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You Can’t Go Home Again: Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" and the Spin-Off Era

You Can’t Go Home Again: Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" and the Spin-Off Era

Yesterday, as anyone with a pulse already knows, HarperCollins published Harper Lee's long-forgotten, controversial first manuscript, "Go Set a Watchman." Since Lee's publisher announced the book's existence back in February, Watchman has been burdened with heavy questions: Is HarperCollins in the right to publish it as a stand-alone novel? Was Harper Lee, now 89 and in an assisted-living facility, of sound enough mind to agree to its publication? Will the book taint her Pulitzer Prize–winning legacy? Who really deserves the credit for To Kill a Mockingbird’s brilliance, Lee or her then-editor Tay Hohoff? And now that we know Go Set a Watchman envisioned a racist Atticus Finch: What about all those babies named for the fallen civil rights pioneer?

But even amidst all these important concerns, there’s a big question few are asking. That would be: How did we get to a place where the book, movie, and TV industries all seem to agree that thin-and-getting-thinner spinoffs are where it’s at? When did we get so totally terrified of taking chances on new ideas and voices that we instead torture old material to within an inch of its life?

I just finished reading Watchman, and as many others have already reported, "To Kill a Mockingbird" it is not. Watchman suffers from a rambling plot, clumsy language, and a tendency on the part of the author to work out ideas on the page. In other words, it reads like a first draft — albeit one that performs a character assassination on one our country's most beloved literary heroes.

Would Watchman have been published today if submitted by an unknown author? (Would "To Kill a Mockingbird" even?) Who knows. Is it of literary and historical importance? Sure. Would it have been better treated as a very interesting, late-breaking entry into Lee's collected papers? Undeniably! (But where’s the money-making potential in that?)

It's interesting to consider what Tay Hohoff, Lee's long-deceased original editor, who encouraged her to set aside Watchman and rework the material from the point of view of a young Scout Finch, might have thought. As Hohoff wrote for the Literary Guild in 1960 about Mockingbird: "Harper Lee has been writing from her small childhood, but she has never been published before. I mention this particularly because too many young writers try for publication before they are ready — and try with material that is alien to them for one or another reason."

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Tonja B. Carter, Lee's lawyer and the subject of many conspiracy theories surrounding the book, described being “riveted by the story” upon first unearthing the manuscript in 2014, hidden away in Lee’s safe deposit box. She goes on to reveal that, in the same box that held the Watchman manuscript, there were also pages of something else. “Was it an earlier draft of Watchman, or of Mockingbird, or even, as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two? [Emphasis mine.] I don’t know. But this much I do know: In the coming months, experts, at Nelle's direction, will be invited to examine and authenticate all the documents in the safe-deposit box. Any uncertainty about . . . the mysterious pages of text . . . will be addressed." Carter, writing two days after Michiko Kakutani’s tepid New York Times review, seems to be teasing the idea of yet a third To Kill a Mockingbird spin-off. And the media, even as we’ve been intent on tearing down Lee’s new, lesser novel, is jumping on the story with unflagging enthusiasm. (Guilty as charged.)

This comes as little surprise: We’re used to it! It is, after all, the era of the revival, both in publishing and in Hollywood. In the past year we’ve gotten news of this incomplete list of projects on screens big and small: two Ghostbusters remakes, two homages to the show Full House, reboots of The Craft, Point Break, Fatal Attraction, National Lampoon’s Vacation, The X-Files, Candid Camera, Sister Act, DuckTales, Uncle Buck, The Odd Couple, Bachelor Party, Big, The Devil’s Advocate, In Good Company, Marley & Me, Minority Report, Problem Child, Rush Hour, and Wet Hot American Summer. Back in 2001, J. K. Rowling wrote an imaginary Hogwarts textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; last year Warner Bros. announced plans to turn the pamphlet-length novelty text into a trilogy of films starring Eddie Redmayne. And in June, Rowling released more background information on key characters from her seven-book Harry Potter series, and has said "never say never" about the idea of an eighth book.

But the Watchman extravaganza reminds me, more than anything else, of another recent publishing surprise: Grey, E. L. James's rewrite of "Fifty Shades of Grey" and its sequel, "Fifty Shades Darker," as seen through the eyes of its bro-ey, sadistic leading man.

Grey and Watchman are currently battling each other for the number-one spot on the bestseller lists. Both reprint passages directly from their already-published companion texts. Both play with point of view, offering new, deflating understandings of their enigmatic male protagonists. Both could have benefited from the eye of a good, Tay Hohoff–style editor.

Sure, Harper Lee is a national literary treasure, and E. L. James an international peddler of softcore porn; yes, Harper gave Watchman the deckle-edged, illustrated jacket, distinguished hardcover treatment, and Vintage gave Grey a flimsy, barely-designed paperback. (Does anybody read hard copies of Fifty Shades anyway?) But both books feel like undercooked publishing ploys, shortcut attempts to bolster bottom lines more than projects anyone sincerely believes readers will love.

There’s nothing wrong with bolstering the bottom line of a publishing house in theory. Early in my career I was an editorial assistant at HarperCollins, and the received wisdom among the assistants was that our blockbuster authors like Michael Crichton effectively enabled us to publish stuff we knew would never sell. Perhaps Go Set a Watchman, which broke pre-sale records and is reportedly flying off the shelves, will underwrite next year’s crop of fresh, new literary voices. One thing is for certain: Even if it’s incredibly commercially successful, it will never be another Mockingbird. And, my fear is this: If all our publishing resources, all our media attention, and all our reading hours, go into the Watchmans of the world — if we’re so focused on looking backward, instead of forward — who will be watching out for the totally groundbreaking, quietly brilliant manuscript that just might be the next "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

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