First, I want to say that I am thrilled at the news of a second book from Harper Lee.
I say that first because, while I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, there is also a lot of rumor and speculation and skepticism surrounding the recent announcement about Go Set a Watchman, a kind of prequel/sequel (according to the press release, Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird even though the events take place after To Kill a Mockingbird; To Kill a Mockingbird is effectively the back story of Go Set a Watchman).
Some people are suggesting that there is some sort of shady deal or even a conspiracy afoot — that, at best, HarperCollins is taking advantage of an elderly and possibly senile woman for purely financial gain, or that, at worst, her current lawyer is fabricating or abusing this entire situation and releasing this book against Harper Lee’s lifelong wishes. To read those rumors is to dip your toes in the waters of conspiracy theory, and if you read the commentary on some of these articles, the conspiracies get more complicated and more absurd from there.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Harper Lee, who is in fact quite old, is senile and is being taken advantage of. And it does make a kind of sense, in a simplistic, storytelling world, that, in the past 55 years, Harper Lee never published this book because she never wanted to, and the only explanation that it’s being published now is that it’s being done against her wishes.
But that reasoning only makes sense if you assume that people are manufacturing her comments quoted in the New York Times article anouncing the publication, in which she states quite clearly that she’s thrilled that people have discovered this manuscript she herself lost ages ago and that they are interested in publishing it all these years later.
But I don’t actually care about those rumors, that conspiracy speculation. If Lee is being taken advantage of, shame on anyone who would do such a thing. But as a reader, I am exhilarated at the idea of reading a second work from a writer so accomplished that she has gained a place in American letters on the strength of a single book.
Which leads me to the skepticism, because a lot of people are nervous at the idea that this second book, which Lee wrote first but never published, is in fact as bad as most first books tend to be, and that it might ruin her reputation. And they could certainly be right. We have plenty of examples of authors publishing earlier works late in their career just on the strength of their name, or, as some have (to my mind cynically or offensively) made the comparison, works published posthumously after a writer has died, especially when that writer has expressly asked those works not be published. (It seems grossly offensive to me to suggest that Harper Lee’s situation, while she is alive and, at least according to her comments in the New York Times, lucid, is in any way comparable to a dead author, or to presume that we know what her wishes are in this situation, let alone that we know her wishes are the opposite of what she herself is quoted as saying this week. But such is the nature of the Internet, and such has always been the nature of readers: we love to assume that we know what everyone else is thinking and doing, and we love to latch onto the authorial intentional fallacy.)
This latter skepticism, particularly as connected to this question of an author’s right to deny the publication of a work, is interesting to me. I confess (and I’m taking this only in terms of postumously published works and not getting into Harper Lee’s current wishes) that I fall into that camp who believes that an author’s wishes after death can be trumped by readers’ desires for more material. I certainly understand the desire to protect an author’s reputation and legacy, particularly from people who might publish works without concern for the author’s legacy or any attempt to honor the author’s voice or style or stated intent for a piece. But, personally, I feel that when I die, the rights to my work will go to whoever inherits them and I have no more say in the matter because I’ll be dead. I’m not a Viking; my works and my story do not assure my immortality except on the page. Let people do with me what they will.
But this is not the case with Harper Lee, because she is still alive, and since I don’t know her medical condition or her mental state (and I doubt any but her closest friends and family do either), I have to assume that this is something she intended. And even if she didn’t, a lot of cynical people are, however cynical, rightly pointing out that this book, now that it’s been rediscovered, would have appeared in print after her death anyway. Such is the nature of things. So what harm does it do to be published in now, especially if it is done in a way that can benefit Lee financially while she is still alive?
All of which is beside the point. Because all the speculation about the damage this book might do to her reputation is dependent upon the assumption that the book is no good and will definitely damage her. And I make no such assumptions. Firstly, why on earth would we assume that one of our greatest modern writers, whose reputation we are so fiercely protecting based on a single text, would have produced anything less than good, if not a second stellar masterpiece? And secondly, even if the book is mediocre, if her first book is so good that we seek to protect her from a second, then how can that first book possibly be threatened by a lesser work? Each book should be able stand on its own.
Most writers have greater works and lesser works. Jane Austen saw the publication of two of her books posthumously, both of which were not the fully realized texts she might have published had she lived long enough to finish revising them, as well as the publication of her juvenilia and several unfinished works. She is still our beloved Jane, and we still cherish her work. (Austen’s Northanger Abbey was, like Go Set a Watchman, Austen’s first finished novel, but it never saw publication until after Austen’s death, and while a lot of people shrug off that novel as inferior to, say, Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, I love Northanger Abbey. Austen’s other posthumous and technically finished though unpolished novel was Persuasion, and that novel routinely vies with P&P for readers’ favorite Austen novel.) Why would it be otherwise with Harper Lee?
So I don’t begrudge anyone their apprehension about this new book, particularly because it is so easy to conflate excitement with nervousness. And I don’t begrudge anyone their conspiracy theories or speculation regarding the deal that led to this publication, because, if not in the comments then at least in the articles I’ve read, most people seem to be expressing their concerns in an interest of protecting Harper Lee and her legacy. And that’s respectable.
But I for one am eager to see the new book, both as a writer and a student of craft and as a fan of Lee’s (now first, not only) novel.
As I told my writing students when the news was first announced, this is a reminder to us that those books we keep in our drawers might still be worth something, if only we can live long enough to work on them enough to make them beautiful.
And it’s a reminder that it’s never too late, and we’re never too old, to tell a good story.