Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Many people are upset that Harper Lee had a much different Atticus Finch in mind before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. That Lee has agreed to publish Go Set A Watchman says something about authorial intent -- that the Mockingbird Atticus wasn't meant to be the final statement about the character. Lee could have said, "I'll publish the book, but only as a 'what might have been'." But she hasn't said that, which I think indicates her intent: She sees Watchman as a sequel to Mockingbird.

Many fans of Mockingbird are really upset. But let's be frank: It's not as if authors haven't radically re-invented their works before.

I think what's fueling a lot of the anger is the 55-year gap between Mockingbird and Watchman, which left readers making (reasonable) strong assumptions about the characters. Had Lee published "Watchman" in 1962, these decades of cultural assumption would never have piled up.

Is it upsetting when an author runs a beloved novel off the rails? Yes.

But that is every author's right.

As a reader, I am critical of everything I read. Not all of it is good. No one dispute's an author's right to their own vision, but I can also critique that vision and say, "You should have stopped here" or "that last novel shouldn't have been written"... or even "Boy, that stinks! I'll never read a second book of theirs!" I do not need to uncritically imbibe everything an author puts out. I make choices as a reader about what to read. I judge.

Yet, at the same time, it's important for a reader to keep an open mind. I may not like what an author has done. But I need to remain open to seeing the truth of it. An emotional reaction shouldn't be my only one -- especially if my reaction to the first novel was incredibly powerful.

Characters do change. And sometimes that change is not for the better. And yet, I may not "like" the change, but at some level -- the author's writing skill, the good rationales for the character's change, the need for the change, the consistency of the change with what went before -- a reader should acknowledge that the changes were good, even required.

Like film, I shouldn't just react emotionally to a novel. "I liked it" is not good enough. When it comes to film, there are issues of aesthetics, technical skill, craft, and art to consider. A viewer should be able to address cinematography, editing, sound, music, acting, even direction. Someone who really cares about cinema will try to learn the vocabulary of cinema, and the various elements that go into making a good film.

All of that is entirely apart from whether it spoke to a viewer on an emotional level. Many films "speak" on an emotional level, but completely suck from a cinema perspective. The verso is true as well. And when it comes to superb film, it works on both levels.

A novel is much the same.

I can appreciate a film that never speaks to me. I should be able to appreciate a novel that doesn't speak to me, either.

I wonder how many people desperately in love with To Kill a Mockingbird will remain open-minded enough to try to see the aesthetic, technical, and other kills which go into Go Set A Watchman and judge them honestly.

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