The Museum of Science currently has an exhibition on Pixar and the development of their animated films. I took my kids to see it right after we had watched Inside Out. For those in the Boston area, the exhibit is fascinating, with much to see, watch, and try (and it’s headed to ten more cities).
One of the things that interests me is how the characters are developed. In college, I studied film, and I took a number of animation classes, both production and history. The character’s formation is fascinating as a character grows from a spark of imagination to a rough doodle on a scrap of paper to computer modeling, light design, rendering to the fully formed character we see on the screen. It’s amazing the math, the physics, the the artistry that is incorporated. Each steps is essential to making a believable fully formed creature. You can go back and look at that first sketch and see the makings of the character, be it Buzz Lightyear or Joy or Mike Wazowski. Those sketches are not the beloved character, but they contain the hints of the character to come.
That’s how I felt about Go Set a Watchman (GSAW).
The GSAW controversy made me uneasy, and my first inclination was to not read the book. Much evidence is out there that the folks managing Harper Lee’s interests are corrupt. And then there’s the question of whether or not Lee really wanted her book out there. This book was written and submitted years before To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM). If you ask her today, she says of course she wanted it published. But it appears her facilities are compromised and her sister who managed her affairs passed away a number of years ago. The editor who first read GSAW saw lots of promise from Lee, but felt the novel she submitted wasn’t there yet.
Let’s take a second here to talk about editors. I think a lot of folks don’t realize just how much an editor will put into a book. Not all editors, mind you, but the very best truly labor over the manuscripts, cutting, suggesting, developing. Sometimes authors think they go too far (one of the most famous editor/author rifts was between editor Gordon Lish and author Raymond Carver). But generally, editors look out for the best interest of the author and the reader, which is to create the best book possible. For Harper Lee, that editor was Tay Hohoff, who coaxed Mockingbird out of Lee:
There appeared to be a natural give and take between [Harper Lee] and editor. “When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours,” Ms. Hohoff wrote. “And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country.” —Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times
In that same article, it’s noted that GSAW was “only lightly copy-edited.” I would be horrified if my original version of Modern Girls was brought to light. My writing group critiqued it. My wonderful agent edited it again and again. My editor gave me revision notes to rewrite it, and I just received her line edits, which are not only insightful but give me suggestions on where to make the novel more robust and areas where it drags and therefore needs to be cut. Each round makes the novel that much better. GSAW didn’t go through this. Or rather, it did go through this and the end result was TKAM. TKAM is the edited version of GSAW. GSAW is merely the outline, the rough draft, not yet modeled and rendered and crafted, and therefore, it should be ignored.
And yet. Yes, ignoring the book is the right thing to do. But I am merely human (as my family loves to point out), and the right thing to do is not necessarily what I do. When something is being discussed this much, debated and championed and pilloried, I want to be in the know. I’m a Nosy Nelly and I don’t ever want to be left out, especially of a conversation this juicy. So when my friend, R., suggested we see the 9:30 p.m. showing of To Kill a Mockingbird and then stick around to pick up GSAW at midnight, I agreed (though after much hemming and hawing, not because I was struggling with my conscience, but because I was struggling with the idea of staying up that late; I’m an in-bed-by-ten kind of woman). I convinced my almost-12-year-old son to join us. The family rule is one must read a book before seeing the movie, so he spent a couple of days with his nose in the book.
We enjoyed dinner with our friends and then the movie (well, I did. He thought it was pretty good but “they skipped Aunt Alexandra! And the cousin! And the house burning down! And…” Yes, boy, and that’s why we always read the book first). The hype was fun—my son was too young to enjoy the fanfare over the Harry Potter releases, so this is as close to a literary event as he’s going to get for a while.
I read the book first, so he could take it with him to camp. And my verdict? “Don’t bother taking it with you to camp,” I told him. “If you want to read it at some point, go ahead, but it’s not worth lugging with you.”
The story is thin. Little actually happens over the course of the story. Unlike TKAM, no action actually happens. The book is mostly Scout’s arguing with her boyfriend and her father, and her uncle trying to reason with her. Atticus is a racist. The ending is simplistic.
And yet. (Yes, I will “and yet” once again.) This novel is not a sequel. Yes, the incidents take place after TKAM, but it’s important to remember that this book was written first. Atticus doesn’t become a racist; he started out a racist (in GSAW) and then he becomes a open-minded champion of racial equality (in TKAM). And if you view it that way, then this book has some merit for writers and students and anyone else who has to truly work on something to make it great. This book is an excellent lesson that the first go-round is not the final go-round for a reason. That even authors who are heralded as “great American novelists” have to do considerable work—and be provided with considerable editing and feedback–to create their works of art. This book is not a companion piece in any way, but an example to be shared: No one gets it write the first time. Go Set a Watchman is a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. (Want more proof? This article shows line by line where the two books are the same.)
So I will not pan this book. I will treat it as a blueprint—the rough sketch—to a truly wonderful novel, as a peek into the inner workings of the mind of a great writer. This book does not influence the way I see TKAM except to make me appreciate even more the labor that Harper Lee put into writing it. No, I won’t recommend my son reads it. At least not now. And I don’t think this is a book my friends should read, if they’re just looking for a summer book to entertain them. But for those for whom writing is a process, this book is indeed an education.