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Sunday Read: Announcement of Harper Lee’s New Novel Go Set a Watchman Sparks Ethics Debate

To Kill a MockingbirdSocial media across the globe was set ablaze on Tuesday, 3 February, when 88-year-old Harper Lee announced that she will be releasing a new book 55 years after her debut and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published.

The Guardian reported that Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman in the mid-1950s before To Kill a Mockingbird, however, it is set 20 years in the future and the young Scout is all grown up.

The announcement was met with mixed reactions. As first everyone was delighted at the news of another book by the reclusive author, but one by one people started to question whether Lee really wanted the world to see her early work.

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News of its publication this summer stunned fans of the 88-year-old author, who have waited for a second novel from Lee since 1960, when she released her debut tale of racism in the American south.

The novel was written by Lee before To Kill a Mockingbird, but is set some 20 years later. It features Lee’s beloved character Scout as an adult, returning to her home town of Maycomb from New York to visit Atticus, her lawyer father, along with many of the characters from Lee’s debut.

Lee, who is profoundly deaf and almost totally blind, lives in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville – the small Alabama town where she spent summers growing up with her friend Truman Capote.

The news of Lee’s new book sparked controversy and suspicion, particularly with regards to the timing of the announcement. The BBC reported that readers have expressed their concern over why Lee is publishing the book now, only a few months after her sister, who was also her lawyer, passed away.

Some people are concerned that the Pulitzer winner is being taken advantage of:

Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme she too was “just a little concerned that Harper Lee may have been pressured into this”.

“The industry has been waiting 55 years for her to produce something else and I’m not sure this is necessarily the thing she wants to bring out,” she said.

“While I’m very excited about it, I am really a little bit uneasy – because it is her first novel that is going to be coming out, and unedited and first novels are full of passion but can they also can be overwritten and a little clunky.

“And all writers have in our bottom drawer something that we would never want to see the light of day.”

Hugh van Dusen, Lee’s editor at HarperCollins, spoke to Vulture about the upcoming book and the manuscript that was discovered by her lawyer, Tonja Carter.

Van Dusen responded to the concerns that Lee might be treated unfairly:

Is there any link between the book appearing and all the legal problems surrounding the To Kill a Mockingbird copyright having died down?

No. Everything is calm. All the legal issues, I believe, have all been settled. Her lawyer Tonja Carter discovered this manuscript, which nobody knew had existed and Nelle thought had disappeared. I’m sure that’s what happened. I’m told that all those legal problems are settled now. And those problems have nothing to do with this publication. I promise you that’s true.

It’s easy to be skeptical about her willingness to publish a book that had been forgotten for 55 years.

You mean was she unwilling to have it published? No, no, no, no. We would never do that. She’s too valuable an author to fool around with that way. It would never happen. We wouldn’t dare do that.

Lee’s agent also told The Guardian on Thursday that To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman were intended to form a trilogy and that it’s “total nonsense” that the author isn’t well enough to make her own decisions.

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Andrew Nurnberg, who has been Lee’s foreign-rights agent since 2013, told the Guardian that the plan had come to light in old letters between Lee and her agent. “They discussed publishing Mockingbird first, Watchman last, and a shorter connecting novel between the two. It would appear she never wrote or finished the middle novel, but it is clear that Lippincott was planning on publishing Watchman,” he said.

He dismissed as “total nonsense” allegations that Lee wasn’t well enough to make her own decisions, insisting that “this isn’t somebody with dementia who is being led up the garden path” and describing his client as “very lively, very funny” – and partial to doing CS Lewis impressions.

Despite the publisher’s assurance that everything is above board, Buzzfeed reported that some readers are still concerned about the ethical implications, especially considering the lack of direct contact between Lee and the people who stand to benefit from such a deal:

Here’s an author who has staunchly refused interviews and publicity since 1960, who hasn’t breathed a word about her interest in publishing another book to either family or friends, but who is suddenly fine with releasing her decades-old Mockingbird prequel, despite the fact that it doesn’t sound like anyone at her publisher has actually been in touch with her about it? This brings up questions!

Weighing in on the debate Maddie Crum wrote an opinion piece for Huffington Post about how treating authors like idols can be detrimental to their best interests as well as their legacies.

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Our collective knee-jerk reaction to the news is indicative of a larger problem in the publishing world: Our idolization of authors often leads to a greedy quest to absorb everything they’ve produced, regardless of their personal wishes and, perhaps most importantly, the best interest of their storytelling legacies.

The cult of the author can be seen on Pinterest boards and dating profiles. Loving Joan Didion is a signifier of a certain identity, so is quoting Hemingway. These habits are fine! Of all influential figures to enshrine or model oneself after, an author is far from the most egregious. The act becomes detrimental, though, when liking an author – that is, how she is talked about, how he makes you feel – eclipses the value of his or her work.

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Do you think the publication of Harper Lee’s new novel is unethical? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below.

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Photograph courtesy of The Guardian

 

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