As you may or may not know, today marks the release of Harper Lee’s second published book, Go Set a Watchman, a companion to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird. Barnes & Noble prior to its release treated the book with a secrecy and suspense to equal their response to a new Harry Potter book. While the American company, Barnes & Noble, has been treating Go Set a Watchman with the utmost secrecy, The Guardian, a British-born newspaper (they’ve had an online American edition since 2007), released online Friday the first chapter of the book, a thing they wouldn’t have dared to do for any of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. As I woke up to open the story three hours early for the throng of people that Barnes & Noble expected to rush to buy the book, I started thinking of J. K. Rowling.
Following the runaway success of her Harry Potter series, Rowling, a British author, released The Casual Vacancy, a book condemned as “too British” by too many Americans and by many worldwide as not enough like Harry Potter. Her reviews were tainted by fans expecting another Harry Potter, never minding that the two books were written for different aged audiences.
I can’t claim any knowledge of how The Casual Vacancy was handled by bookstores in the U.K. or frankly of how it was handled in the U.S., but I wonder if the very American nature of Lee’s prior novel meant that the British newspaper felt Go Set a Watchman deserving of less sanctity than did the American company, Harper Lee being something of an American heroine.
I don’t think I would be alone in citing To Kill a Mockingbird as one of “the great American novels.” The novel deals with America’s historic and present problems of racism and classism and lauds the purported American ideal of individual worth. The more innocent parts of young Scout’s childhood are nostalgically read by many Americans. It is one of the bestselling novels of all-time by an American author. (It is soundly surpassed by only seven other novels by American authors.*)
I think Go Set a Watchman is Lee’s Casual Vacancy, certainly in the way it will be received. Already I had one customer tell me that she had heard that reviews complained about Lee “ruining” her characters (an impossibility, really, since Lee as the author is the only authority on her characters), comparing the novel to To Kill a Mockingbird without consideration not only to the history of the manuscript (which is an interesting one to say the least) or the intended audiences of each novel, which I believe differ, though I wouldn’t swear to it.
To escape such colored reviews of her next book following Casual Vacancy, Rowling published under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Since outed as Galbraith, Rowling has done a decent job of slipping beneath the radar. Her latest publication, a hardbound copy of her 2008 commencement speech for Harvard University, I discovered only after it had been put on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, the publication having been subjected to no hype whatsoever.
As Go Set a Watchman uses the same characters as To Kill a Mockingbird, it would be impossible for Lee to have chosen a pseudonym, but I wonder if she might wish that she had been able to do so. Were she to publish a third book with a different set of characters and a different setting (unlikely sadly), I would be unsurprised to see her try to distance from the Finches and from Maycomb by choosing a pseudonym as Rowling did to distance herself from Harry and Hogwarts. I fear, as it did for Rowling with The Casual Vacancy, the hype and love for her first book will ultimately hurt the reception of Lee’s second.
*Yeah, so Wikipedia’s not the best source, but according to Wikipedia, those novels are Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, and Johnston McCulley’s The Mark of Zorro. This list excludes non-fiction books, of which there were three by American authors that sold better than To Kill a Mockingbird according to this same source.
Full disclosure: I’ve not read even the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, but I have been following the drama surrounding its publication.