The big deal lately is the release of “Go Set a Watchman”, by Harper Lee. Described in various ways as a prequel, sequel, or something else, I haven’t read it yet. But I have read a number of articles about it. I can’t (and won’t judge) the novel from the reviews, but I have a recommendation on reading it: don’t.
Yes, this is the most anticipated new book since forever. At least, that’s what the articles say, although if it beats out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on pre-sales, I’d be surprised. Still, for Harper Lee’s sake, don’t read it.
Well, the story of how the novel came to light is a bit murky, and her lawyer seems to be making up the story as she goes along. Maybe there’s even a third book by Lee hiding out there (or in that incredibly large but strangely unexamined safety deposit box). Maybe even a fourth. However, there seems to be no question that Lee wrote the book (at least not yet), so I’m going to proceed with the assumption that she did. Still – don’t read it.
It all comes down to this. The author did not present “Go Set a Watchman” to the world as a work of art. If I’ve got the story right, she presented it to a publishing house, got some feedback, and ended up producing “To Kill a Mockingbird” instead. The original book was buried, and despite the phenomenal long-term popularity of the book and considerable pressure to produce another one, Lee never dusted off the original and sent it back to a publisher. Lee is still alive, but from what I’ve read, she’s mentally not all there. There’s no indication that she’s given any kind of informed approval to the release of this book.
To me, this says the author knew it wasn’t what she wanted to give the public. I’m not saying she knew it was no good – it just wasn’t what she wanted to be known for.
When an artist in any media holds back something from the public – especially in this media-satiated epoch – I say bravo. I say they had good reason and they’re entitled to keep it buried.
J.D. Salinger, one of my favorite writers, is also considered by some to be another one-hit wonder novelist (although his three books of short stories and novellas give us more of a canon to work with). For years he was pressured to permit his complete backlog of short stories to be collected and published. For years there were rumors that he had two, three, or a whole shelf full of novels ready to dump on the drooling public. He refused to let his stories be collected, and years after his death, no posthumous novels have been scaling the best-seller lists. Salinger was clearly satisfied with the body of work he was known for. He even sued a biographer publishing a book with a number of his letters in it (and he won, too).
Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t at least take a peek at any new Salinger works that came to light. I probably couldn’t help myself. But I rather suspect that was all just wishful thinking.
And those uncollected stories? I found a bootleg publication in the Special Collections at Northwestern’s library when I was a student there. All of Salinger’s early fiction neatly assembled in a couple of volumes in a box. I read them all. You know what? One or two were amusing, but nothing was up to the standard his audience came to know him for. I think Salinger knew that.
It’s always possible that Salinger wanted to write more – or more precisely, to publish more. Maybe he didn’t because he had far more fame than he wanted from what he’d written, and didn’t want to make it any worse.
Who knows – maybe Harper Lee felt the same way. She was said to be as private a person as Salinger, and maybe it was the fear of fame that kept her from putting out anything else.
On the other hand, I say she hit a home run at her first at bat, and decided to go out a winner. Let’s let her do that. Don’t read “Go Set a Watchman”.