Go Set a Watchman

Imagine you love writing and have managed to have a few short stories published and a friend says, “Here’s a year’s salary, take a year off and go write a novel.” While it sounds like a fantasy most authors would have, it really did happen to Nelle Harper Lee. A family she was friends with – the Browns – gave her the equivalent of her yearly salary with those words as a Christmas present. So what would Harper Lee (her pen name) do with such a generous gift? She used that time to write a novel called Go Set A Watchman. She sent the manuscript to several publishers and eventually was able to get some interest. One publisher in particular liked the story but felt it should be re-written from the character of Scout’s perspective as that was when the writing was strongest. Harper took on this challenge and, many drafts later, Go Set a Watchman had morphed into what became the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.

Upon its launch To Kill a Mockingbird was successful, and by the time the novel had been turned into a movie it was a blockbuster success. Fans wondered what Harper Lee would write next? In writing circles at the time it was rare for an author to publish more than a novel every year or two, but with so much attention on the author, surely it wouldn’t be long?

As it turns out, Harper never wrote another novel and famously declared she never would. And indeed, while there was the odd article or public letter published over the decades until she passed in 2016, there was never another novel.

But wait, what about that second novel she published in 2015? Good question.

In 2014 a complete manuscript was found in Harper’s safety deposit box. Announced with great fanfare as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, set some 20 years after the events in that novel, Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015. But that title was familiar and as later became clear, the book was indeed that earlier manuscript which was re-written to become Mockingbird. But how could a publisher advertise it as a sequel? This is where it gets murky, because it seems it was a marketing ploy to say it was a proper sequel and the publishers knew they had the earlier manuscript and not one which was written after Mockingbird. It also seems that the announcements and timing of the publication were such that Harper did not get much say in the proceedings and may have been pressured or coerced into approving the release – although one source (who had a vested interest in the publication) says Harper was happy the manuscript was being published.

The novel itself got mixed reviews, and was savaged by several critics. Nevertheless, when the novel was published, bookstores held midnight openings and said it was the largest pre-ordered book since the last Harry Potter novel. It was Barnes and Nobles best ever single day seller for adult novels.

When the truth about the manuscript came to light after publication and the publisher felt the backlash for their marketing trickery, they admitted what the manuscript really was – a first draft written before Mockingbird. So, in a sense Harper kept her word about never writing another novel, because this was not written after Mockingbird, but the controversy around its discovery, publication and marketing make it an infamous moment in literature. What do you think? Was it fair of the publisher to advertise it like they did?

Next time, I won’t write about a publisher selling a falsehood about the nature of a novel, but an author… if you are not already subscribed, why not join my mailing list so you never miss a Great Moment in Literature?

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