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Indie Authors: Go Set A Watchman’s Publishing History Matters To You: An Editor’s Opinion

Indie Authors: Go Set a Watchman’s Publishing History Matters To You: An Editor’s Opinion

NYT Bestselling Author & Editor, Joni Rodgers: “I used to have faith in my publishing industry betters… but they didn’t share my creative value system. Why should they?”

The publishing history of Harper Lee’s novel raises important questions about author care, creative control and the power dynamics of trade publishing, says NYT bestselling author and editor, Joni Rodgers

In spring 1957, Harper Lee’s literary agent shopped Go Set a Watchman around New York and eventually placed it at Lippincott. Editor Tay Hohoff didn’t love the novel but recognized Lee’s stunning talent. Three years later, To Kill a Mockingbird was published, and the rest is publishing history. 

This week, HarperCollins, the corporate descendent of Lippincott, published Go Set a Watchman.

With controversy swirling, it’s hard to separate truth, lore and loyalty to a book that’s beloved like no other, but I’m in the mood for blasphemy today: I love Go Set a Watchman more than I love To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m about to give you three reasons why. 

Pardon the long post. Please refrain from chopping my head off until you’ve read the whole thing. Yes, I’m presumptuous baggage for second-guessing a literary masterpiece. No, it’s not right for me to speculate with 60 years’ hindsight on the motives/methods of anyone involved. This is my opinion as a veteran ghostwriter, book doctor and editor, which may respectfully differ from the opinions of other professionals.

With that disclaimer…

1) It’s a good book. I see no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If the book published this week actually was only “lightly copy edited,” as claimed by HarperCollins, then it arrived at Lippincott as a fairly polished manuscript. Clearly, Harper Lee had already devoted a great deal of time to refining it. Like Hohoff, I immediately fell in love with Lee’s writing, but I also found the novel as a whole compelling, fully-fleshed, and likely to resonate powerfully for any reader who’s faced a painful reality about someone they love, which makes it widely, timelessly marketable. 

The characters are engaging, the story arc strong. The plot works on a mechanical level. Dialogue is a delight. Relationships evolve. Flashbacks and pastoral vignettes work well as page-turning entertainment while serving the central theme. 

Some changes I would have suggested: 

  • rewrite in first person to heighten intimacy and urgency 
  • do some serious nip/tuck on the political diatribes, 
  • provide exposition on current events
  • develop a resolution to Atticus’s vehicular manslaughter case, perhaps making the victim a child, as a way to heighten drama and offer a strong redemptive moment for Atticus at the end. 

But it’s a very good book as is. With one developmental pass, followed by a thorough line edit and final scrub, it could have been stellar. 

Hohoff’s push for a book with little Scout as narrator was brilliant, but I believe the two books could have coexisted then, as they will in the future, because…

2) Watchman and Mockingbird form a powerful dialogue greater than the sum of each part. 

Ironically, much of the current backlash sounds exactly like the disillusioned rage of our reluctantly grown up Scout. Watchman’s Atticus is a grumpy, arthritic old man in contrast to the dashing marksman of Mockingbird, in which the story hinges on his unfailing integrity and commitment to justice. 

Watchman’s impetuous adult Jean Louise has all the swagger of little Scout, but the story in Watchman hinges on her realization that Atticus is not the man she’s had on a pedestal all her life. Watchman brings a mature, realistic counterpoint to Mockingbird’s lovely but naive portrayal of the Great White Father archetype.

A brief anecdote in Watchman was expanded to dominate Mockingbird: the trial of a black man accused of raping a white girl. In Mockingbird, there’s an attempt to lynch the man, who’s found guilty, despite all evidence to the contrary, and subsequently shot dead. But in Watchman, he’s found not guilty

This makes for less drama and doesn’t serve the theme of racial conflict, but Watchman isn’t about racial conflict. It’s about disillusionment and the smaller, quieter conflict between father and daughter; bigotry is just the gut-wrenching vehicle. 

imagesI love how skillfully Harper Lee steers that vehicle, wryly pondering all the little bigotries that scuttle around in the shadow of racism. Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack even calls her out for being a bigot herself: “Not a big one,” he says lovingly, “just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot.” 

Lee draws out her beloved bigots with enormous grace and compassion. Where Mockingbird gives us a mindless lynch mob, Watchman gives us the poor and the proud with all their pretzel logic—an explanation, if not an excuse. Southern stereotypes sink below the surface, and secondary characters achieve a dimension they don’t have in Mockingbird, where folks are consistently black and white. 

It’s hard out there for a bigot. These days, if there’s one thing we cannot tolerate, it’s intolerance! To make me love people I can’t stand, in less than 300 pages—that’s genius.

3) Watchman might have been the healthy start of a long, productive career. 

In 1956, funded for one year by her friends, Joy and Michael Brown, Harper Lee quit her job as a ticket agent and devoted herself to writing full time. She produced her first novel and wrote to Joy that she was “six weeks gone with another one.” 

She asked for a continuing stipend, mentioning several book ideas she hoped would keep her occupied “for the next fifteen years.” After the lightning strike success of Mockingbird, Lippencott’s head honcho later said, “we would have published Harper Lee’s laundry list.” But the promising young author disappeared into an initial haze of hearsay followed by decades of casual publishing lunch conjecture.

Harper Lee and Tay Hohoff, by all accounts, remained close friends until Hohoff’s death in 1974. Hohoff was highly regarded by her colleagues, loved by her authors. In “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” (New York Times, July 12, 2015), Johnathan Mahler reports how zealously protective Hohoff was of Harper Lee and quotes Hohoff describing her editorial style: “I suffer from some sort of mother-complex, so that I always want to make paths smooth for the people I am fond of and of whom I have a high opinion.” 

In a statement through her lawyer last year, Harper Lee said, “I was first time writer, so I did as I was told.” 

In those words “first time,” I hear the heartbreaking echo of all the words that might have been.

What Creatively Hobbled Harper Lee?

An author absolutely should work and rework a novel—for years, if that’s what it takes—and a great editor is a powerful advocate in that process. Tay Hohoff did her job fantastically well, delivering results beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. But if you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ve glimpsed the patriarchal publishing culture of the 1950s. 

Another look at the pudding 55 years hence reveals an energized young author whose raw talent, lyrical skills and transcendent insight endowed her with the potential to eclipse Faulkner, and something left her creatively hobbled. 

My own feet-to-the-fire publishing experience doesn’t authorize me to conclusively connect the dots, but is enough to make me wonder: Hohoff was obviously the genius editor Mockingbird needed but was Mockingbird the book Harper Lee needed to write? 

That’s the question that most troubles me now. 

Harper Lee then

Harper Lee then

harper lee 2015

Harper Lee Now

It’s worth noting that while she was developing Mockingbird with Harper Lee, Hohoff was working on her own book—A Ministry to Man, published in 1959—that dealt with the history of bigotry and racial violence in the South. When I read about that in the context of her benevolent, motherly intentions, I tried hard not to hear old Atticus Finch, voicing his benevolent, fatherly intentions toward the colored folks of Maycomb County, always there to protect them, ready to help them do as well as their place allows, as long as they remember Father knows best. 

Uncle Jack says in Watchman: “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” 

Creative Value Systems

I used to have an unshakable faith in my publishing industry betters. Early in my career, I blossomed under the firm hand of motherly/fatherly editors and thrived within the custodial love of old school publishing plantations, but eventually I was confronted with the painful reality that they didn’t share my creative value system. Why should they? Everyone’s in this industry with their own agenda, for which they need not apologize. 

I still work with legacy publishers when it’s mutually beneficial, but now I know: if I consign my career or creative wellbeing to anyone else’s care, I do so at my peril. 

At the end of the day, as both author and editor, I’m grateful to be working in a new publishing model that wasn’t available to Lee and Hohoff. 

In an excellent article on the changing role of editors, Marjorie Braman—another HarperCollins luminary who worked with literary superstars like Elmore Leonard and emerging radar blips like me—offers authors this important perspective: “If you’re an [in-house] editor, what matters is acquiring… editing is done on your own time. … As a freelance editor, these models no longer apply to my work. I no longer have to jump on every promising submission overnight. I no longer need to be looking over my shoulder, hoping for the approval of the marketing, publicity, and sales departments. I no longer have to determine the worth of any particular project a year before publication (and we know how often publishers get that right!). The burden on the freelance editor consists solely of helping the author write his or her best possible book.” 

I would add that the burden on authors is to accept responsibility for our own creative and business decisions. 

Having read and loved Go Set a Watchman, I honestly don’t know if it’s sequel or prequel, authentic buried treasure or hijacked first draft. I can’t say if Lee’s relationship with Hohoff was love, mentorship or Stockholm Syndrome. I’m not sure it matters to We the Reader. 

I’m just thrilled to have this book now, because we need it more than ever: to make us laugh and cry, to chastise us for childish forms of hero worship, to remind us that bigotry’s jukebox will always play the same song, no matter who puts the nickel in. 

But it does matter to Me The Editor. And Me the Author-Publisher. Like Tay Hohoff, I feel a surge of motherly love for this brilliant young author. I want to go back in time, wrap my arms around her, and tell her: “You have written a wonderful, worthy book. And you must write another. And another. And another.

And every one of them must be deeply, unquestionably yours.”

See also Joni’s story on Watchman for The Boston Globe: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/07/15/set-watchman-novel-can-love/F2xqnM4vqYay3mH1Yp8nmL/story.html

NYT bestselling author, ghostwriter and editor Joni Rodgers lives in Houston, Texas. Her website is http://jonirodgers.com

Author: joni rodgers

NYT bestselling author, ghostwriter and editor extraordinaire, Joni Rodgers, is founder of the League of Extraordinary Authors, a collective of critically acclaimed and bestselling authors who have, Joni says, "blurred the boundaries between indie and corporate publishing". Find out more at www.jonirodgers.com


This Post Has 24 Comments
  1. I’m a veteran book designer… and work with many and varying authors and stories. I’ve been seeing many articles around commenting on different aspects of Watchman so when I read your title I decided to take a look.

    I thank you for the mentioning the points to notice and your elaboration of them 1. perspective, it’s a good book 2. dialogue… language and the beat of reading words make a big difference in the enjoyment of a book 3. keep writing… more and more

    then I loved your ending… something every indie author needs to print out and put on tier wall or on a post-it on their computer

    “And every one of them must be deeply, unquestionably yours.”

    thank you

  2. I’ve just finished reading Watchman, and read Mockingbird for the first time earlier this year. I was surprised by the difference in tone between the two books, only part of which can be explained by the fact of Mockingbird being 1st person and Watchman 3rd – the writing in Watchman is much jauntier and more self-aware (perhaps quite naturally) than in Mockingbird. When I started it I thought I was going to like it much more than I ended up doing so, however. I found the long dialogues between Scout and her uncle, then Scout and Atticus too bald in their exposition of the themes, and in the end I couldn’t understand Atticus’ position, nor Scout’s apparent willingness to let him keep it (given how upset she was when she found out what it was). (Sorry about the elliptical writing here … trying not to produce spoilers!)

    And, as other people have said, there is a sense of incompleteness about the book. What’s going to happen between Scout and Hank? What about the trial of the young man for the running over of the old white guy? Quite simply, What happens next? It’s almost as though Harper Lee has written an outline and begun to sketch it out in more detail … I’m sure the long-winded dialogue sessions would have been cut or at least spread out over more scenes, for example. And the whole ‘Coffee’ sequence could have been reduced by half – it doesn’t add a lot to our knowledge of Scout or Maycomb.

    I really wanted to like this book, and I did … in parts. Some of the writing is insightful and sharp. But the structure is unstructured and the theme not clearly laid out and resolved.

    But it’s good that others think differently, isn’t it? 🙂

  3. Best article I’ve seen on TKAM/GSAW (neither of which I have read, but I’m interested in how the literary world reacts). And the best thing I’ve seen on this blog for a long time–I do wish we could have longer, deeper posts more often.

    I became an indie to be my own creative boss, to write what I want instead of what a publishing company wants. I’ve discovered the joys (and pains) of ripping a novel apart and rewriting it. It takes time and I’ll never be one of those indies who can produce multiple books a year, but the result gives me creative satisfaction and that’s what I’m looking for. Yes, I think Harper Lee would have self-published today.

    1. Thanks, Jane. I applaud your commitment to the process. Writing fiction, I’ve always said I’m an orchard, not a factory. As an editor, I try to counsel patience, and hopefully, more joy than pain, because the rest is such a crap shoot. If we don’t love the doing of it, what’s the point?

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Nell. I do think Harper Lee had a lot of interest in Southern politics and wanted to write about racism, but I think her perspective was a lot more nuanced than the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up there. In Mockingbird, that nuance is sacrificed in favor of drama. All that said, Mockingbird is close to the top of my favorites list too, and it always will be.

  5. I’m about 25% into the book, and I have to say I would have edited it too. I know I’m (fairly recently) prejudiced against the pre-1990s verbose style of writing, even though I swallowed Victorian classics whole for a couple of decades before then. I prefer clipped and to-the-point writing because I usually read on a treadmill.

    I see a book that introduces one character after another without following through on most of them. I’m inundated with interesting characters and their funny stories. I’m still waiting to know what the plot arc IS – I have to take your word for it at this point that it “works on a mechanical level.” Because I honestly don’t know. Much of the dialog is the kind of pointless banter I throw on the page when I’m trying to coax my characters out. But then I remove it when they clearly reveal themselves. Harper Lee left it all in there. So I’m thinking “first draft?”

    What strikes me most, though, was how different the book is from Mockingbird. And from the moment I looked at it, I began to speculate on why Harper Lee never wrote another book. I have a number of theories on that:

    1. Mockingbird was so “changed” from her draft that Harper Lee felt unfit for the task of a second novel. The voice, the style – everything I’ve seen in the first 25% – means a heavy hand influenced the final product. How could she offer up her (perceived) limitations to the entire world, when the entire world was clamoring for more? I’d run screaming too.

    2. She said she wasn’t “Scout.” She was “Boo Radley.” That means she put her heart on a plate, and the heavy editing stomped it.

    3. As “Boo Radley,” she was paralyzed by crowds, and adulation, and demands. She physically could not invite any more of it. She surrounded herself with protectors who fended off the press, and could not envision another onslaught.

    3. The theme of Mockingbird came from her editor, not her (I found it interesting that “Hohoff was working on her own book—A Ministry to Man, published in 1959—that dealt with the history of bigotry and racial violence in the South.” I’d already guessed race inequality wasn’t Harper Lee’s first choice, and the author of this article more or less confirmed it.) She was still an early 20th century Alabama girl, born and bred, and the theme of equality didn’t ring true for her. If they wanted more of that out of her, could she produce it?

    As someone without a lot of time to read, I confess I abandon more books than I finish. This is a book that I would put down, honestly, because at 25% I still don’t know where it’s going. If I hadn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, I wouldn’t be sure which characters I’m supposed to follow. (Uncle Edgar? Huh?) But it’s Harper Lee, so I’m going to keep plugging, and dodging spoilers until I finish. I’m going to keep on wondering and speculating why she didn’t write another book.

    We might have (probably would have) seen more from her, if she’d self-published. There’s a very tempting and satisfying control gauge that enables a self-published author to receive and back away from attention with simple Internet tricks and strategies. You not only control your work, but you can control your “presence” and keep attention from being a fire hose when you only want to water some plants. That would have been important to Harper Lee, I’m pretty sure, if she’d had the option.

    But if she HAD self-published, we wouldn’t have Mockingbird. I’d rather have Mockingbird; it’s in my Top Three All-time Favorite Books. Maybe Number 1. And I thank history for her editor, and for the book, never more so than as I’m reading Go Set a Watchman.

  6. Dear Ms. Rogers,

    Please note: I have never read anything by Harper Lee, never bought into all the hype surrounding Mockingbird over the years––or even was much impressed with G. Peck & the movie version.

    Having said that, I should point out: yes, I wholeheartedly agree with the message: bigotry & racism are harmful & ugly & should never be tolerated. But it was not until I read your truly amazing and insightful article, by far the best and most intriguing on Harper Lee (& both of her novels) that I have ever read, that I have felt a desire to take a look at Watchman.

    Lastly, you come across as one terrific human being/woman, as well as one gifted editor.

    Admission: I don’t normally bother with the newsletters they ALLi) send me, but am certainly glad I took the time to go over this one. Thank you.

    Kirk Alex,

    Author of Lustmord: Anatomy of a Serial Butcher
    (as well as other titles in different genres, etc.)

  7. Hi Jodi and re Pelham’s reply–I write for the pleasure of writing material that might entertain readers. Results of “freebies” please me because people that I will never know might enjoy reading my works. I had the pleasure of essentially going the full route from receiving comments by writers and readers on a publisher’s site in the UK offering critiques to writing queries to the majority of agents & some publishers listed in several DIY Guides focused on getting published in the traditional manner. (Few used email and publishers accepted queries directly.) I had two major publishers solicit a novel only to be rejected by Editorial Boards because my packages were self-prepared and I didn’t know what I was doing without an agent. I researched and wrote a screenplay adapted from my novel, Atlantic City Nazi, and it’s still free on the Cloud on Amazon Studios site. My foray into the publishing industry provided me with the grist to write a novel on the life of the “world’s worst literary agent”– a term used in a reader’s comment. The novel is a fun read for persons involved in the publishing industry, “Look-inside” is Free on Amazon always–Title: Slush Pile Inspector. Gone are the days of “Little Women” when the character binds a ms with a ribbon and sends it to a publisher and waits to become wealthy when it’s published. As some of my paper query letter rejections stated: “Not for me but keep writing.” Some SASE’s returned the message: “Not for me.” Why did the others say to keep writing?

    1. I hear ya, Charles. My first literary agent once told me that no matter what a rejection letter says, you should see the words, “I’m just a stepping stone on the way to the right publisher.”

      That said — keep writing! 🙂

  8. You have addressed profound questions which few of us have even been able to form (except by magic or luck). Questions I would not have known how to ask. And you have given solid, sincere, real answers. You put our work in a perspective which enables us to think for ourselves and go on with confidence no matter what the “world” has to say. I am literally choked with gratitude.

  9. Going on from Ann’s comment, Harper Lee may well have blossomed as a self-publisher, going her own way, in her own way. I don’t know why she stopped writing but I’m sure I shall learn somewhere on the net soon.

  10. Thank you Jodi. Now I feel so much better about myself, having waited in fear and trepidation until I was 73 before daring to publish my first fictional work. I had a lovely editor and a useless nothing of a publisher who forced me away from my chosen theme to what he believed was commercially more valuable. Now I care not for any of them – I write from my own soul, regardless of whether or not it will make money. It matters nothing to me if the publishing world believes me a silly old woman, I am content with the ordinary people who enjoy my work in spite of its blemishes. I love your comments about both of Harpers books.

  11. A wonderful article, with a poignant message. It resonates with me. Leaving traditional publishing to become an independent author-publisher has given me creative freedom. Sadly, not an option available for Harper Lee.

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