I’m trying to decide if I should buy Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. The book will be released to much fanfare on July 14. HarperCollins, her publisher, has printed a first run of 2 million copies, and pre-orders already have pushed it to the Amazon best-seller list.
Why are people buying it?
Do they hope it will be as good as To Kill A Mockingbird? The novel, about a white Southern girl confronting racism and hard truths in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, is a classic, was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, and can still be found on many high school reading lists. Whether you read it as a child or adult, it’s the sort of book you don’t forget, mostly because of the naïve, riveting voice of Scout Finch.
Or do they suspect it might not be as good? It is a unique characteristic of human beings, especially writers, to want to bear witness to the failings of their peers. Would it make us all feel a little better to discover that To Kill a Mockingbird did not emerge fully formed out of a genius mind? Maybe reading Lee’s earlier effort would give us some shred of hope that we, too, might someday beat the odds and produce something timeless.
If our motives lie in the latter category – and come on, writers, you know who you are – let’s take a moment to consider the editor at J.B. Lippincott who advised Lee to rewrite the manuscript from the point of view of Scout as a child. Apparently this was Theresa “Tay” von Hohoff, who worked closely with Lee on the revisions. According to the most recent telling of this story, Hohoff read Go Set a Watchman, suggested Lee set the novel in Scout’s childhood, and Lee returned with the finished product. The actual process was a lot more complicated, according to the account given by Lee’s biographer, Charles J. Shields, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. When it first arrived, the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was no more than a series of vignettes. The publisher hated the title, which was briefly changed to Atticus, after Scout’s father. Hohoff worked closely with Lee to add dramatic tension to the novel, particularly focusing on a trial that occurred in her hometown in the 1930s, of a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Go Set a Watchman is, then, an earlier and quite probably inferior version of the classic novel. As such, you would think that Nelle Harper Lee would not be crazy about its publication, particularly if she remembers the revision process that Shields called “excruciating.” Some have questioned whether she freely consented to its publication, but even if she did, we might question her judgment. Would Lee have agreed to it 20 years ago? That’s a question that we can’t answer, but the state of Alabama, conducting an investigation into the matter, concluded she was competent to sign the contract.
By throwing in our own money ($14.77, if preordered on Amazon), are we enabling the publisher to profit from exploitation of an elderly author? Are we part of this feeding frenzy, in which the celebrity of the writer takes precedence over the quality of her work? And, most importantly, are we supporting a system in which publishers put millions behind a few choice books while they let the other writers on their list fend for themselves?
The details of Lee’s contract have not been made public, but you can be sure she will see substantial royalties from Go Set a Watchman. Now imagine if HarperCollins invested even a quarter of that money in its stable of lesser-known writers, or, better yet, published 10 first-time novelists instead. With even a small percentage of its profits from the Lee novel, HarperCollins could start a fellowship program for unknowns.
I’m not talking about just handing an advance to 10 debut novelists and letting them sink or swim in the marketplace, which is publishers’ typical M.O. I mean a program in which the writers would be guaranteed three books – time to find an audience, develop a voice, and perfect their craft.
Unlike Lee, most novelists aren’t overnight sensations. Consider Anthony Doerr, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, published last year by Scribner and still No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List (where it has hung in for 40 weeks). All the Light is his second novel and fifth published book, and while he had won many prestigious awards prior, this novel was a breakout success. Publishers, though, still waste far too much time looking for overnight sensations instead of nurturing talented writers. This all-or-nothing philosophy leads predictably to low sales for most newcomers, who rarely get a second chance at the same publishing house.
So as writers, how do we stop this cycle? If you are published, you know that, after the initial euphoria, reality sets in – a low advance, hours doing your own publicity, self-funded book tours, and a scramble for a second contract. When publishers like HarperCollins invest resources in “found” manuscripts that perhaps have little merit beyond the academic – or, like Simon & Schuster’s $8 million advance to Hillary Clinton, put their eggs in the celebrity basket – they are committing a provocative act: taking money away from their stable of writers and turning their backs on potential future classics.
Go Set a Watchman will make millions for HarperCollins regardless of its merit. But let’s challenge the publisher to invest some of that money in long-term relationships with new writers who deserve the editorial care and nurturing that made Harper Lee a star.