While I won’t deny I’ve been beside myself with anticipation awaiting the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, I’ve simultaneously been terrified about how it might read, for the publishers announced it would be printed in its organic, unedited form.
Go Set A Watchman is, after all, a kind of first draft rejected by publishers that facilitated Lee writing something vastly improved and iconic.
As a writer who also works as an editor, I see both sides of the fence. I am acutely aware of the value of a good edit—even the most talented writer benefits from some precision editing help.
I worry that we’re about to read—and judge her on—a not yet fully polished work. Lee is an undeniably exquisite writer, but the Harry Potter rejection myth arguably carries too much weight in our collective conscience. The book is no doubt good, but I doubt it was rejected in the first place without some feasible reason.
In fact, I’d hazard a guess the book’s less an overlooked gem than a book that’s good, but that led to something better. And without the benefit of an edit, as To Kill A Mockingbird itself had, it’s likely to pale in comparison.
Or worse, be the kind of thing you couldn’t resist reading, but that ever so slightly diminished your love for, and fascination with, the original text. For me, that was the extra the Picnic At Hanging Rock chapter, which that demonstrated finishing with the however infuriating unsolved mystery was a vastly better way to end.
But then, contention about whether the hermited Lee actually gave permission for Go Set A Watchman to be published, I realised I’ve become something like the pedants we’ve all encountered along the way. Everyone’s an expert, it seems, and everyone has an opinion on how a book could or should be better.
The hype around Lee’s book reminds me of the following two takes on the pedant issue. The first, a Buzzfeed in-joke if Jane Austen had received feedback on Pride and Prejudice from a peer in a writing class.
It includes such gems as:
- I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice.
- Anyway, good job. I do have a couple of notes to share, in the spirit of constructive criticism.
- Also, why five sisters? How about just two?
- Anyway, while this isn’t something I would pick up on my own to read, I still enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Thanks for letting me take a look, and let me know if you need any more help with it.
AdWeek carries the theme with its hypothetical client feedback for famous writers (F Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Heller, and Salman Rushdie are among an esteemed crowd who spent time working in advertising to pay for the privilege of being a poorly paid writer).
The client feedback includes:
- Great powwow earlier, but the team and I have just a few notes…
- The title Catch 22 is a little ambiguous. Can we be more direct?
- Could the characters be a little more working class and in line with our ‘strivers and survivors’ demographic?
- Let’s rethink the adulterous theme running throughout. It is NOT on brand.
- …can we add a cat? Everyone loves cats.
- One last thing: Does it have to be a book?
So when I do manage to crack the spine of this breathily awaited Go Set A Watchman, which I have to admit I don’t think has a particularly great title, I’ll try to remember everyone’s an expert when it’s not their work and to respect Lee’s narrative decisions (including surrounding what I’m hearing is something to do with making Atticus slightly racist).
Regardless of what Go Set A Watchman covers and how it reads, or even why Lee chose that title, even Lee’s first drafts are likely to read vastly better than my best final drafts.
The book’s a precursor to a masterpiece and probably has a lot to offer both as a standalone piece of work and in its greater, other-book context. And it’ll give us more insight into, and a richer understanding of, this incredible author’s writing talent and approach. Inner pedant, be gone.