently resides in a nursing home, where a guard posted at the door maintains a list of people who are allowed to visit her. Some have questioned whether Harper Lee is capable of making informed publishing decisions, especially since she maintained for decades that no further books by her were forthcoming.

Go Set a Watchman was the initial draft of what would be transformed into To Kill a Mockingbird. It was problematic because it was a draft written by a novice writer learning her craft, though Harper Lee’s editor saw the talent and potential behind it. What’s more, the Atticus Finch portrayed in this first draft was not the iconic hero America went on to embrace. He was an Atticus Finch that perhaps American readers were not ready for. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, mentored and guided Harper as she crafted quite a different story, the one that became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Fast forward many decades. After Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, died (Alice was a lawyer who looked after Harper’s estate and protected her interests), Harper’s new estate lawyer and the publisher HarperCollins spearheaded the publication of the initial manuscript, the one Harper Lee had originally called Go Set a Watchman.  

The manuscript was lightly copy edited, but no substantive editing was done. Any revisions, of course, would have required consultations with Harper Lee and perhaps some rewriting on her part, which many believe she cannot do since she is nearly deaf and blind and may be otherwise incapacitated.

HarperCollins has marketed the book as another, newly found novel by Harper Lee.

I’ll save my opinions about the literary quality and content of Watchman for my next post. Here, I want to say how disappointed I am in HarperCollins and the current big business model of book publishing. The publication of Go Set a Watchman has been called a money grab on the part of a publisher capitalizing on Harper Lee’s name and reputation. I agree with that assessment.

Back in the day, I started my career as a book editor in educational publishing, and I’ve been told by a friend who has remained in the business that I wouldn’t be happy if I’d stayed. Books must rake in the profits. Literary and other books with less popular appeal are often not supported or even published in the first place, regardless of their artistic merit. Fortunately, independent publishers, university presses, and self-published authors are filling the gap to some extent; many are committed to producing literary works of art regardless of their profit potential.

I believe, too, that the publication of this unedited first draft shows a profound disrespect for Harper Lee and puts her at risk of an undeserved tarnished reputation.

What if the unedited first drafts of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway or Margaret Atwood were published and marketed as new novels? Might our opinions of them as writers change?

Writers, sculptors, painters and other artists have a right to their first drafts, their initial conceptions, their trial and error efforts, and they have the right to keep this work to themselves or at least have it viewed in context.

I’ve been disappointed by a couple of bloggers and social media bibliophiles I’ve read, who seem to have no knowledge of the controversy and circumstances behind the publication of Go Set a Watchman, and little understanding of or interest in book editing, authorship, and responsible publishing. They are providing no context for their readers.

In one case, a book lover on Instagram with many followers heaped nothing but vitriol on Harper Lee. He claimed that she “knows nothing” about race – a serious misreading of her – and seemed to not take into account that Go Set a Watchman is a dated first draft written by a young writer in the 1950s. Many of this Instagram-er’s readers thanked him for steering them away from the book and seemed to take his indictment of Harper Lee at face value.

I unfollowed him.

Sometimes I’m ambivalent about being a book blogger, though most of the time I believe blogging is valuable. I was educated as a journalist, I was a book editor for a highly regarded book publisher that produced quality work, and I was paid for the editing and writing I did, with the expectation that I’d maintain the highest standards.

As bloggers, we can write whatever we want, with no one to fact check or edit our work. That’s the beauty of it – no gatekeepers, the opportunity to express ourselves, explore our passions, and share them with others. But there is a down side, too.

All of this said, I believe the publication of Go Set a Watchman will turn out to be a good thing, as you can likely tell from the opening quotes I’ve chosen. More about that in my next post.

Please share your thoughts about Go Set a Watchman. Should it have been published? And if you’ve read it, what do you think? If you find this post valuable, please share it so more readers can join in the discussion!

Here is a video of Ursula Le Guin talking about books as commodities. I’ve posted this before:

20 responses

  1. Pingback: Was Harper Lee ahead of her time? « Books Can Save A Life

  2. I downloaded the book before I read and listened to all the controversy. I still look forward to reading it but intend to read it not as a sequel but as a distinctly separate book based on a young author’s manuscript which did not have the opportunity to go through the editing process.

  3. I have not read this book so it is difficult to have an opinion. It’s not difficult to believe, however, that the publication was based entirely on financial calculation.

  4. There’s an air of sadness around this whole episode and it does seem to have been motivated by its money making ability, it reminds me of Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oreal heiress who was fleeced of millions by friends and advisors, though they were eventually prosecuted. There will always be those who ruthlessly pursue selfish objectives and those who pursue them stealthily under the guise of some other sentiment.

    The manuscript unless destroyed would have become of interest to future academics and historians, instead it is to become a bestseller and will be subjected to mass criticism. From readers I respect, I have read a couple of great reviews, perhaps this stirring of the pot and opening the debate is necessary, the transparency of disappointing judgements is also necessary for us to bear witness to, and to challenge.

    • Claire, I’ve been interested to hear what you think about this, so glad you commented. I’ll be writing another post about this focusing more on the content. I agree that this is so timely given what is going on in America at the moment in terms of race.

  5. Great post Valorie, I think integrity and responsibility matters, and this is what you are saying it seems to me…
    also enjoyed Ursula le Guin…. as well as her books !!!

    • Valerie – thanks for reading! You have been writing some fabulous posts lately – (well, you always write good ones). I’ve been wanting to comment but haven’t finished reading them, they are stored in my email – looking forward to dipping in.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post about Go Set A Watchman and the Harper Lee controversy. There has been so much of it around lately, but you have summed it up clearly. And, it’s nice to have your thoughts on the background before reading about what you thought of the book itself – it makes me feel confident that your assessment of the book will be strictly of the book and not the chaos it came out of.

  7. “…the publication of this unedited first draft shows a profound disrespect for Harper Lee and puts her at risk of an undeserved tarnished reputation.” I was only briefly familiar with the controversy surrounding this release before reading this post, but I think you hit the nail on the head. Funny enough – my husband is an editor for an educational publishing company. He would tell you the same thing your friend did – you would not have like it, had you stayed.

    • I loved my publishing days way back when, that’s so cool your husband works in the field – it needs people with strong values. Thanks for stopping by, Anna. If you ever read Watchman let me know what you think.

      • I loved reading Mockingbird. Don’t know if I want to read Watchman after knowing about the way it came about. A silent little protest, I guess, and an honoring of Harper Lee’s wishes. 🙂

  8. Val, I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read about it’s publication and the controversy surrounding it. I completely agree with the points you’ve made here. When I worked in children’s publishing, I saw the care and attention that good editors give to promising writers, as well as to experienced ones. Harper Lee was not well-served by the decision to publish this book.

    • I’m really glad you stopped by and commented. I agree about the publisher, and it is a shame because Harper Lee is a major figure in American literary history. The relationship between a writer and editor is so important.

  9. I confess to ambivalence about its publication – but I should be clear-eyed enough at my age to know that publishing nowadays is totally motivated by cash. Well at least the big business side is – I tend towards small presses nowadays who still seem to care about the books. But I doubt I’ll be reading this and I’ll await your next post with interest.

    • Hi, Karen, thanks for your thoughts. There are so many interesting small presses and journals now. I find it hard to keep up or even sample a fraction of their books and publications but you’re right, they care.

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