what i'm reading: thoughts on "go set a watchman"

I wasn't planning on writing about Go Set a Watchman, the surprise second - or possibly first - novel by Harper Lee. I am among the legions of readers who were shocked, thrilled, and confused at the sudden appearance of this book, and I didn't think I'd have anything noteworthy to add to the conversation. And indeed I may not. But reading the book, I was so surprised, and so saddened, that I was moved to weigh in.

Most media attention to Watchman focused on the mystery and doubt surrounding its origins and publication, and the revelation that Atticus Finch is, in this book, a racist. When I read it, only one thing struck me.

It's awful.

Taking a more generous view, perhaps Watchman is an early draft. No author should ever be judged by an early draft. And first drafts should never be exposed without the writer's express wishes and consent. If first drafts were exposed and circulated, most writers would never put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards. It would be too embarrassing.

Worse, it would impede the trial and error, the free flow of ideas, the re-writing and re-writing and re-writing, that is at the heart of the writing process. Most writers struggle to suppress their inner editor when getting out a first draft. Knowing that no one will read that draft is what allows them to write it.

If Go Set a Watchman is an early draft, then it's a perfectly serviceable early draft. As a draft, it's a literary study, a curiosity, like Ralph Ellison's posthumously published work. And if it's a draft, it shouldn't have been published and distributed and marketed and reviewed as a finished novel.

But if it's a finished novel, it's awful.

So why do I say Watchman is awful? One, the writing is terrible. And two, the plot is not credible.

One reason To Kill a Mockingbird has endured, one huge reason for its popularity, is its accessibility. It allows readers to ponder important themes through language that is simple, clear, and direct. By contrast, the writing in Watchman is convoluted, contrived, and sloppy. There are crazy run-on sentences, changes of tense and voice, and dozens of nonsense paragraphs that an editor or writing teacher might call "throat clearing": something the writer needed to get her train of thought going, that is later deleted.

I ask you, what is this?
With the same suddenness that a barbarous boy yanks the larva of an ant lion from its hole to leave it struggling in the sun, Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could, on a humid Sunday afternoon at precisely 2:28 p.m.
On a recent episode in my M*A*S*H re-watch, Radar enrols in a writing "correspondence course" - the 1950s equivalent of a University of Phoenix degree - and uses his new-found writing "skills" to dress up the daily reports, with amusing results. A good portion of Watchman is not far from such a joke.

Occasionally, the lovely, simple writing I associate with Harper Lee pokes through. Then it's back to the thicket. This supports the idea that the book may have been an early draft.

The plot itself is a complete mess. We're asked to believe that Atticus Finch has been going off to meetings of a White Citizens Council for decades and his daughter, who lives and breathes in his shadow, never knew. She had no idea about her father's political views at all, even though we're told that the private Atticus and public Atticus were one and the same. Jean Louise's dear friend-and-maybe-lover Henry holds the same views as Atticus, but Jean Louise wasn't aware of that, either... even though everyone in Maycomb seems to talk about the Supreme Court and the NAACP as if they live next door.

There are mini lectures about the South, about white southerners' relationship with slavery, about the early incarnations of the Klan. They stand out awkwardly as if on billboards, bearing no organic relationship to their surroundings. The rambling flashbacks are contrived and disjointed. If this hadn't been an Important Book, I would never have finished it.

Harper Lee's reputation and place in American literature - and everything To Kill a Mockingbird means to us - have been irrevocably changed by the appearance of this strange mess of a book. That, to me, is very sad.

Scott Timberg, writing in Salon sums it up for me, in a column titled "The Atticus Finch of your childhood isn’t ruined: Read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” for the early draft that it is".
Nearly every novelist has a shelved novel in his or her close[t] or desk drawer: Trying out ideas that don’t work out is how writers learn. And novels go through enormous revisions over time, especially with an assertive editor. “Watchm[a]n” may tell us less about the transformation of the white South or Atticus Finch himself, and more about the financial pressures that lead what could have been framed as a work of scholarship into a vehicle for explosive front-page news.


allan said...

Wasn't Watchman first presented as a second novel from Lee, a sort of sequel to Mockingbird? Only a few writers put forth the theory that it could actually be a very early draft of Mockingbird that was heavily edited and rewritten.

And then there is the question of whether the elderly Lee truly wanted this manuscript published in any form.

James Redekop said...

I'm a big fan of Tolkien's books, and I greatly enjoyed reading the "Histories of Middle Earth" -- a multi-volume collection of early drafts, abandoned books, alternate storylines, and random miscellany compiled by Tolkien's son, Christopher. There are a lot of bad ideas and mis-steps collected there (and some good ideas that didn't make it into the final works), but fortunately these were never presented as final works.

When Mervyn Peake died, leaving his third Gormenghast novel, "Titus Alone", unfinished, his publishers rushed a mash-up of his working draft & notes out as if it were a finished work, and the result made little sense. (Since then, a new edition has been compiled with much more care -- I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I'm told it's much better.)

When "Go Set a Watchman" hit the news, I was hoping for the Tolkien scenario, but expecting the Peake one. Unfortunately, such expectations are rarely proven wrong...

laura k said...

Yes, and yes. The latter is part of why I find it sad.

Amy said...

I haven't read it, and I won't. From what you've said, it sounds like she had a very, very good editor who somehow turned this work into a masterpiece. Or she totally forgot how to write if she wrote this after Mockingbird. Either way, it's very sad.

On a more personal note, as I am still writing a first draft, I shudder to think that someone might someday publish what I consider very much a work in progress.

laura k said...

** "Yes and yes" was in response to Allan's comment, the first on this thread.

I have a wonderful annotated, anniversary edition of Charlotte's Web that Allan bought me, also the journal Steinbeck kept when writing The Grapes of Wrath. Something like that for Mockingbird, or like James notes for Tolkien, would have been wonderful.

laura k said...

Amy, it is widely known that TKAM went through a long editing process by talented editors. So did many great books. Catch-22 is a famous example. But that should in no way diminish from our view of the authors' talents. Editors can make a ton of suggestions and offer all kinds of directions, but it's down to the writer's talents to make it happen or not.

In other words, in my view, Harper Lee undoubtedly had a very, very good editor, but that is not why TKAM is a great book.

Amy said...

Good to know---I am sure I will benefit from the help of a good editor as well. :)

James Redekop said...

I've got a lot more respect for those authors who know how to use an editor than those who thinks they can get away without one.

laura k said...

Amy, I hope you have the opportunity. It's very rare these days. Most publishing houses expect a finished product, and if there are issues, it's up to the writer to fix them and re-submit.

James, same here. My experiences working with editors on magazine articles was often so enriching - they helped me grow so much as a writer. When I was an editor, good writers would welcome my input. The ones that resented my input were the ones who needed it most.