Harper Lee – a tough act to follow

As would have been the case for many other booklovers, I awoke to the news that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is set to publish her second novel this year, 55 years after her iconic debut.

Initially I greeted this with surprise and excitement. I knew Harper Lee had never published again and was something of a recluse, I knew she must have been past 80 (she’s 88). When I read the article and discovered this wasn’t a new work, but rather a rediscovered manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, from the late 1950s my enthusiasm dimmed a little.

While I think it is wonderful that literature is front page news today, what will this book actually be like? There is no doubt that writing styles have changed significantly since 1960 when To Kill a Mockingbird was published, while that novel is undoubtedly a classic and stands up, to publish a novel in the same style and flow today runs the very real risk of seeming old fashioned.

Also the complexities of the social issues it addresses are compounded by the intervening years and all that has happened to society in that time. We view racial and ethical issues in a different light now.

But of more concern was the fact that this manuscript wasn’t considered for publishing when it was written, Harper Lee took two and half years of revision on To Kill a Mockingbird. She is now 88, profoundly deaf and partially blind, living in an assisted care facility. You have to wonder how much work this manuscript needs to whip it into shape, and whether Harper Lee is realistically up to the task.

It will sell, of course it will, I’ll certainly read it, she won’t need to do library readings and bookshop signings.

But you have to wonder. I don’t want to be a wet blanket however, so, despite some reservations, today I am happy for Harper Lee, and for readers everywhere.

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6 responses to “Harper Lee – a tough act to follow

  1. Like you, I’m concerned as well as interested. Of course I’ll read it, but my question is – *who* is doing the publishing/ editing/ etc.? There’s been a lot of hoo-hah recently about her “getting older” and such, as you say. How can we tell it’s her own will to publish this?

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    • I know what you mean, 55 years of determinedly refusing to publish and refusing to consider publishing, it’s a curious decision. I read there has been concerns raised about the motives and influence of her lawyer. Most of all lets hope her best interests are being cared for.

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      • Exactly. :/ Did you see Pavowski’s slant on it (over at Pavorisms)? He makes a good point about expectations… After all, TKM is one of my favourite books….

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      • I just read that entry at Pavorisms (a blog I hadn’t seen before so thanks for the tip) and that is another interesting take, it’s not fair on the book itself, if it is to be unedited and will stand as Harper wrote it before learning the writing and editing lessons she learned on TKM it will almost definitely suffer in the inevitable comparisons, I fear that it will only dull Harper’s star in her twilight years. Such a shame.

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  2. I have qualms, too, based on this article from the NY TImes today: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/04/books/harper-lee-author-of-to-kill-a-mockingbird-is-to-publish-a-new-novel.html

    If you read through to the end, it raises some pretty serious questions.

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