A Publisher’s Take on the Go Set a Watchman mess

Words by Charlotte Guest, Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing

I know what you’re thinking: the Go Set a Watchman imbroglio has been combed through with the same fastidiousness seen in an anxious parent looking for lice. Perhaps, but I think it’s worth continuing the conversation a little longer in order to assess what this case study tells us about the way marketing works. Set aside the murky ethics of how the manuscript came to be published in the first place, and consider the post-production fall out...

Go Set a Watchman is a literary artefact that was marketed as a book, and this is what caused great misunderstanding and offence. As dangerous as fixed definitions are, I would say that a literary artefact is something retrieved from the past and valuable for the way it contributes to a narrative of literary production. This is not to say that the work is not valuable in itself, but in the case of a literary artefact this value is overshadowed by its status as a prototype. The worth of such prototypes lies in the way they relate to later works or oeuvres by the same writer or artist. So, it follows that the recently announced republication of Tolkien’s first prose piece, a retelling of an epic Finnish poem, is exciting in the way it foreshadows Tolkien’s subsequent writing career. Other literary artefacts, and perhaps more recognisable as such, are the published notebooks of writers and artists (such as famous notebooks of rock legend Kurt Cobain and curator Betty Churcher).

As readers, we concede that there is a difference between a manuscript and a book. The former is the prototype of the latter. They are at once the same work and different works: they are the one piece at different stages along the timeline, and they are different pieces that, when set side-by-side, read differently, contain different words, and sometimes, as in the case of Watchman, entirely different stories.

This is where the unsuspecting reader has been caught off guard. Go Set a Watchman has been marketed as “a novel.” The title should have read, Go Set a Watchman: a draft. Packaging a product as "a new release" by Harper Lee places certain parameters around the work's reception and comprehension. Instead of sitting down to flick through an early draft of what would become To Kill a Mockingbird, which should have been met with a sense of curiosity and fascination, readers settled in with what they thought was a sequel to the treasured classic (cue the outcry). And whilst some reviews have opined the literary merit of the work, many have bitterly written it off as a failure. Yes, as a book it is a failure - that is why the editor advised Lee to rewrite the story and set it in Scout’s childhood – but as a literary artefact it is a gem. It is a historical document that illustrates the profound transformation that can occur during the writing, drafting and editing of a book.

Nothing could illustrate my point better than the move by US bookstore Brilliant Books to offer full refunds to customers who felt cheated. The bookseller wrote on their blog “we suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel.” They compare Watchman to James Joyce’s Stephen Hero, an earlier draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Watchman case underscores how powerful marketing has become in shaping the way we comprehend products and the value judgements we make about them. It highlights how, in the book industry, effective marketing is often at odds with the complexity of the products it is trying to sell. How do you compress nuance? How do you sloganise ideas, sell a challenge? Where is the equilibrium between commercial and culturally valuable? For the adventurous marketer, addressing these questions is the best part of the job.

Comments (1):

Ralph Deans on

This was indeed the first draft of a novel. Had it been accepted as such, the editor could have worked with the author to knock off a few rough edges, rather than take a tiny part of it and explode it into a children’s book with simplistic answers to complicated questions. Had Go Set A Watchman been published, even as is, it would have been a sensation at the time. And while it may not have won a Pulitzer, I believe it would have added depth and texture to ongoing debates of the day on race relations. There are many things to commend the book, including writing that would still be considered experimental today; for example, the shifting without transition between self-talk, description, and exposition. The confrontation between Scout and Atticus, fraught with a wide range of emotions, is powerful writing. This would have been greeted as a strong first novel by a promising young writer. The whole story of the editing process (an editor who went far beyond what was proper in working with a young writer–dictating a completely different story than the author intended). The experience probably convinced Harper Lee to abandon her dream of becoming an important writer.

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