I have a hard time enjoying books while the hype is still hot. Call it the hipster in me if you will, but I really don’t like the pressure to feel a certain way about what I read.
But now that the news of Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman has slowed down a bit, I’ve been reconsidering my original stance. I’m hesitant to support what might be a publishing scheme that took advantage of Lee’s advanced age and dementia, but I also don’t want to miss out on what will surely be a culturally significant book, if nothing else.
I asked the critics. And here is what I found.
1. It’s a Sequel…Kind Of.
Since the announcement of Go Set a Watchman, it has been revealed that the novel was an early version of To Kill a Mockingbird. But, because the events of Watchman occur twenty years after those of Mockingbird, it is tempting to read it as a followup novel. Critics can’t seem to agree on whether it should be read as a draft, a sequel, or an autonomous novel.
“Read by itself, Go Set A Watchman is a good, if somewhat conventional, book about a woman coming to terms with the illusions of her childhood. But read in the way I’m suggesting, as a sequel, this is a heartbreaking tale, much sadder than the author could have possibly intended.” —AV Club
“Although Go Set a Watchman comes marketed as an autonomous novel, it is most interesting as a literary artifact…It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird.” —LA Times
2. Atticus is Racist Now…Or Maybe He Always Has Been?
Many fans and reviewers were appalled to find that Atticus, a beacon of morality for many, is now a proponent of segregation and KKK member. It seems that reviews are split on whether this is the death of a great character, or an indication that, like Scout, we have willfully ignored certain aspects to more perfectly form an idol.
“The depiction of Atticus in Watchman makes for disturbing reading, and for Mockingbird fans, it’s especially disorienting…the reader, like Scout, cannot help feeling baffled and distressed.” —New York Times
“…what the fact of it means—the death by inches of a great character, because someone decided to play fast and loose with an artist’s best intentions.” —AV Club
“A significant aspect of this novel is that it asks us to see Atticus now not merely as a hero, a god, but as a flesh-and-blood man with shortcomings and moral failing” —Washington Post
“Atticus has always been depicted as a Southern traditionalist; the tone of To Kill a Mockingbird, with its deceptively simple, childlike curiosity, simply elided consequences of those traditions that might be on the uglier side, because a young daughter overlooks the frailties in her father that are beyond her understanding.” —Time
“So the idea that Atticus, in this book, “becomes” the bigot he was not in Mockingbird entirely misses Harper Lee’s point—that this is exactly the kind of bigot that Atticus has been all along.” —The New Yorker
3. It’s Not a Masterpiece…But It’s Still Worth Reading
What has become abundantly clear since its release is that Go Set a Watchman pales in comparison to Mockingbird in terms of literary quality. However, its relationship to Mockingbird and the history of these two novels makes it worth reading.
“At times, the novel reads like To Kill a Mockingbird fan fiction. That is, it’s as if a lesser author has commandeered these beloved characters and put them where they don’t belong.” —Chicago Tribune
“If the text now published had been the one released in 1960, it would almost certainly not have achieved the same greatness.” —The Guardian
“It is not a finely written story – this reads as a ‘good’ first draft which Lee has refused to rework – yet even in its coarse state…it is the more radical, ambitious and politicised of the two novels Lee has now published…whatever its failings, Go Set a Watchman can’t be dismissed as literary scraps from Lee’s’ imagination. It has too much integrity for that.” —The Independent
“Though the new book is, to be blunt, a string of clichés, some of them are clichés only because, in the half century since Lee’s generation introduced them, they’ve become clichés; taken on their own terms, they remain quite touching and beautiful.” –The New Yorker
“All I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.” —NPR
4. This Novel Comes at the Perfect Time
Anyone who has followed the string of headlines regarding the publication of Go Set a Watchman might be wondering, why now? Several reviewers also struggled with this, and concluded that perhaps now is the time we need this novel most.
“Maybe Watchman really was a sequel—a follow-up by an author who learned more about the prospects of post-racial progress than she’d hoped to. If readers several decades ago weren’t ready for such honesty, perhaps they are now.” —The Atlantic
“The novel serves to remind us that we are at a moment in our ongoing pursuit of justice that puts our national conscience at stake.” —Washington Post
“Go Set a Watchman comes to us at exactly the right moment. All important works of art do. They come when we don’t know how much we need them.” —Chicago Tribune
5. We Still Have a Long Way to Go
If there is one thing that one can learn from Watchman, it’s that many of the issues faced by Scout and Atticus fifty years ago are still relevant today.
“What makes Go Set a Watchman memorable is its sophisticated and even prescient view of the long march for racial justice.” —Chicago Tribune
“While To Kill a Mockingbird ends with a sense of hope that people truly are good, Go Set a Watchman wraps up with resignation that people often cannot change.” —Time
“And herein lies the paradox at the heart of Watchman that many white Americans still cannot or will not comprehend: that one can at once believe in the ideal of “justice for all”…and yet maintain a deeply ingrained and unexamined notion of racial difference…a milder yet novel version of white supremacy manifest in racial profiling, unfair and predatory lending practices, disparate incarceration rates, residential and school segregation, discriminatory employment practices and medical racism.” —Washington Post
…I might give myself a little more time before delving into this hot mess.
Did you read Go Set a Watchman? What did you think?
image source: Telegraph