porcelainandporcupines

I read “Go Set a Watchman” and now you have to read about it

Posted on: July 20, 2015

There are a lot of different ways to think about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, released last week. The most obvious would be as a novel, and, as a novel, it must be said: it is not very good.

I avoided reviews of GSaW before reading it, but since the headlines were inescapable I knew the general consensus was negative. This was very much a surprise as I was reading it. It was imperfect, certainly, but things would have to go off the rails pretty spectacularly to deserve being called a “mess”. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when things did go utterly off the rails in the final sections of the book.

The problem here is, as you are no doubt aware even if you too have only read headlines, that the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is racist. Rather, the problem with the story is not that he is racist, but in the discussion of how Jean Louise – who we all remember fondly as Scout Finch, and who is the actual protagonist of this book, despite getting fewer headlines – tries to come to terms with her discovery of this great failing in her father. We all were Jean Louise Finch last week, as we, too, tried to understand what could have happened to so drastically alter the most upstanding and moral figure of our childhood, who helped shape our understanding of right and wrong, who we all looked up to.

Unfortunately, though recognizing your parents as the flawed human beings they are could be a very rich topic, it is not presented well here. It takes the form of a couple of debates between characters – Jean Louise and her uncle, then Jean Louise and Atticus, and then she and her uncle again – spanning several pages, of just individual characters talking about their ideas. Even with the best of writing, this kind of philosophical argument is generally not terribly interesting to me. But these chapters of Go Set a Watchmen are not even close to the best of writing. The ideas presented are, generously, half-formed; it’s sort of like sitting too close to college freshman who are talking, about anything really. They’re also, frankly, pretty offensive; while much ink has been spilled about Atticus’ racism, Jean Louise does not come across any better; certainly not by today’s standards, anyway, although I’m certain that at the time, you could be progressive and in favor of equality while still being pretty racist. Seriously; it’s bad, you guys.

But the debate about race in Watchman, too long and poorly formed as it is, is incidental to the plot, really. Because the true struggle of the book is how Jean Louise will come out of this crisis still loving her father. And that, I think, is where Watchman actually becomes pretty interesting; it’s not successful as a novel, but it is a great case study for the writing process, and, particularly in this time of self-publishing, the importance of editors. Because, up until the end, there is a lot to like in Watchman. The talent and joy Harper Lee has in writing is impossible to ignore through most of it. And a talented editor was able to steer the book away from the thornier issues Lee was not properly addressing, to focus on the vivid recollections of Scout’s childhood, and her adventures with Jem and Dill; to enable Scout to love Atticus in the way that Jean Louise clearly wanted to, even though she couldn’t.

In the end, if you’re looking for a good book, I would not recommend Go Set a Watchman. But, if you’re interested in writing, in watching the development of a creative project, I’d say it’s a worthwhile read. I’ve got a copy you can borrow, but, even with all of it’s flaws, I’ll definitely be wanting it back.

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