Finding out that a sequel to my favourite book is going to be published after 55 years should be a ray of sunlight in this snowy and stressful winter of third year. But the announcement on Tuesday that HarperCollins are going to publish To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, in July raises too many questions to have fans of the book celebrating just yet.
Like many people, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books I read. When I was 13, it sucked me into its world so vividly that I thought I could feel the sweaty Alabama heat. But it became my favourite because more than any other books, it inspired me to try to stand against injustice, like the novel’s lawyer hero, Atticus Finch, who defends Tom Robinson, a falsely accused black man, in the segregated Deep South.
However, a nearly perfect book inevitably generates expectations that its sequel will have a hard time fulfilling, especially because Go Set a Watchman is a manuscript that was originally rejected by Lee’s publisher – who advised her to write about her heroine, Scout’s, childhood instead, leading to Mockingbird. Watchman is likely to be less accomplished, because it was a work of literary apprenticeship.
Furthermore, To Kill a Mockingbird has been accused of ‘white saviourism’ for focusing on the white liberals fighting racism rather than the experiences of African Americans themselves. If race themes are also explored in this book, it’s worth reading with a critical eye and asking why this book is being touted as the bestseller of 2015 in a way one by a black writer never would be.
More troublingly, alarm bells were sounded almost immediately following the novel’s announcement about whether HarperCollins had obtained Lee – now 88 and in a nursing home’s – explicit consent to publish the manuscript. Hopefully the issue will be clarified, but it potentially puts fans in an ethical dilemma. If we want to be like Atticus Finch and do what’s right, however difficult that is, might it mean not buying the book if by doing so we could be supporting a publishing company’s exploitation of an elderly woman?
Nevertheless, I’ll certainly read Go Set a Watchman if I can do so ethically. Scout Finch is a literary heroine so beloved she feels like a friend, and I can’t wait to see how Lee imagined her as a grown-up. In some ways, Watchman is a novel of the modern day, where popular fictional franchises often live on in books, films, TV series, comics, games and fan fiction simultaneously. Even if Lee’s vision of Scout’s adulthood isn’t what she’d write at her best, it’s an alternate universe that should still make intriguing reading. To Kill a Mockingbird’s legacy as a beloved classic will endure, and Go Set a Watchman will hopefully make an illuminating companion piece.