(Note: The final 2 summaries from the Sufficient Fire conference will be posted on Friday. Last night, my wife and I had a good friend from church over for dinner. Trying to do better about that whole “real community” thing. That said, there wasn’t really time for conference recaps. So, for today, a quick-ish post about fear and creativity.)
Some big literary news broke yesterday: Harper Lee, author of the modern American literary masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird, is finally releasing a second book, with the title Go Set A Watchman. As the story goes, more than 55 years ago, Lee wrote this novel about an adult woman (whom readers now lovingly know as Scout) who visits her elderly father and childhood hometown. Lee’s editor encouraged her to write the story of this woman’s childhood, and soon Mockingbird was born and published. Watchman, as the story goes, was put in a drawer.
According to an article in the Atlantic Monthly online, she wrote this novel in the late 1950’s and then “lost” it. It was recently “discovered” by her lawyer, and with the encouragement of close friends, Lee decided it should now be published.
There’s lots of speculation about Harper Lee’s motivations for releasing Watchman now (as you can see from the Atlantic article). I want to make two comments about this story:
First, I don’t know if I believe the official story about the manuscript being lost for all these years. Interviews and candid comments that Lee has made over the years have led many to believe that she decided for the last half-century not to publish a follow-up novel, and I think I’m in this camp. I mean, can you blame her? If your first book was so pervasive and beloved, and is still being read in classrooms to this very day, why risk spoiling the legacy?
Consider Charles Frazier. He wrote Cold Mountain, a Pulitzer prize winner and a really fine novel, and waited a decade before releasing his next work, Thirteen Moons (and, I must confess, I had to look up its title because I had no idea what it was). His second book garnered modest praise, but was not the critical darling that Cold Mountain was; worse yet, it didn’t sell, and his publisher took a bath on the large advance they paid him.
Doesn’t the existence of decidedly more modest later works seem to dampen the legacy of Frazier’s debut novel? Take that and multiply it exponentially over 55 years–that’s the risk Lee is taking.
I could be completely wrong on this one. Lee may have sincerely lost the manuscript as time and age set in to work their wicked ways. But my gut tells me that the fear of failure may have kept Watchman in a drawer for many, if not all, of those years. That sort of fear is common in people who risk by creating. That’s one of the big reasons I’ve been talking about writing a novel for years but never finished or “shipped” much more than the occasional set of blog posts. (I think that’s about to change this year, but more on that later this summer.)
Before this sounds too much like another Jon Acuff post, let me go to my other point:
Second, Go Set A Watchman is probably not going to be great. It may be good; by some small chance, it may be very good. But I’m pretty sure every single one of us who loved Mockingbird will be disappointed to some degree if and when we read it. It’s almost inevitable. The dreaded sophomore slump can happen to us all–even famous 20th century authors. (Harper Lee, I’m more than happy to eat my words on this one.)
So if you read Watchman, try to remember that, as I will. Be critical, if needed. But be kind.
And respect the fact that Harper Lee, who could have kept that manuscript in a drawer until long after her death, is deciding to risk something of her legend by letting the rest of us enjoy it.