Friday, July 17, 2015

Why I Decided to Read "Go Set A Watchman"

Like any number of fellow To Kill a Mockingbird fans, my reaction to the news that a companion piece would be published were as follows:

Can't wait?
Ummmm . . . things seem sketchy here.*
But I'm going to read it anyway.

I placed the book pre-order in and out of my Amazon cart for months. I got on the waiting/hold list at the library. I hemmed and hawed. 

Then the negative reviews started pouring in, and I grew ever more dubious. Not intending it as a game changer, I brought the brouhaha up to Charles the other night.

"Well, you have to get it."

I tried to articulate my doubts, but I realized that they would not be assuaged by not reading out of popular protest. I was going to read the dang book, and this is why:

1. It would have been published posthumously if it weren't published now. That's how it has gone in publishing for as long as memory serves. In a few years, Harper Lee will pass. The manuscript would have been discovered and published. Yes, the current circumstances are somewhat suspect, but that hardly affects the end result.

2. It is unfair to judge a work of art based on what we want it to be. Most of the criticism of Watchman seems to center on people not liking Atticus' portrayal, but, as much as I love me some noble Atticus Finch, I can't make a work of fiction go my way (unless I'm writing it, I guess), any more than I can make real life go my way. Liking the way things end, the way characters are portrayed or the message the author sends are all well and good, but not liking them does not diminish the rest of the value of the work.

3. If you take Watchman's origin story at face value, it was not written as a sequel to Mockingbird, or even as a companion piece, but as a sort of first draft, or rejected version that got a total rewrite to tell a different, earlier story, which became a Great American Novel. Even if you choose to believe that it was written as a sequel to Mockingbird, though, the mere fact that it was not previously published means that it was not quite ready for prime time. It was not edited, refined, perfected. It was rejected and wholly rewritten. It deserves to be read for what it is, not rejected for what it is not.

Ultimately, I decided that I need to read Go Set a Watchman for myself and judge the book on its own merits, as it deserves. I bought the book this while I was running errands earlier this week. I'm trying to read with no expectations -- easier said than done, of course. It makes sense, considering how carefully I've dissected Mockingbird, but even though I'm in the earliest chapters, I've been pleasantly surprised at how easily I slipped into Lee's comfortable writing. I feel home again. 

We'll just have to see how the rest of the novel plays out. I mean, we all know that sometimes, you just can't go home again.

*For those who aren't following the story, the Wikipedia article details it well. In short, the manuscript was "discovered" by elderly Harper Lee's lawyer and agent, and plans for publication were soon in place. Plenty of people have cried foul given the tenuous state of Lee's health and the sure financial success of the publication of Watchman.

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