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BLOG: Writers of the Lost Arc

Harper Lee's Inspiring Bad Novel

November 23, 2016

Tags: Go Set a Watchman, To Kill a Mockingbird, writing exercise, Harper Lee's editor

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of those novels I’ll probably be reading and re-reading my whole life. Me, and a million other fans. I love those characters – Dill, Jem, Boo Radley, Scout, and her father, Atticus Finch, Calpurnia. How everyone wished Lee would write another novel but she never did. It seemed we’d have to content ourselves with re-reading “Mockingbird” every few years.

Then not long ago, a manuscript of Lee’s was unearthed – a sequel to her first novel – and the whole country went wild. The Los Angeles Times called it, “the biggest literary surprise of the 21st century: On July 13, 55 years after the publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird," the reclusive 89-year-old Harper Lee will publish her second book.” Advanced sales of the book – Go Set a Watchman -- pushed it to the top of bestseller lists, months before the novel got published.

Go set a watchman takes place in Maycomb, Alabama, Here’s how Amazon describes it: “Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—“Scout”—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her.” Sounds good. I was about to buy it on Amazon when the literary news came rolling in. The long-awaited novel not only made for mediocre reading, but it also portrayed the formerly noble-hearted Atticus Finch as a bigot. You can’t imagine the blow. Seemed the whole country fell into a depression, me, too. I couldn’t bear to read the book. I did not want my hero Atticus Finch to be messed with or tarnished. Nor did I want to see my literary hero, Harper Lee, to fall flat on her face. Finally, after a year, I got awfully curious. Really, how bad could it be? At the very least, I’d get to meet Dill, Jem and Boo again.

So I read Lee’s novel and came away inspired, though maybe not in the way the author intended.

Because the truth is, Go Set is irritating and plodding. Throughout the novel, Jean Louise keeps tugging at the reader’s sleeve as if to say, aren’t these Southerners backward, horrible and racist, and aren’t I oh so enlightened? The narrator can’t stop reminding us that she and she alone is different from her bigoted neighbors. To me it’s a supremely self-conscious and self-referential book, while To Kill a Mockingbird was nothing like that. You just swam with those characters, forgot there was some writer tinkering behind the scenes to create an effect. Also, instead of developing a juicy plot, Lee arranges for endless debates between father and daughter. Feels like a bunch of talking heads. At times, I wanted to throttle Jean Louise (and Harper Lee) for letting me down. Here are the gems, though: many of her descriptions, her childhood stories and memories, glancing references to a trial that was a miscarriage of justice, flashes of great dialogue. You can see the promise, the wit, the humor, but even still, I never would’ve made it through the book if I hadn’t read Mockingbird first.

A terrible disservice was done to Harper Lee. Go Set a Watchman never should’ve been published, even if its Amazon rank is, as I write, 1,691. (Some say she was tricked into it.)

Then it was revealed that Go Set was written before Mockingbird. An editor read Lee’s manuscript, didn’t think it was publishable as it was, and suggested Lee revise and retell the novel from the point of view of Jean Louise – Scout – as a young girl growing up in Maycomb. I think this editor also suggested Lee develop and dramatize the trial that is alluded to in Go Set, which became the anchor of Mockingbird. In short, she told her to scrap the book and write another.

Lee listened. It must’ve taken a lot of courage to throw out all those lovingly crafted pages and radically re-envision her book. Lee went back in time by two decades, she assumed a child’s voice, she took a gentle bigot and turned him into a morally courageous lawyer fighting injustice, and she managed to do all that with lots of feeling and hardly any schmaltz. (Okay, maybe just a teaspoonful.)

Aha. So Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel but a prequel, or – in a way -- the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Once I realized that, everything shifted.

Now I think of Go Set when I sit down and try to muddle my way through a first draft and it seems hopeless and off, nothing I want to bother with or put my name to. And yet – I tell myself -- maybe buried in that mess, some wonderful novel is aching to emerge. It doesn’t merely need an edit or a few revisions but requires an entirely new conception.

And that’s why I’m so inspired by Go Set, even with its poor plotting and tiresome preachiness. Because look what came from it – To Kill A Mockingbird, which remains an iconic beloved novel till this day. She didn’t let her first draft/book defeat her.

P.S. Anyone know the name of Lee’s first editor? She is the unsung hero.

P.S.S. Go Set A Watchman is taken from the verse in Yishayahu, Chapter 21. No surprise that the best titles come from the Torah.

Exercise:
Read something you wrote years ago, a piece of writing that you “gave up” on, but still beckons to you in some mysterious way. Pretend it’s someone else’s story. See where the real drama is, its life pulse. Christopher Vogler writes, “An effective story grabs your gut, tightens your throat, makes your heart race and your lungs pump, brings tears to your eyes or an explosion of laughter to your lips.” Notice if you feel anything in your body as you read a particular section. Then come up with a new plan for a different book, a radical re-envisioning, allowing your earlier work to serve as the springboard. Write for half an hour and see what happens. Or if you can’t do it alone, maybe a wise reader or editor can offer you a different set of eyes, suggest an angle you might not have considered.