Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - not a review

This is not a review of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's puzzling late-career publication of an early-career manuscript. Like many, I read To Kill a Mockingbird decades ago, in high school, but like the rest of a small set of mythic texts, it stays with you, and subtly colours your other readings of the type.

What saddens and puzzles me, as it surely does other readers, is the way this work has been presented as a discovery, a sequel, a new work by an admired author. Indeed, some readers have been so disappointed, they have been offered refunds.

There is nothing wrong with publishing early drafts, manuscripts, even notes, from a major author. We have a large body of Tolkien's work, published posthumously, from the fine and moving The Children of Hurin to the meandering collection of notes and drafts that form The History of Middle Earth. But these works are read and understood as drafts, ideas, part of a developmental and creative process.

The difficulty here is that, setting aside the dubious circumstances of an elderly writer abruptly discovering her enthusiasm for a manuscript she set aside decades before, the marketing and presentation of Go Set a Watchman suggest continuity where none exists. This is particularly painful in the case of the presentation of Atticus Finch, shown as a decent and honourable man in Mockingbird and a bigot in Watchman. To suggest a continuity here is to dishonour the reader's relationship with the characters of Mockingbird, whatever the merits of the individual works.

Understood as a draft or a precursor, there is surely an interest in the recent release, but how can we unfold the complex ethics of the relationship between author, reader, publisher, and character here?