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Is The New Harper Lee Novel A Mistake?: Author Idolatry And 'Go Set a Watchman'

02/05/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2015
HarperCollins

If Twitter can be seen as representative of broader cultural attitudes, the news surrounding Go Set a Watchman, a novel Harper Lee penned before To Kill a Mockingbird but guarded closely for decades, was received positively -- at first.

Most enthused responses weren't elicited by the content of Lee's story, which will be told from the vantage point of an adult Scout -- Mockingbird’s brave young protagonist. Instead, cheers sounded for the author, and for her first book, which so many of us associate with the halcyon days of summer reading assignments.

Tweeters responded to a BuzzFeed Community callout for "funny #MockingbirdSequelTitles," indicating that the site's editors might not've been aware that the story -- more of a prequel than a sequel, according to Lee's editor at HarperCollins -- had already been written and named.

"Our idolization of authors often leads to a greedy quest to absorb everything they’ve produced, regardless of their personal wishes and, perhaps most importantly, the best interest of their storytelling legacies." Our collective knee-jerk reaction to the news is indicative of a larger problem in the publishing world: Our idolization of authors often leads to a greedy quest to absorb everything they’ve produced, regardless of their personal wishes and, perhaps most importantly, the best interest of their storytelling legacies.

The cult of the author can be seen on Pinterest boards and dating profiles. Loving Joan Didion is a signifier of a certain identity, so is quoting Hemingway. These habits are fine! Of all influential figures to enshrine or model oneself after, an author is far from the most egregious. The act becomes detrimental, though, when liking an author -- that is, how she is talked about, how he makes you feel -- eclipses the value of his or her work.

Elena Ferrante, the famously media-shy writer behind the Neopolitan novels, addresses this in a preview of her first-ever public interview: "It’s not the book that counts but the aura of its author. If the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors and the market is happy to welcome you. If it’s not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image."

Plenty of other literary behemoths have shirked from the spotlight for similar reasons; Thomas Pynchon said ‘recluse’ is code for “doesn’t talk to reporters,” and J.D. Salinger mostly kept to himself. But, in spite of his attempt to protect his unfinished or otherwise personal works from posthumous publication, we’ve allowed our fandom to get the better of us, and have released previously unseen short stories and a garish documentary about his life. Of course, not all posthumous works are the result of invaded privacy (although, notably, Kafka’s The Trial was). The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain, though cobbled together from unfinished works, provides insight into his views on morality, and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in spite its assembly by Wallace’s editor.

"While posthumously published novels are granted room for error, Lee’s work has ostensibly been given her seal of approval, bringing her ability to judge literary merit into question if the book isn’t up to snuff." But while posthumously published novels are granted room for error -- even the best of them are usually publicized as collector’s items tragically left unfinished -- Lee’s work has ostensibly been given her seal of approval, bringing her ability to judge literary merit into question if the book isn’t up to snuff. In the unique case of Harper Lee, author worship isn’t offensive only in its undermining of her work, but also, potentially, of her personal wishes. Until very recently she was of the Ferrante camp: publicity-avoidant to the point of being deemed a recluse. In an interview given to a friend just four years ago, Lee dictated that she will not release further materials, stating, "I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again." Why, then, is her publisher now claiming she's "happy as hell" about her unearthed earlier work? An interview with Lee's editor, Hugh Van Dusen, raised more questions than it answered.

Though Van Dusen was only made aware of Go Set a Watchman this week (he's yet to read the book), he confirms that Lee is "getting progressively deafer and more blind" after suffering a stroke in 2007. He suspects that she "just never told anybody about the book and then forgot it existed," and says "it’s very difficult to talk to her." This hazy ethical decision has led a writer for the Atlantic to conclude, "Perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated in the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires."

So often works of literature begin with a seed of inspiration that grows into something barely reminiscent of its source. Of his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides said, the idea of casting protagonist Madeleine as the story's nexus began when he was working on an entirely different book. So goes the writing process. But to treat the paths authors chose not to follow as completed works rather than pleasurable fan trivia devalues their artistic authority, and often disrespects their wishes.

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