Why I’m not excited about Harper Lee’s new book

Go Set a Watchman. In less than a month, Go Set a Watchman, the long-anticipated sequel to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird will hit physical and digital shelves. As a librarian, I recognize that this is a big deal. I answered three phone calls the day the publishing deal was announced from patrons asking to place holds on Go Set a Watchman — and that list has only grown since then. I’m even organizing a series of programs surrounding the publication — a showing of the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird followed by a discussion of the book and film.

But as a writer, I have mixed feelings about this sequel. From what I understand (and please, correct me if I’m wrong!), Go Set a Watchman takes place years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, with Scout and Atticus reflecting on what happened. It’s also the book her editor rejected. (See the final paragraphs of this New York Times article about the book. I’m not going to comment on the controversy over whether Lee wanted Watchman published or not; that’s a separate discussion I don’t feel informed enough to contribute to.) To Kill a Mockingbird was a rewritten version of the story that’s going to be published on July 14. So it seems to me Go Set a Watchman is just an earlier draft of the Pulitzer-winning classic.

Writers cut scenes, alter timelines and viewpoints, and make countless other revisions for a reason. We want to make our books better. Sometimes we fall in love with a character or an idea that just won’t work for the book we’re writing, so even though it hurts, we cut that character or idea out. That’s what Harper Lee did when she rewrote To Kill a Mockingbird. You could argue that she only made the changes because her editor told her. You could argue that her editor was wrong. And Go Set a Watchman may be the next Great American Novel (if there is such a thing as The Great American Novel). But I have reservations about reading something that was essentially a trunk draft.

I’ve written several trunk novels. I have no doubt I’ll write several more. All writers do. We call them trunk novels for a reason.

Some of them deserve to stay on our hard drives, in our attics, perhaps even in actual trunks, where we can cherish and appreciate and — most importantly — apply what we’ve learned from them to write better books. So even though I liked To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m not counting down the days until the sequel’s published.

What about you? What are your thoughts on Go Set a Watchman?

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2 thoughts on “Why I’m not excited about Harper Lee’s new book

  1. ivaberanek

    I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” just recently and the experience of reading made me conclude it is one of the best books I have ever read. It is simply brilliant and I wanted to continue reading. For that reason I am actually looking forward to the sequel. That being said, I do have mixed feelings about it, merely because of the controversy. I do not understand all the ins and outs of it either, but if Harper Lee didn’t want it published I would just wonder ‘why’ and why go against the author’s wishes. Maybe this will become clearer next month.

    Reply
    1. Liz Osisek Post author

      I just finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and I agree that it is a great book. I just worry that a manuscript that isn’t as polished won’t live up to that standard. I also wonder about the controversy, but I don’t know all the details. I just hope Harper Lee really did want Go Set a Watchman published in the end.

      Reply

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