A short monthly piece to show what's happening in the editor-in-chief's brain...and in his office. Besides reading. Lots of reading.
On Tuesday HarperCollins published a sequel to that classic of American literature, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Since Lee is of advanced age, and because her guardian has reportedly stepped on quite a few toes, there have been numerous suggestions of shenanigans. There has also been uproar about a personality change of a major character.
I’m going to leave aside any discussion of geriatric foul play, as I have no firsthand knowledge of the situation. Nor have I read the book at the time of this piece, so I can’t speak to any personal and emotional reaction regarding the “change” to beloved Atticus. What I will say is—given that this was reportedly the first draft of Mockingbird—these two books are a prime example of how an editor (or, indeed, any critiquing party) can significantly impact a story…for good or for ill.
Handled by a talented writer, different angles on the same events can produce wildly varied themes and morals, and the original Mockingbird, published this week as Go Set a Watchman, seems to have taken many of the same events to detail a very different conflict—mainly that of Scout Finch’s issues with her father. The change in perspective and scope was due to Mockingbird’s editor, Tay Hohoff.
In 1960, America was again turning to deal with race issues, and it seems difficult to imagine that Hohoff didn’t see the deep societal value when she suggested switching the book from a reflective personal conflict—one daughter against her father and herself—to something broader and more inspiring, a family with a righteous patriarch and wide-eyed youngsters dealing with ambient alienation and injustice, making the Finches iconic, emblematic of positive shifts in thinking throughout the country and most strikingly the south…which also explains the recent blowback regarding Atticus’s alleged character change. Of course, Hohoff warned that the book might not sell well, so she had other things in mind than simple popularity and marketability.
The new book is the original vision. One review I read suggested it is the story of a woman breaking down her own godlike view of her father. This is certainly a step of human maturation, and thus accessible and pertinent to a wide readership. So, assuming that Lee’s handling of both stories was level, was this original conflict less palatable, less timely, or was it simply less transformative? Why did Hohoff require the change, if both struggles—family against community and daughter against father—can be equally powerful? Should Lee have listened? Should Hohoff have left the book alone and published it as it was, as it’s being published now?
The landscape of the industry wasn’t the same then, so Lee’s publishing options were likely limited. Still, I’d like to think that, even if the conversation is lost to time, Lee and Hohoff exhaustively discussed the reasons for the revision and agreed. Mockingbird’s success, both financially and via popularity, seem to vindicate Hohoff’s preferred treatment of the material.
What about the new book? Will it sell? Likely. So that will be one success. And the controversy over Watchman’s character shift and the manner of publication will likely fade, leaving time to tell if the book is another step in American letters, a literary gem drawn back from the brink of oblivion, a competently written but unenlightening walk down Memory Lane, or a simple cash grab.
One takeaway, though. As a writer, you need to know your purpose, and you need to discuss the reasons for changes with those who suggest them. Notwithstanding any alleged foul play, Lee has gotten another chance to tell Scout’s story—differently, and with people still paying attention. That’s a rare opportunity. Are you striking out to tell an intensely personal tale, or are you looking to go grander? Are you looking for simple popularity and marketability? This is the true benefit of the editor. While we are not all created equal, we are all...well, watchmen. You relate the story, but you need someone with scope and experience to tell you who’s listening and what we hear. Then you can decide if you want to post a different watchman.