To Kill a Book-Lover

Published on February 5th

While Harper Lee’s editor and publisher swear up and down that she’s excited to publish her "new" book (actually not so much a prequel as her original draft of what turned out to be To Kill a Mockingbird), the reasons to be dubious of their claims keep stacking up. As exciting as it is to think of a new book by the beloved Lee, who until now only had one published novel to her name, significant caution is warranted.

For one thing, as noted by an earlier article on Jezebel, there’s the fact that this ‘lost-and-found’ manuscript magically turned up shortly after the death last year of Lee’s sister, who until then had acted as the author’s lawyer and advocate, protecting her from those who might harass her or intrude on her privacy. That timing makes the whole situation a bit dubious. Lee’s biographer, Charles Shields, has said he can’t imagine why Lee would want to publish this early attempt now. According to an interview on NPR, he said, “I think she had made up her mind that she was grateful to have done so much with her first book and couldn’t see any advantage to bringing out another one. And now suddenly here she is — blind, 88 years old, in assisted living — telling us that she’s so pleased that her friends like it and it’s coming out.”

Beyond concerns about whether Lee has been manipulated into publishing this book more for the benefit of others than for herself, however, are concerns about the quality of what readers will find if they do read the upcoming Go Set a Watchman. In another NPR interview, Shields has said he’s “afraid that the strong hand of Tay Hohoff as an editor is going to be missing and readers might little taken aback by what Harper Lee was writing like when she was a young woman just out of the University of Alabama.”

But the most worrisome quote to come out of that interview isn’t from Shields at all – it’s from Lee’s publisher.

When questioned about the reservations that Shields raised regarding the quality of, again, what was essentially the first draft that eventually led, after changing the POV, timeline, and more, to To Kill a Mockingbird, publisher Jonathan Burnham said, “It needs no editing at all. It stands perfectly as it is.”

For anyone who’s ever read a first manuscript of just about anything, those are words to truly drop the heart down into the ashes.

No one, not the best writer who ever lived, can see all their own mistakes. No one gets it perfect the first time. Every writer on earth has to feel their way through this process on their own, do their best, and then, at a certain point, let another person in to see what they have and help them figure out where to go with it.

It was an editor, the aforementioned Tay Hohoff, who originally looked at Go Set a Watchman and suggested to Lee that she focus on the perspective of the main character as a little girl rather than as a grown woman. That’s what gave us To Kill a Mockingbird. As both a writer and an editor, I wish her publisher wasn’t so eager to go back, now, and undo that work.

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