Canon

Am I the only one perturbed by the fact that an alternate draft of a book is being officiated as its sequel? Go Set a Watchman, which I haven’t yet read, has met with equal praise and polarization, but whether or not it’s worthy of its predecessor isn’t even my main concern, though I love it’s predecessor, boy howdy, and have my anxieties.

No, I’m curious chiefly to discover the reader satisfied by the book, but struggling to reconcile its position, canonically. Does she exist? Does the novel put all worries to a wash and have them come out spotless as eternal sunshine?

GoSetAWatchman

I don’t know what it is about our need to make gospel of a fiction’s particulars, but we clearly have the need or we wouldn’t, like I am now, pour hapless energy into cementing them for ourselves. (Atticus was this way; no, he was this way; he was both, or neither; who was he?) I suppose it was inevitable, after we learned to cook our food, that our brains would create yet more problems for us to solve, even where it concerned the mechanics of the imaginary. Because if we can invent problems, and which have little to no bearing on our subsistence or privations, we can play with fire in endless quantity without risk of burn, and feel contented that we did something today, damnit. Even when sea and sky around us diminish daily.

I think I just need to hear Ms. Lee answer a few basic questions about this manuscript which, for whatever reason, have still not been. For example, The Los Angeles Times‘ review states Tom Robinson’s trials as explained in To Kill a Mockingbird and subsequently in Watchman “come to very different outcomes; Tom was memorably convicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” even with no evidence against him, whereas in “Go Set a Watchman,” Atticus “accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: He won acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge.” The reviewer follows by saying the Robinson trial is “just one of many points of divergence.” More than any other aspect of Watchman, I want Ms. Lee’s take of this discrepancy, if she realized or remembered it was there prior to publication, if she would change it, and if the manuscript-as-artifact is the sole reason she did or would not, despite it compromising an important link of the canon. Or, if she agrees with this reviewer “it would be a mistake” to read the book as a sequel. HarperCollins sure as hell hasn’t cautioned likewise.

Lee is apparently poor of vision, but was dictation out of the question? I assume it was, but having not yet read the book myself, I can’t say how extensive an edit would have been required for the rejoinder. The practicality, and again, desecration – if you’re of the opinion, would scale in parallel and direct opposition to the level of adjustment enacted.

I have so far not seen a reviewer particularly bothered by the notion of a canonical sequel only for sale’s sake, which admittedly is a less consequential issue than potential elder abuse, manipulation in shades, the vying of business interests over personal and artistic generally, but I do wonder why more reviewers and readers aren’t voicing discomfort with the book on canonical grounds alone. Especially with the “divergences”, or better put: inconsistencies innocent for their time of writing but now not so much, depending on just exactly what the situation is.

For such a lionized (and yes, canonized) work of literature in Mockingbird, Watchman‘s publication process strikes me a particularly bad one to keep private. We have heard from Ms. Lee, but much filtered, in frame, and in statements unsatisfactorily frank, frankly. I have the suspicion we’re not going to get much more.

The fact Watchman might have to be enjoyed not as director’s cut, but cutting room floor, has my enthusiasm and investment curbed at the moment, and unless we ever have a definitive bottom line lain out regarding this – which would have to come from Lee herself to be as such – these questions will probably always nag at my enjoyment of the book and leave it somewhat ajar. I will certainly let you know if this “probably” pans post-read, but this is my intuition.

All this in view, I have to say, even if Lee had released Watchman without any help, and with utter strategy and clarity, I could understand the temptation, as I’m myself no stranger to it, and with work of a much smaller investment. I could forgive the person who wanted to turn their three hundred page stepping stone into a nice rock garden by the porch stairs. Some writers pen/type five or upwards of seven drafts, or more, before the final one, which is a lot of work just to work up to the real work. Yes, I could forgive, even if I might not approve.

This situation with Watchman has also lead me to wonder if this practice is so uncommon, after all; we’d really have no way of knowing, and most authors who positioned as sequels alternate or completely different inceptions of the same draft would have the benefit of unaged senses, faculties and considerably less of a gap between writing and publishing than the fifty-plus years Lee has had to contend with.

One of the conceits of fictional “canon” is its need to have an authority, a reliable and often singular source of dictation. We want the facts to be chronologized and connected in ways we recognize logical, to the point of being procedural and deterministic, but in hindsight manipulated also—which is to say, authored. We don’t want facts authored outside of fiction. Outside, we prefer them plain as day.

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