Harper and the Machine
Last week I had a private conversation with awesome YA author Ashley Hope Pérez over that most unprivate of platforms — Twitter — about the recent publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Ashley said that the controversy reminded her of Roberto Bolaño’s latest posthumous novel, Los sinsabores del verdadero policía, like Watchman an early draft of an acclaimed work.
Bolaño died in 2003 at the age of 50, leaving behind two young children. He is reported to have wanted his massive –and at the time of his death, not entirely finished — 2666 published as five separate novels to provide more financial support for his children. In the end, the novel was published as one, but Los sinsabores (translated and published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as Woes of the True Policeman) is one of several “outtakes” from that work. I am sure that his publishers justify their bringing out this draft as in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of Bolaño’s intent.
The case of Go Set a Watchman is not entirely similar, though the two have much in common. The young writer produced it as an early draft, which an editor at Harper & Row rejected. However, Lee received a request to revise and resubmit. She changed her narrator, Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, from an adult to a child, and set the book 20 years earlier. In the version that was published as To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s father, Atticus, was a heroic lawyer representing an innocent black man who the rest of the community wanted to convict and execute without trial. In the earlier version, he was an embittered racist, a product of his place and time, and he and his daughter had grown apart as she moved North.
To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classic, beloved by several generations of readers. Lee claimed that she never wanted to publish another book, but, now living in a nursing home, she supposedly authorized her niece and literary executor to sell this early draft to HarperCollins. Whether or not she actually did authorize the publication of her own free will, without the kind of pressure that leads many lonely seniors to agree to things they wouldn’t have under different circumstances, is a big question. Whatever the case, this draft exhibits typical flaws of early efforts by young writers — stilted dialogue that tries too hard to prove a point, extraneous scenes, inconsistencies of character and story line. The editor considered it unpublishable in 1960, when writers didn’t learn “best practices” through MFA programs and copious advice on the Internet.
It would be unpublishable now, except for the author’s name and backstory. HarperCollins has milked the controversy to sell even more books. And we have bought them, adding to the Big Five publisher’s coffers.
Some have argued that controversy-fueled bestsellers allow large corporate publishers to support quirky literary fiction and unknown authors. The truth is, these corporations exist for one purpose only — to provide the greatest return to shareholders. If a book sells due to the celebrity of its author, it doesn’t encourage publishers to take a chance on more literary fare. It encourages publishers to do more of the same — in other words, publish more celebrity authors and controversy-fueled bestsellers. The marketing dollars devoted to Go Set a Watchman are dollars not spent on helping a debut or midlist author gain an audience.
When I read about the impending publication of this manuscript that Lee had long hidden from the world, I decided to shred my own amateurish first novel manuscript. At this point, I’m no Harper Lee or Roberto Bolaño, but I am the author of a well-respected YA/adult crossover novel and mindful that what I make available to the public should be my best work. Working with editors has reinforced that sentiment, and I am grateful to Sandy Taylor, Nancy Paulsen, Lisa Cheng, and Claudia Zoe Bedrick. Each of them substantially improved my initial drafts; without them, I would probably have embarrassed myself.
One of my Twitter comments related to Go Set a Watchman reads, “That’s what archives are for.” An early version of my adult novel Dirt Cheap resides at the University of Connecticut, Storrs along with early drafts of other Curbstone Press publications. My failed first draft of Gringolandia, along with several rejection letters (though not the one from the editor with whom I worked for two years and three revisions), may be found at the Ted Hipple Collection at the University of South Florida. Researchers will note that the only things that remain from that early version are the first chapter and part of Chapter Six.
Bolaño, an author who I greatly admire, recognized that he could put his literary legacy up for sale, and I understand the circumstances that led him to monetize it. (However, I have not bought or read the “monetized” early version of the second section of 2666.) I am interested in how the original Go Set a Watchman became To Kill a Mockingbird, in large part because I, too, started out writing third person from adult perspectives and then moved into writing first person from a young person’s point of view. There is also the fact that both novels reflect a time, place, and attitude about race that bears critical reading — including the ways in which Atticus Finch has been sanitized and mythologized in the revision process.
If nothing else, this situation shows that editors are important and revisions make a significant difference in the quality of a book.
Wonderful essay, Lyn! I have a lot of ms. to shred! (Although I don’t flatter myself that anyone will want to publish them, I’ll sleep better.)
Harper Lee’s first draft should’ve been locked away in an archive only available to scholars. (I do think that if her sister were still alive, this publication would never have happened.)
Thank you for your comment, Fran! I think this is also an issue for authors who are considering the hybrid route — to make sure that they’re doing it for the right reasons and that the work will receive the same amount of editorial attention as a traditionally published book. Simply wanting to monetize a manuscript sitting in a drawer is not enough.
Ha! Like monetizing my grocery list. Our fantasy lives are limitless.
So many spins have been put on this, such as suggesting it would be good for readers to understand Atticus in a more complicated way. But of course they are spins, and what you write captures the truth of our culture. We apologize, Harper Lee.
I agree, Terry. And the spin of “understanding Atticus in a more complicated way” undercuts the value of the literary work that we do. Does the character become more simplistic in the process of revision? This kind of spin plays readers for fools in more ways than one.
Terrific post, Lyn. I feel exactly the same way. And I abhor the grasping nature of the industry hype around this novel. I don’t intend to read it, not because I want to remain ignorant, but because, honestly, there are many other novels more worthy of my time. Like yours.
Thank you, Janet! And thank you for your kind words about my books!
I did read the excerpts of Watchman online and parts of Woes of the True Policeman in a bookstore, but the Bolaño novel wasn’t all that different from the second part of 2666 — basically an early draft. I could see where both books would be of interest to literary scholars, but, as you point out, we make choices with our time and our dollars.
Harper Lee had the integrity and self-awareness to know she only had one novel in her. It is sad that a greedy publisher and lawyer were able to take a manuscript Lee never wanted to publish and put it before the world. Now it will be difficult to read Mockingbird without dragging in the characters from this other novel. The ‘discovery’ of Watchman is a needless loss to Lee’s reputation and our enjoyment of Mockingbird.
I hope that readers understand Atticus to be a fictional character, in To Kill a Mockingbird the product of a long process of editorial input and revision. One’s “disillusionment” with him is not the same as our disillusionment with a real person who turns out to have clay feet.
Very interesting comments, but kind of harsh on Harper Lee’s book. I have read both and have spent a lot of time pondering Watchman. I believe we can’t just write it off as exploitation to make money. It may not be as well edited perhaps as Mockingbird, but there is enough to the story make an interesting discussion. And I find more fault with celebrities writing their autobiography, cookbooks, etc. that turn out ghostwritten best sellers because of the Authorship. That’s when younger, talented writers are ignored.
Thank you for your comment, Paula! Ghostwritten celebrity bios and how-to books certainly run the gamut in terms of writing quality, but the ghostwriters are often inadequately credited and compensated. No matter what, celebrity books as well as these earlier drafts by acclaimed writers who are no longer writing or no longer alive suck marketing dollars from debut authors who could use the investment in their careers.
Great post, Lyn. I love To Kill a Mockingbird, so I’ve been debating about whether or not to read this. I’ve heard about the controversy, so I’ll probably hold off for now.
I’ve been a ghostwriter so I can vouch for the uncredited and underpaid part.
I would read this in a way that does not encourage a publisher to do more of the same. In other words, read as much as I can online and the rest in the library once the branch has worked through its reserve list. There are so many other great books to read!
We translators encounter the same issues of lack of credit and pay. I’m a member of the PEN American Center Translation Committee, and we’ve produced a sample contract and are working on a list of FAQs that discusses the importance of keeping copyright for the translated version and how to be compensated fairly.
Well said, Lyn. Someday I might enjoy analyzing Lee’s two books side-by-side, but I can’t imagine spending money on a book that’s essentially a messy first draft.
Thank you for your comment, Anne! We have choices in terms of how we budget our time and our money, and these choices have consequences not only for ourselves but also for society as a whole — in this case, a publishing industry that is more willing to hype a previously reluctant author’s first draft than nurture an emerging writer, as she was in 1960, today.
I understand that the point of your blog is the capitalization of Harper Lee’s fame of Mockingbird in promoting Watchman. But, unless you read the book you cannot critique it. We allow other’s opinions to form our own too often and we become sheep. Regardless of how it came to be, it is here.
Yes, the book’s origin is the point of this blog piece, but I do plan to make the content the subject of an upcoming piece. One of the interesting things one gets from reading Go Set a Watchman is the process by which the figure of Atticus becomes mythologized, first in a rewrite that tells the story from a child’s point of view, and then in the Hallmark movie version starring Gregory Peck. I remember how in his freshman year in high school my son latched on to To Kill a Mockingbird and wrote a lovely short story in verse featuring Atticus in a softball game.
Harper Lee’s development as a writer is another interesting issue. Reading the novel (because it can be borrowed), I saw myself as a young aspiring writer, turning my own thoughts and experiences into fiction. When I submitted it to editors and agents (and in fact did get the advice to write the story from the child’s point of view as well), I worried that my manuscripts had the word “amateur” stamped on every page in ink visible only to the editor or agent. Eventually, I learned things to avoid and ways to make characters more compelling and sympathetic. However, I’ve always felt my novels benefited from the strong hand of an editor who shared my vision but also brought a different perspective and years of experience shaping books for the audience.