Sunday, 12 July 2015

Why I'm Mad About The Go Set A Watchman Reveal

I'm going to level with you - I'm pretty damn mad at the moment. With 4 days to go before publication, the first chapter of Go Set A Watchman was exclusively revealed in the Guardian on Saturday. Except, it wasn't that exclusive in the end, because obviously everyone went insane and before you knew it, a big plot twist of a book NOT EVEN PUBLISHED YET was casually being discussed on social media.

I work in the publishing industry and, whilst there are certain areas that remain a complete mystery to me, there are some corners I'm familiar with. One of these is the use of ebook samples, print booklets and paper exclusives as a way of luring in tentative customers. For example, if you offer the first 3 or 4 chapters of a book for free - as a giveaway or download then, hopefully, you'll gain some on-the-fence buyers. It's a common, effective method: it worked on me with What Kind of Mother Are You by Paula Daly, and Robin Hobb is currently doing it with the first book of her latest trilogy, Fool's Assassin. Similarly, selling the rights to exclusively publish a chapter or more in a newspaper before release is another way to hopefully win more customers around to buying your book - people who may not have found it otherwise. In this sense, the publishers of Go Set A Watchman haven't done anything new.

The bit I take umbrage with is WHY. The reveal of the first chapter of one of the most talked about, and arguably, the biggest books of the century seems kind of pointless and, as one sympathiser on Twitter, Jamie Thunder (@jdthndr), suggested, 'heartless clickbait'. This book, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, or Grey by PL James, probably could've got away with a publicity budget of zero: the reclusive author of a lone book (widely revered as one of the greatest novels ever) that has never gone out of print, suddenly publishes a new one featuring the same characters, but older? No wonder the pre-orders have surpassed those of the final Harry Potter: even with all the controversy and questions over Harper Lee's mental state and her knowledge/understanding of the publication of Go Set A Watchman, this was always going to sell big. I'm a perfect example of the ideal customer in this: even though I find the whole thing sketchy, my curiosity and excitement is going to win over. I love, and am fascinated by, To Kill A Mockingbird: I was always going to read Go Set A Watchman. And the media-storm around the announcement back in February was always bound to spike curiosity in others who had never read To Kill A Mockingbird: in short, this was never going to be anything but a success, which is why I don't understand the need for the exclusive.

It's also the timing; they did this FOUR DAYS before publication, which to me is a bit of a slap in the face. It's been over 50 years since Harper Lee last published a novel: it's been 5 months since the announcement was made that Go Set A Watchman was being published: why on earth would you, mere days from the publishing, give away a chapter with crucial information in, if not to be sensationalist about it? They always knew it would be trending on Twitter and picked up by media worldwide, and probably knew the Big Reveal in the first chapter would make it's way into common knowledge... Which leads me on to my final grievance.

I've waited 5 months for this novel. I know, it's not the longest wait, but to have a spoiler revealed to me a few days before I could've discovered it myself just feels like I've been cheated. I haven't read the chapter yet - I'm refusing to on a point of principle now - but I may as well have, because I know what the Big Reveal is anyway, because it's fucking EVERYWHERE. And it's all the worse for the fact it's the first chapter, days before publication. If you're going to do it, why not reveal the first chapter a month, or more, before publication? Get people talking then? Surely that's allowing more time to whet appetites and inspire interest before publication?Take George R R Martin: his next A Song Of Ice and Fire novel, The Winds of Winter, has been nearly 5 years coming and, with Game of Thrones being one of the biggest TV shows ever, it's just as anticipated as Go Set A Watchman has been for the past few months. Martin knows his fans are impatient and he's up against it, so he's revealed a few teaser chapters: nothing too spoilery, just enough to soothe the baying crowds. The reveal of Go Set A Watchman's first chapter is, in comparison, near pointless: so close to the publication date, when the wait hasn't been nearly as long... It just seems mean-spirited to me.

I was always going to read Go Set A Watchman so, in the grand scheme of things, this doesn't matter. It's a reveal that comes in the first chapter; it's now in the public domain and not restricted in any way; it's not actually THAT much of a spoiler, really: it's hypocritical of me because I'm a terror at accidentally giving away spoilers, (in my defence, there's never any intent to that, I just forget). Really, my stressing about it amounts to nothing, and it will cease to matter once I get my paws on a copy and read the offending chapter in book form. But - after umming and ahhing over whether to read ToKill A Mockingbird one more time before Go Set A Watchman changes everything - the VERY DAY I started it again, the reveal came out, and now I'm analysing everything I'm reading with the unwillingly-discovered context this reveal unleashed. Call it bad timing, call it inevitable, but the fact remains my last re-read of my favourite book as a standalone novel has been marred, and that bothers me.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The Second Coming of Scout

This is it, folks. In 4 days’ time, the new(ish) novel by Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman, will be unleashed upon the world. The biggest release since the last Harry Potter, the novel has been courting controversy since the bombshell announcement was made back in February – questions have been raised over the legitimacy of the release, given Harper Lee’s deteriorated mental state, and the timing of it coming relatively soon after the death of Alice Lee, Lee’s notoriously protective sister. Lee has disputed these claims via representatives and has insisted she has fully approved the release, but still concerns circulate over this. We can argue ‘til the cows come home over whether we should trust Lee’s lawyers and publishers, or whether it’s insulting to assume Harper doesn’t know what’s going on, but the fact remains that this release is one of the biggest curveballs the literary world has seen.

This post isn’t about the question of whether I should read the book or not, though – despite it possibly looking like that was the direction I was taking. Despite some scruples on my own part, I knew from the moment I read the announcement that, come hell or highwater, scruples or no, I would be reading Go Set A Watchman, and I’ve had it on pre-order ever since it became available. Unlike many fans, though, I chose not to re-read To Kill A Mockingbird because I didn’t think I needed to, and because I wanted to approach Go Set A Watchman with fresh eyes, but now I’m starting to wish I had. Not because I think a re-read will enhance my experience of Go Set A Watchman, but because I think this might have been my last chance to read To Kill A Mockingbird as a standalone novel. I don’t know if we’re, as a hive mind, considering Go Set A Watchman as a sequel or not, but there’s no doubt that it will irrevocably change the perspective of what happens in To Kill A Mockingbird: even if the story is completely different, we’ll still have extra knowledge about characters and their fates, and the interpretation of events – things will change, and whilst change can be a good thing, To Kill A Mockingbird is (in my eyes) such a perfect novel that now I’m unsure I even want to revisit Maycomb, Alabama with Scout anymore. It’s a bit like revisiting a favourite childhood haunt: at first you’re excited to return, but then you begin to worry things will have changed too much, and your memories will forever be tainted by what you see now in comparison to what you saw then. Once I crack the spine and read the first line of Go Set A Watchman, To Kill A Mockingbird will cease to have the same meaning as it once did. Characters will become fleshed out by their older counterparts; events of To Kill A Mockingbird may be clarified and lose their innocent tinge; characters may become flawed. Take Atticus, for example: at the beginning of To Kill A Mockingbird, he’s not the best father in his children’s eyes: he can’t play with them because he’s too old; he has an aversion to guns; he’s distant, although friendly (shown in the way the children address him as Atticus – never father, or daddy, or Pa). By the end of the novel, though, we’re all aware that he’s an excellent father and man, a defender of truth and innocence, with more layers and nuances than his children could previously appreciate. What if he’s revealed to be otherwise in Go Set A Watchman? What if his attempts to save Tom Robinson were done more out of loyalty to truth and law, and less to his fellow man? What if Atticus isn’t as honourable as we thought he was?

This is all speculation, of course: Go Set A Watchman may only share characters and their memories To Kill A Mockingbird, and may actually be a more different story than we’ve been led to believe – it’s now common knowledge that Go Set A Watchman was the first novel Lee actually wrote, but she was encouraged to write from a young Scout’s point of view, which turned into To Kill A Mockingbird, so it is reasonable to wonder if Go Set A Watchman will be the same story, but from a different point of view. But just because the two books share characters – who, in turn, have shared experiences – doesn’t mean the content will necessarily rehash the events of To Kill A Mockingbird: doubtless they’ll come up, I’m sure, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be discussed at length. I suppose I’m just resigned now to the fact that – and call me dramatic if you like – from the moment the release of Go Set A Watchman was announced, To Kill A Mockingbird changed. We’re going to meet adult Scout (what if she goes by Jean-Louise now?): we’re going to see an elderly Atticus: we’re revisiting Maycomb, which doubtless means we’ll revisit some events of that fateful summer, even if only in passing mentions. How could the events of Go Set A Watchman not change how we read To Kill A Mockingbird?

I am looking really forward to reading Go Set A Watchman: I’ve always been curious about what happened after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird. What kind of woman did Scout turn into, and what kind of man did Jem become? Is Dill is still around? What happened to Boo Radley? Were there any repercussions to the final climax of the novel? Is Go Set A Watchman semi-autobiographical, like To Kill A Mockingbird is? The problem is, now I know that the answers to some (if not all) of these questions are within reach, I’m also aware that this knowledge will alter how I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the future, and after the excitement and anticipation, I’m not quite sure how much I want to know anymore.