Setting a Watchman…

Well, I read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, the book she submitted to her publishers which they turned down and asked her to re-write, to tweak and fiddle with until the outstanding, now iconic To Kill a Mockingbird rose, like a (let’s stick with birds) phoenix, from its rejected but not useless ashes.

There was so much hype about this book, questions about why – indeed whether – Ms Lee chose to publish this piece now, (seemingly as is, with no updating or attempt to make it a sequel) after decades of authorial silence. Now there is raging controversy about beloved moral-compass characters, the simple (by which I mean inadvertent, the water is which the characters are swimming, but still unjust, stupid, wrong…) and of-its-time-and-place (the 1950s, the American South) implicit racism, privileging a 26-year-old white girl’s story over that of the peripheral black characters. Given that it is a 29-year-old white girl writing GSAW, it is hard to see it being authentically told in any other voice. Maybe the publication and the subsequent furore, the maelstrom of comment whirling around it, taking GSAW as literature, as social commentary, as reportage, as veiled autobiography, opens up the real-world social and political conversation again, like TKAM did.

I tried to approach reading GSAW as just a book, as no sort of sequel to TKAM, as, even if set 20 years after TKAM, it was created before and the characters seem to bear little relation except their names. I decided to regard it as a glimpse of a writer’s creative process, to try to observe where one thing evolved or transmuted into another.
I quite liked it, but it is unsettling, and almost impossible to ignore the cultural and historical weight of the previous book – not to mention the film. There are moments of Lee’s deadpan humour, and clear, elegant writing but in the end it is no TKAM.
They were right not to publish this then – which begs the question, why now?  People who write a successful PhD don’t have their first draft reassessed 50+ years later, JK Rowling isn’t putting out her first account of Harry Potter, and you don’t serve up the first version of a cake to the people who have been raving about your best, most delicious offering, just to show them the process – or what they could have got if they were not so lucky that you approached your work again.

You’ll have to make your own minds up, it is worth reading, if only so you can join in the conversation…


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