Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Obooki having on occasion a birthday and it being known he is a reader of books, sometimes books are bought for him which otherwise he wouldn’t have acquired, enabling him to join in current discussions and feel he’s on the cutting edge of literature.

Now I did read To Kill a Mockingbird once, half a lifetime ago, and must have enjoyed it, though I never did have the pleasure of being forced to study it, and remember very little about it now. I admit I have not since held Atticus Finch as a personal hero.

The plot of Go Set A Watchman is this: a famous writer in her old age, perhaps not of sound mind, “allows” a previously rejected book to be published, which was the “first draft” of her famous anti-racist work which is by now the most beloved work of American  fiction, and it turns out that not merely is this book badly written, but its central character is not the clear-cut anti-racist who is now held as a paragon by a whole society, but is in fact a racist bigot.

This narrative immediately sets up the literary reviewer for failure, for the literary reviewer unfortunately has no judgement concerning literature and in her uncertainty will naturally rely upon the veracity of the accepted narrative, for literary reviewers conform to the society around them and view anyone who would express an alternative opinion with suspicion, since this might lead to the destruction of the comfortable world in which they live.

So the literary reviewer expresses the opinion that the novel is badly written and, in particular, that it is full of clichés. – I have certainly not read a review which has asserted that it wasn’t badly written. Certainly you could bring things in to demonstrate it’s badly written if you wanted to (many do): – certainly, for instance, towards the end, there is too much speechifying – too much American politics I personally don’t really understand. But I feel inclined to stand up for Go Set a Watchman here, for one simple reason: my many attempts to read heralded contemporary novels have mostly ended in swift failure, for despite the literary reviewers’ adulation they are all too tedious to read – all to a book badly written – but Go Set a Watchman I read from beginning to end, and even found myself for the most part interested. There seems to me some kind of basic storytelling skill which Harper Lee possesses which is absent in most writers, some kind of understanding of what is likely to interest a reader and what is not. There are in fact lots of things in Go Set A Watchman I didn’t personally like or which I didn’t think worked: the flashbacks for instance (there is little Obooki can stand less than flashbacks) were awkward, contrived; some of the stories they told were trite (I’m reminded of the laughably bad flashback episode in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which if only his own editor had persisted in his opinion that it shouldn’t be published like that but rewritten), maybe even purposeless (Obooki is always one to overlook the interconnection in texts; he doesn’t study literature after all, only reads it); all the sections involving Jean Louise and her putative husband Hank (Obooki is not one for mid-American domesticity, even when it happens in the South – or New York). The relationship between Jean Louise and her father, however, is brilliantly realised.

What exactly did Lee’s editor say to her about changing the manuscript to create To Kill a Mockingbird? It is maintained she was told to concentrate on the childhood episodes – but I can’t see much worthwhile in the childhood episodes at all. The legal case at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird is barely mentioned – it’s hard to believe an editor would point to that. No, what I imagine is that the editor pointed out to her that most of the narrative was extraneous, beside the point: what was at the heart of the novel – what she should concentrate on – was the relationship between Jean Louise and her father. Who knows, perhaps Lee and her editor even discussed the matter for more than five minutes? (This reminds Obooki very much of the editorial criticisms of Faulkner’s rejected Flags in the Dust – Southern writers overwhelmed by their natural tendency towards multiplicity of storylines).

Did the editor go on to say to suggest she also remove the moral complexity from the work, because people couldn’t stomach anything that suggested there were more than two sides to any question? I’m not sure. Just as I’m not really sure I’m qualified to state any opinion on its depiction of racism in the American South. Atticus Finch’s views – and the whole situation – reminded me a lot of familiar attitudes towards subject people in the British Empire (there’s even a reference to Kipling towards the end) – this paternalist unwillingness to allow nations to govern themselves since they were too immature, whilst at the same time upholding the equity of the law. Kakutani in her review quotes Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” At least in this he is consistent between the two books: it is Jean Louise who, as he points out, is the bigot, since she is the one who is unwilling to see why he might have adopted the attitude he has. It seems strange though, at the very least, that this is the mainstay of this book (that the vision of her father Jean Louise grew up with is destroyed), and yet this disappears wholesale in To Kill a Mockingbird.

(One reviewer, I note – unsurprisingly it was in The New Yorker – putting forward the conspiracy theory that Go Set a Watchman was not in fact written before To Kill a Mockingbird, adduced as evidence the fact that the narrative appears to assume you are already familiar with the characters who appear in it. Aside from the question of whether it does, Obooki wonders whether this reviewer has ever read much Southern fiction – in particular anything by William Faulkner, who generally assumes not merely that reader is familiar with his characters, but actually grew up with them).

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4 thoughts on “Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

  1. I’m sure your post is better than the book. Much better. I’m not tempted at all. Maybe it’s shameful to admit but I really love To Kill a Mockingbird.

  2. Terrific last line. I’m not going to get to this any time soon, if ever, but I’m pleased to read a review that doesn’t have an a priori invested opinion about it. I’d like to know more (who would not?) about Lee’s “basic storytelling skill,” since To Kill a Mockingbird is such a seductive, riveting work.

  3. I’m with Caroline. This post is excellent and I’m now fully convinced I’ll live if I haven’t read Go set a Watchman. It doesn’t appeal to me at all. I did read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was younger and I liked it a lot, though.

  4. I certainly don’t wish to do down To Kill A Mockingbird; it was, I noticed recently, a book I’d had in my favourite 53 novels, but which I’d relegated – I imagine, for no better reason than that, while I retained a sense I had enjoyed it, I couldn’t really remember much about it. I was thinking while reading this that I needed to revisit it – especially on whether indeed things are so clear-cut after all in To Kill a Mockingbird – which I was trying to suggest here would be surprising, if Lee had already conceived the ideas in Go Set A Watchman. There’s an article in The Guardian by Sarah Churchwell, whose credentials I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of, but who seems in this case largely right, on the subject. – If I happen across a copy, I shall buy it – though no doubt the secondhand market has dried up recently.

    The “basic storytelling skill” – yes, I’d like to know more about that too; it’s a trick I can’t quite fathom, and seems so out of fashion these days. If only I could get a handle on it, I feel I’d be so much better at reviewing. Maybe it’s an area I should tend towards in this blog; over the last few years, I definitely feel myself coming down on the side of story-telling – as opposed to say, modernism, or symbolism, or realism. (My writing too, of which we shall otherwise be silent, is also very much heading in this direction).

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