Tuesday, July 28, 2015

To Kill a "Second" Novel

Most of what has been written about the “To Kill a Mockingbird”/”Go Set a Watchman” controversy has been wrong — at least in one important way. Harper Lee’s second novel, just published, “Go Set a Watchman,” keeps being referred to as an early draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It obviously isn’t a “draft,” as almost any published writer could tell you.

It’s clearly a first novel, a first book. And it was sent in 1957 to an editor who, though not wanting to buy it, suggested Lee write another book. A draft is an earlier version of the same novel, one eventually published. It may often have a different title. Authors are not always the best title-ers.

But the editor wanted a different book. Most editors, strange as it may sound, want books that sell. Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor, thought “Go Set a Watchman” wouldn’t. Why? Even from the reviews, it is quite clear why: Who in the late 1950s wanted to read about a young woman who fled to New York City from a dreary Southern town with a racist father and unpleasant friends? But, Hohoff saw a way out. There was this character Scout, the book’s protagonist when she was a young girl. A novel in her voice might do the trick.

Back in the 1950s/60s, Southern racism was in the news and wasn’t news to many. Large numbers of Americans do not like to read realistic fiction about the unpleasant here and now. I should know, since I published one of the earliest anti-Vietnam War novels in 1974, while that war still raged. No one, as I wrote long ago, wants to discuss fire in the middle of a conflagration. There were a number of advantages Lee’s editor saw in a novel told with a child’s precocious voice. The events recounted moved back in time, whereas “Go Set a Watchman” was too contemporary, too much of the times in the late 1950s.

Lee’s editor functioned as some modern editors do today. Writers I know have, occasionally, succumbed to them. When a manuscript is offered up and these (mainly) young editors see talent and possibility, they will ask for “revisions.” But what the editor really wants is a different work: a novel that will sell. In extreme cases, like Lee’s, that creates an entirely new book. New last chapters. New first chapters. New characters. New protagonists.

Hack authors of the past have been accused of writing to formula: westerns, police procedurals, etc. Today, it is the editors who want to impose a formula: likable characters, happy endings, general uplift, rather than dour downers.

They think they know what sells. Look at the tables of trade paperback novels at the bookstores. Do their covers all look alike? They do. There’s a reason.

Lee’s editor was ahead of her time. She wanted Lee to write then what today is one of the few flourishing fiction genres left. A Young Adult novel, a YA. One with uplift. Uplift is important. The Pulitzer Prize in fiction historically is given only to uplifting works. Novels thought to be leading candidates for the prize, even when presented to the board, have been denied the prize for supposed lack of uplift. Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” for instance.

Nonetheless, quite a few second books published by young authors don’t achieve the same success as the first. That is because the second book published is often the first book written, published because of the success of the first book. It happened to me. My first book (“The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left”) was successful enough to cause my second (“The Meekness of Isaac”), which I had written before the Harrisburg book, to be published. It happens enough to be noticed as a second-book letdown. It’s because the second book was actually the first.

But that didn’t happen to Harper Lee. In her case, her (unedited!) second novel, actually her first, is a flabbergasting success, over a million copies sold. But that is only because she waited — if that’s the word — over 50 years to let it be published. She got that right.

A version of this ran Sunday, July 26, 2015 in The South Bend Tribune.


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