Seven Reasons to Avoid Go Set a Watchman
July 15, 2015 was a blockbuster day for HarperCollins Publishers. That’s when the most pre-ordered book in their history, Go Set a Watchman, was released to the public. Some have called the novel’s release a “phony literary event” that is an “obvious money grab” which exploited Harper Lee, one of America’s most beloved authors, and I have to agree. I don’t think HarperCollins should have ever touted Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) as a “sequel” or “prequel.” It is neither, and it should never have been published, for seven reasons I outline in the following article. There are spoilers coming, but I don’t feel guilty about sharing them.
- GSAW is a draft, not a final copy, and there are records to prove it. In 1957, Harper Lee’s debut novel flopped at the editor’s, and she was told to take it home and rework it; two years later, the rewriting resulted in To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM), arguably America’s greatest novel.
The 3×5 card (see above) logging her progress even has GSAW crossed out, and replaced with TKAM. Meticulous notetaking on other cards shows exactly when sections of the manuscript were submitted, what transpired, and how Lee was to proceed with a second novel.
- It doesn’t read well. It’s choppy, disjointed, and hard to follow. There are glimpses of the Scout and Dill we love, but Atticus is portrayed as a racist, and Jem is dead. There are some fun vignettes that hearken back to TKAM, but it’s hard to tell how they connect together. Novelist 101 insists that writers “show, don’t tell” but this novel has lots of speeches and not much dialogue. The original editor, J.B. Lippincott, called it a “series of anecdotes,” and that’s exactly how it reads.
- It’s so bad, some bookstores have offered refunds, even for books pre-ordered months in advance. Some book vendors even put signs in their windows advertising that they will accept the copies back if people are unsatisfied with the contents.
- Harper Lee had an ongoing battle with the legal rights to TKAM. One of her agents took advantage of her after a stroke in 2007 left her almost totally blind and deaf. Her agent bragged, “She’ll sign anything you put in front of her.” A legal battle over the copyright was settled out of court in 2012, leaving Lee back in control of the $3 million annual revenue from her only novel. The fact that Lee had been mistreated didn’t make much press, but I should have avoided GSAW just on principle.
- Alice Lee, the author’s sister, practiced law in Monroeville Alabama, the Lees’ childhood home, until age 99. She took care of her sister’s legal affairs and fiercely protected “Nelle’s” (as she was known to close friends and family) wishes that she didn’t want anything else published, ever. It seems convenient that the manuscript was found three months after Alice Lee’s death. And although some other shorter essays and other musings were found among Harper Lee’s personal effects when she died earlier this year, nothing that she wanted published was ever found.
- It seems too good to be true that the “sequel” was found three months after Lee’s sister died. Any response from Harper Lee after GSAW’s publication last summer were translated in “a statement from her lawyer” who said she was “happy as hell” that the manuscript had been found, and was excited about being published again, contradicting more than 50 years of arguments to the contrary. It seems a little too convenient that the current lawyer, who found the manuscript, can’t be reached for comment. Those who travel to Monroeville and ask directions to her house or office are politely misdirected.
- Remember that feeling you had when Star Wars: Episode 1 came out? At first we all were excited about new Star Wars content and characters, and deeper insight into the characters we’d grown to love (and hate). But after watching Anakin Skywalker and Jar Jar Binks, most people were less than impressed. I used to love to hate Darth Vader, but after Episode 1, I just felt cheated. That’s the way I felt after reading Go Set a Watchman. I felt cheated with Atticus. The staunch defender of civil rights, America’s champion of justice, has morphed into a sad, intolerant, benign old man, and I will never feel the same about him again. I know these are fictional characters, but they are iconic ones for a reason: they resonate with people because they characterize human nature. (I felt the same way about the Game of Thrones series: don’t get me started on Jaime Lannister.)
As a public secondary school teacher, I have read To Kill a Mockingbird more times than I can count. I have introduced its characters and ethos to many hundreds of students over the years, and some still write to me about how much they loved that novel. Many of them are angry now, having fallen into the HarperCollins hype machine that surrounded the release of Go Set a Watchman. Wanting to consider the general opinion before I indulged in the book myself, I waited until last month to check out the audiobook from the library. I listened to Reese Witherspoon’s soft, lilting Southern accent spin out what I hoped would be insightful, dimensional development of the characters I loved, and I was on chapter three when Harper Lee died. I wish I’d stopped there and never finished it.