Harper Lee And Exploitation In The Name Of Literature

To Shill a Mockingbird.

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On Tuesday the literary world was rocked by the news that Harper Lee, author of one of the most celebrated American novels of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird, is going to publish a second book after 55 years. And the book, Go Set a Watchman, is coming out this summer. And it was written over a half-century ago. And it features Mockingbird’s Scout as an adult! The first reaction was one of near universal joy. Who wouldn’t be excited about a second book from one of America’s greatest novelists? But pretty soon cold water was thrown on the world’s jubilation.

The story smelled a little fishy. That a fully completed Harper Lee novel appeared out of thin air and then was rushed to publication struck many as suspicious. Lee never tried to publish a second novel, and her sister — who guarded the author’s estate for decades — passed away only a few months ago. Lee has been in poor health since a stroke in 2007. In the span of a day, the book went from the most celebrated recent literary news to being labeled Lee’s “controversial second novel” and potential “elder abuse.”

Did HarperCollins sit on this book until Alice Lee passed away, knowing that she’d block it? Are they exploiting a senile woman in a blatant money grab? And, if the book is good, does it even matter?

Public Good vs. Artists’ Wishes

Bookstores are filled with unfinished drafts and unauthorized biographies of famous writers. We publish every scrap, diary entry, and shopping list we can find. If we love an artist enough, we demand the right to everything, no matter how private. To Kill a Mockingbird is a canonical novel, and many will claim there’s a vested public and scholarly interest in Go Set a Watchman. Even if Harper Lee wanted the book destroyed — something we have no evidence of, currently — many would still want it published. Sure, maybe we should wait until she’s dead to put it out, but since people want to read it they ought to be able to.

It’s easy to cry public value, but most of the time these unfinished drafts or apprenticeship works add little. Was the world enhanced by the widely panned publication of Nabokov’s unfinished The Original of Laura? Were his dozens of finished novels, story collections, plays, and other works composed across multiple languages not enough? Nabokov requested that all his unfinished work be destroyed after his death — his wife did not honor his wish — and it’s hard to see The Original of Laura as anything more than a cynical and needless book.

Even more importantly, what right do people have to go against an artist’s wishes? Most writers I know are horrified by the idea of even showing close friends their rough drafts, much less having that work be published for anyone to read. Especially now that we live in an age of rampant piracy and the regular trampling of artists’ rights, I think it’s important to stand on the side of artists. To say that their rights and desires should trump the public’s, even if that means we are denied a few books we might have enjoyed.

But then there’s Franz Kafka.

Putting my cards on the table, I’ll say that no writer has meant more to me than Franz Kafka. There’s no one I return to more, no one more influential to my own writing. Like Nabokov, Kafka asked for his unfinished work to be destroyed. Unlike Nabokov, Kafka didn’t have dozens and dozens of completed books. He hadn’t even finished a single novel. It’s easy for me to look down on the publication of The Original of Laura when I still get to read Pale Fire and Lolita. But a world without unfinished Kafka is essentially a world without Kafka, and that’s not one I want to live in.

Put another way, I was thrilled by the news that smuggled, unpublished Kafka works had been been found hidden in a cat-infested apartment, so how can I fault anyone’s excitement over a new Harper Lee novel?

The Story Behind the Second Book

Then again, Harper Lee’s situation is not Kafka’s or Nabokov’s. She is not dead, and we have no record of her saying she never wanted the book published. Apparently, she’d forgotten about it and never before had to formulate an official opinion on its theoretical publication. Here’s the story as Harper Lee — via lawyer and publisher — told it:

In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called ‘Go Set a Watchman.’ It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.

If we’re to believe this story, there are three salient points in favor of publishing:

a) This is a completed work and not an unfinished draft.

b) It was, at one time, submitted for publication.

c) She currently wants it to be published

I’ll come back to a) and b) later. The main point of controversy is c). Given Lee’s age, health, and history of never wanting to write a follow-up novel, there’s speculation that either Lee doesn’t truly want this published and is being manipulated by her lawyer and publisher, or else even if she does want it published now she wouldn’t have wanted it to be published when she was in full command of her faculties. Here’s Madeleine Davies at Jezebel:

Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s attorney since Alice Lee retired at the age of 100, acknowledges that the author—who was left forgetful and nearly blind and deaf after a stroke in 2007—often doesn’t understand the contracts that she signs. “Lee has a history of signing whatever’s put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter’s advice,” Gawker reported last July.

Lee’s editor gave an interview at Vulture that did little to convince anyone that everything is above board. His answers were full of hedges and qualifiers, and he admitted that he didn’t think anyone at the publisher had even spoken to Lee:

I don’t think so, only because she’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a phone call, you know? I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja.

Mallory Ortberg at The Toast called it “the most madness-inducing interview I have read in I don’t know how long.” Here’s more from Ortberg:

“Nobody’s told me.” “My understanding is.” You guys should have a meeting about this, probably! I don’t know, MAYBE it’s not the case that a bunch of publishers eager to capitalize on a hugely profitable name are taking advantage of a very elderly woman who lives in a nursing home and has diminished capacity. I hope that this is not the case! But if you are going to release another book of hers, maybe make sure that you are going through all of the appropriate steps!

For her part, Harper Lee has since responded to the controversy in another prepared statement, saying, “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman.”

Speculating on an Author’s Desires

The argument against the publication of Go Set a Watchmen boils down to the author’s true desires, but that can be a tricky thing. Nabokov gave clear instructions to destroy his unfinished work and, given his perfectionist nature and large body of work, there’s little reason to doubt him. But most writers don’t explicitly spell out what work they’d want published. (This situation is a good argument that writers should be more careful in this digital age in which files of drafts and fragments can last forever in multiple locations.)

Even the most famous cases are murkier than they might seem at first. Franz Kafka told his friend and literary advocate Max Brod to burn all his work, but Brod always contended that Kafka asked him specifically because he knew Brod would never carry out the request. The idea that Kafka was not completely serious in his request is completely believable to anyone who has read Kafka’s private letters, which are a tangle of anxiety, self-effacement, irony, and neuroses. Consider, for example, his love letters to his on-again-off-again fiancée Felice Bauer:

The life that awaits you is not that of the happy couples you see strolling along before you in Westerland, no lighthearted chatter arm in arm, but a monastic life at the side of a man who is peevish, miserable, silent, discontented, and sickly; a man who, and this will seem to you akin to madness, is chained to invisible literature by invisible chains and screams when approached because, so he claims, someone is touching those chains.

Or take John Kennedy Toole. Toole’s masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, was published 11 years after he took his own life, thanks to the tireless advocacy of his mother, Thelma Toole. Toole long struggled to publish the book and it seems fair to assume he’d be thrilled by its publication and reception — although who knows if Thelma Toole, who reverted many edits her son had made, published the version he would have liked. However, Thelma Toole left instructions for no one to publish her son’s other novel, The Neon Bible, which he’d written as a teenager. It was published anyway. Toole had submitted it as a teen, but had abandoned it by the time he was an adult. Who can know if Toole would have wanted the latter published?

If we want to look at a controversy about work published while an author was alive, there’s always Raymond Carver. Carver’s editor Gordon Lish drastically edited Carver’s work to the point the stories were arguably more Lish than Carver. Lish took Carver’s loose sentences and sentiment-heavy stories and sliced them down to the bone, turned them sparse and odd. Much has been made of the fact that before the publication of what would become his iconic work, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver wrote Lish begging him to stop the publication:

I’m afraid, mortally afraid, I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.

The general consensus among writers seems to be that while Lish’s versions are superior — and they are — it was a massive violation of the author-editor trust and should never have happened. That may be, and maybe Carver regretted it his whole life. A few years ago, Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, finally got the original version of the manuscript published under the title Beginners. However, it’s important to note that soon after writing the above quote, Carver was singing a different tune. “I’m thrilled about the book and its impending publication,” he wrote to Lish only a few days later. Right before his death, Carver edited a selection of his stories titled Where I’m Calling From. In it he used three of the pre-Lish stories, but eight of the post-Lish edits.

What’s the “right” amount of Lish-edits to honor Carver’s true desires: All? Some? None? Carver’s intentions can’t be pinned down, because his feelings were complicated and changing. That tends to happen with us messy humans. Carver had conflicting feelings about his book publication, and quite possibly Lee does too.

The Harper Lee Scenarios

Many have commented that Lee’s publishers just want to make a lot of money and don’t care about the quality of the book. That’s probably true, but it would be the case whether Lee desired to see this book in print or not. Publishers are businesses and like to make money. This doesn’t really factor in to the question of whether it should be published.

The situation does seem sketchy though. The timing, so soon after her sister’s death, is suspicious. That the editor has not talked to Lee at all is suspicious. The fact that we’ve never even heard about this book before is suspicious. Lee has also clearly been exploited before. In 2007, agent Samuel Pinkus got Lee to sign over the rights to Mockingbird to him — allegedly because she was too blind to read the contract — and Lee had to sue to recover them. The case was settled on unknown terms.

At the same time, there’s something a bit odd about the assumption that Lee doesn’t know what’s good for her. It may be the case that her lawyer, agent, and publisher are assuming their own desires are Lee’s, but the same may be happening with the detractors. Unless Lee’s statement is pure fabrication, either she is happy about the publication or she is not really cognizant of what is going on. If she is happy about it, it may absolutely be the case that she would not have been happy about it 10 or 20 years ago. In that hypothetical, what is right? My gut would tell me to listen to the Harper Lee of 20 years ago, but legally and even morally that doesn’t seem binding. People change their mind all the time, and the elderly changing wills is hardly new. If she’s softened her feelings on publication in her eighties, that’s her right.

If she’s not really cognizant of what is going on, which also seems possible — especially after reading this great piece by Michelle Dean on Lee’s recent legal woes — well, that’s tricky too. No one has produced any public statement, much less a legally binding one, that she didn’t want Go Set a Watchman published. Scholars didn’t even realize there was a separate novel and thought the first manuscript was an early draft of Mockingbird. Lee gave various explanations for never writing a second novel, but we don’t know what her feelings were on this already written one. We are left with only guesses at what Lee’s theoretical desires would be both now and in decades past.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Artists’ Rights

Perhaps I’m cynical, but I honestly wonder how many people truly care about Lee’s — or any other artist’s — actual desires or rights. Generally, we are openly hostile to artists who express any intention to exercise their rights if it causes us the least bit of inconvenience. If you are taking a break from pirating music and posting artists’ work without permission on your blog to argue this book should or shouldn’t exist, it probably has less to do with any notion of ethics and more to do with either your desire to read it or your desire to keep your vision of Lee as a reclusive single-work genius intact.

Even among people who do have a strong sense of artists’ rights, there is a widespread feeling that those rights end at death. We might roll our eyes at the publication of The Original of Laura or the early stories of J.D. Salinger, but their authors are no longer around to be upset. As soon as an author is in the grave, the vultures descend and we seem to be OK with that.

Most other writers I’ve talked to seem to think it would be OK to publish Lee’s first novel if she were dead. I don’t really follow this logic. If the argument is that Lee is so incapacitated she can’t understand what she is agreeing to, then it seems unlikely she’ll be offended by the book’s release. If the various people involved have been dishonestly holding onto this manuscript until Alice Lee died, would it make that much of a difference if they held on until Harper Lee passes away as well?

Either way, it does seem true that time slowly washes away an artist’s rights. Many are offended by the publication of unfinished or private work by the recently deceased, but few would bat an eye at the publication of a newly unearthed story or private diary by Chekov, much less Cervantes — no matter what those authors might have requested while alive. At some point, exploitation becomes scholarship, and then scholarship becomes archeology.

The Bottom Lines

It’s tough to know what to make of Harper Lee’s second novel because there is very little that we know for sure. The reports of Lee’s mental and physical health are all second or thirdhand. Lee’s past desires are unknown. The quality of the manuscript is a mystery. Lee is known to guard her privacy, so there is no way for her lawyer or publisher to prove anything without violating her wishes there. We are left to speculate.

So what are the bottom lines here?

If you are an artist concerned about bad work being published, the bottom line is that you need to make sure to burn your work completely and do it yourself. No one else — no best friend, no mother, no spouse — is assured of doing it for you.

If you are a reader concerned about Lee’s rights, you have to make your own judgment. For me, in the absence of any definitive evidence she didn’t want this published I go back to the points above: a) It’s a finished work, b) she submitted for publication, and c) she at least claims to want it published. Even if she is not fully aware with c), it is important, I think, that this is a book she actively sent out for publication. It is not a private diary. It is not scraps or fragments. In the Lee biography A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter noted that “the editors at J.B. Lippincott were impressed, but found the book patchy and awkwardly structured, so they sent her off to rewrite it.” It’s a book that quite possibly could have been published back in the 1950s, mooting the entire debate.

But what about the question of whether this book should be published? Much of the debate is focused on what this book might do to Lee’s reputation or to our reading of her work. The book was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and rejected for publication. Assuming the book is inferior, will reading it make us think less of Lee? Will it damage our love of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Despite my concern with artists’ rights, I find this unlikely. Has Nabokov’s star dulled a single degree because of The Original of Laura? Does anyone think less of A Confederacy of Dunces because of The Neon Bible? Even the buffoonery of the Star Wars prequels hasn’t dulled the power of the original films.

So, on that level at least, what’s the possible harm? At worst, this new novel will be thought of as an amateur work by a brilliant writer. In that case, it will mostly be forgotten in the future.

If the book is great, then no one in the future will care about how it was published any more than people refuse to read Kafka because Brod didn’t light a fire. And if we do consider To Kill a Mockingbird one of the greatest novels ever, then it seems quite possible that Go Set a Watchmen will at least be worth reading. Who knows, it might even be good.

***

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, American Short Fiction, NOON, and elsewhere. He is the online editor of Electric Literature and the co-editor of Gigantic magazine. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. His debut collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. He tweets at @thelincoln.

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