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:

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