Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Harper Lee v Chilcot: who'll publish first?

I'm marking. It's not really #markinghell in terms of quality, merely in terms of volume. I have to say that the proportion of cheats and idlers has been in decline over the past few years – there are always people who struggle but in the piles on my desk right now, they're honest strugglers who've clearly tried their best. Unlike, for instance, the senior manager who rejected our MA proposal with the biggest load of unreflective nonsense I've seen in quite some time. D– for that. I can't go into details, but let's just say that reading the feedback (hand-scrawled then scanned for distribution) I wasn't angry. I was embarrassed on their behalf.

Anyway, I'd better get on with the marking. At this rate, not only will Harper Lee's second novel be out but the Chilcot Report will be published before I finish. I'm a bit dubious about Go Set a Watchaman the To Kill A Mockingbird sequel. The stories of a manuscript just being 'discovered' sound a little suspicious, and the press statement from Lee reads as though drafted by a PR operative. The feminist website Jezebel is much more hostile: they reckon that publication is coming suspiciously quickly after the death of Lee's sister and attorney, who was famously protective, and may be the result of machinations by her new attorney (ironic, given TKAM's idealisation of honourable lawyers). I'm not so sure: that seems to deny Lee agency and autonomy because she's old:
…leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart. 
Tonja Carter, Harper Lee's attorney since Alice Lee retired at the age of 100, acknowledges that the author—who was left forgetful and nearly blind and deaf after a stroke in 2007—often doesn't understand the contracts that she signs. "Lee has a history of signing whatever's put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter's advice," Gawker reported last July. But now Alice—her Atticus—is gone and an unhealthy and unstable Lee must alone face the publishers, interviewers and literary agents that she's spent her entire life avoiding.
The novel was written back in the 50s, so if it's legitimate, it's was produced at the height of Lee's powers. It may be an apprentice work, and there are thousands of authors who wrote only one truly great book, but that's one more than me, so I wouldn't begrudge Harper Lee an 'ordinary' one.
Instead of being grouchy about this book, be wary of the hype machine. This novel was written at least half a century ago. A lot of literary and cultural water has flowed under the bridge since then. Readers' expectations are different, style and language has changed. It may or may not be a great novel, but it will be a period piece and should be read on those terms.

Despite being a professional literature academic, I don't actually have much to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it several times as a child and saw the film adaptation once or twice. I'm not sure I appreciated it fully then – it was given to us to demonstrate that racism is bad, but I'd never heard of actual racism the first couple of times I read it, so I imbibed the intellectual lesson (very successfully: still not a racist) and I'd little conscious experience or knowledge of the United States at that point either. Nor was I sufficiently developed as a reader to have much sense of style. I guess in some ways this is beside the point: many of the texts we discover as a child become untouchable and unreal: reading them as an adult is unsettling for precisely those reasons. Instead of a cherished but impressionistic memory, we're confronted with actual words existing within a hugely changed interpretive community. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me in advance that racism was wrong. Going back to it now would require a whole new set of criteria for analysis derived from my own experiences, cultural context and my education and I'm not sure I want to disturb my dim but positive memories. I have done so with other childhood texts: I wrote a conference paper on Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels a few years back and found the experience fulfilling but also quite difficult: re-reading revealed so many dark or disagreeable aspects of the texts which my young self couldn't have understood. I don't think that cherished texts should be left untouched in the golden halls of memory but at the same time, I'm happy for other people to do the revisionist work!

1 comment:

Phil said...

I saw TKAM relatively recently - as an adult, anyway - and read it afterwards. Watching it I had no idea what was going to happen. I was also a bit of a fan of Robert Duvall and had no idea who he was playing in the film - I kept thinking I'd spotted him. Wrongly, of course.

I was completely blindsided, first by the courtroom plot but then - much more importantly, for me at least - by what happens at the end, which moved me in a way I don't quite understand. I tried to talk about it afterwards, but I couldn't say the words "when Boo Radley comes out" without crying. Still can't, actually.

If the new/old book is one tenth as good as that, it'll be pretty good.