A lesson from Harper Lee: Listen to your editor

Semi-warning: In this post, I talk about plot points in Go Set a Watchman. I hesitate to call them spoilers, though, because it’s difficult to spoil a book in which nothing of note actually happens.

The moral of Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill a Mockingbird: “Don’t harm the innocent, and see the good in all people.”

The moral of this month’s bestseller Go Set a Watchman: “Growing up means separating your own conscious from those you most revere.”

The moral of both books side by side: “Listen to your editor.”

Harper Lee first submitted Watchman to an editor in 1957. The editor saw promise in the writer, but not necessarily in the book. He worked with her, offered insight, and eventually enough elements of Watchman were salvaged, polished, rehabilitated, replaced and rejuvenated into what became Mockingbird.

This happened because Lee was open to criticism. It’s natural for a writer to love their work like they would love a child, and take umbrage with any suggestion that it’s less than perfect. I’ve worked (or tried to, at least) with too many writers who would rather their editor shower a manuscript with praise than offer ways to improve it.

Watchman is not a great book. It opens on a train with the main character going home, much like the book I wrote when I was 14, already vaguely aware that this was a cliche. The third-person limited point of view does not smoothly support the internal dialogues of our protagonist, Jean Louise Finch. The father-daughter relationship that is central to the theme was not developed as well as it needed to be. Even if it were not inevitably contrasted against its more successful predecessor, this book would still be a disappointment.

Go Set a Watchman isn’t so much an instant classic as it is a time capsule, a peek back to an era when institutionalized racism was at a crossroads, a man could strike his grown niece without it becoming a plot point, and the author of one of America’s most cherished masterpieces was still in training as a writer.

The published version of Watchman has been minimally edited; what we see are Lee’s original words in what New Republic has astutely dubbed “a conscious confusion of purity for quality.” This is a disservice to readers, but offers a wonderful lesson to writers.

If you’re open to change, you can watch your manuscript mature into a more dynamic, whole piece. As the Scout of Mockingbird matured and into the Jean Louise of Watchman, Watchman itself blossomed into Mockingbird. In both cases, the original had to be willing to shed one identity to fully embrace the other.

Some other thoughts regarding Go Set a Watchman:

Atticus and the Ku Klux Klan

If this is the most intriguing aspect of the book for you, do this: Go to your local Barnes & Noble. Grab a latte. Grab the book. Turn to pages 229 and 230. Read those 2 pages of this 278-page book right there at the big table by the entrance. Put it back. Don’t start drinking yet because your latte is still hot.

The media has focused mostly on the New Atticus, globbing onto the fact that he attended one Ku Klux Klan meeting, even though this is both a minor part of his character and an oversimplification of his motivations. The character who discusses it also gives a plausible explanation (along the lines of Vito Corleone’s sage advice to Michael about keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer).

Whether his words are true or not is left up to speculation (although it is consistent with everything we know about Atticus from both books), since Atticus never addresses it himself, and the subject does not come up again. The bigger issues are the less infamous, not-as-visually-jarring citizenship council meetings that Atticus attends and the disparaging words he has for the NAACP and the black population of the south.

But even that is not what this book is about.

The Old Atticus and the New

Watchman, read on its own, is about how your perspective of your idols changes as you mature; Mockingbird reinforces Scout’s memories of her father from her youth, but there is nothing about the Atticus of Watchman that is inconsistent with the Atticus of Mockingbird.

Atticus hasn’t changed. He says and does racist things that shatter our image of him as a pillar of courage or as the perfect father, but the premise in Watchman is that the only difference now is Jean Louise’s awareness; all that’s changed is her understanding of who he is. While she sees the Atticus of Mockingbird as a beacon of hope and good will, her maturity forces her to see the Atticus of Watchman as a more complex character, and their relationship is much more complicated as a result.

Which means the reader’s relationship with him is much more complicated now, as well.

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