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.
I 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.
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