Monday, October 26, 2015

The Power of an Editor: Why You Should Read "Go Set a Watchman"

Think of the last book that you read, whether fiction or non-fiction: the compelling characters, the story arcs, the way it did or didn’t quite work out in the end, the conversations. You probably didn’t notice the typesetting or the spelling or any of the technical aspects unless you work in the publishing field. You probably couldn’t read between the lines to figure out what had been added in later, or what had been shaped from an original version. And if you didn’t, that’s good: it means the editor did his or her job.

I’m an editor. Yes, I’m obviously also a writer, but first and foremost, I’m an editor. The reason the episode guides that I write tend to go through each episode and piece together a puzzle is because this type of detective work is what I do every day. That book that you just read: unless it was self-published, it didn’t come off the author’s computer, or typewriter, or handwritten notepad fully formed. There was an editor’s hand at work. An editor who, to name a few of the things I’ve done in the past, perhaps told the author that the ending didn’t work at all and it needed to be rethought or readers would be unsatisfied. Or that a particular character was unnecessary, and then went through the book and carefully stripped out all traces of that character so no one would ever know it had existed. Or corrected a sentence where a character is driving westward on Gerrard and hangs a right to drive to the CN Tower. Or where the editor simply talked a writer through a particularly horrible writer’s block. Or got to the end of editing a mystery book only to realize the killer couldn’t have actually done it, because way back on page 52 we had his alibi, so we’ll need to wipe that out and give it to another character. Perhaps when reading a non-fiction book you marvelled at how interesting the information was throughout. It’s possible an editor had gone through and stripped out all of that uninteresting side information that wasn’t necessary, thus saving you having to slog through it later.

The author is king. The editor is the author’s advisor, the first reader who looks at these works of staggering genius (as an editor, I will sign up nothing less) and does everything he or she can to make it even better. But we stay in the background, because the resulting book is not ours — it belongs to an author who worked tirelessly and brilliantly, with us coaching, encouraging, and giving advice along the way.

Why did I become an editor? On the one hand, I wanted to work with books. But the moment I realized I wanted to be an editor occurred one day in my 20th Century British Literature course in my undergrad at university. We were studying T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, one of my favourite poems, and the professor brought in a facsimile of Ezra Pound’s edit of the poem. For the first time, I saw the hand of an editor at work. Pound had the mind of a genius, and he was working with a friend who was a genius. So here were two men working to achieve a work of stunning timelessness — one was the writer; the other was the editor who gave him new ideas in the margins, or corrected his use of Greek mythology, or suggested a different word that might be more evocative, or threw out entire passages and suggested a different direction. I’d had no idea that an editor had that much input into a book. I imagined the thrill of working with someone who could create such beauty, but working alongside them to make it even better, of making a suggestion and having an author excitedly take it and incorporate it into their work.

That’s what I wanted to do.

In the late 1950s, a young writer named Harper Lee was sending around her manuscript, which was called Go Set a Watchman. It fell into the hands of a brilliant editor named Tay Hohoff, who thought the book was fine, but it could be much better. In 1960, Harper Lee published what turned out to be one of the great literary classics of all time: To Kill A Mockingbird. This book about a young girl in the South who is affected by racism, civil unrest, and a town divided resonated with readers across America. Now, 55 years later, its themes of what it means to be an outsider, of acceptance or rejection, of race and how the actions of the few can affect the lives of the many, is still being taught in schools, and it was voted the most important book of the 20th century by American librarians.

If you’ve read the book or seen the excellent film with Gregory Peck, you know why it’s important. Atticus Finch is a character who leaps off the pages, even though you won’t find a quieter or more restrained character in the book. Told from the point of view of Scout Finch, we older readers chuckle and giggle at her shenanigans as we look up to her older brother Jem. We love their cook/nanny/housekeeper Calpurnia, but most of all it’s the very famous courtroom scene that resonates. When an African-American man, Tom, is charged with having raped and beaten a white girl, Mayella, who lives down near the town dump, all of Macomb County is in an uproar. There are those who simply assume he did it, while others aren’t so sure. Mayella’s father is an alcoholic who’s made more enemies than friends in this town, but on the other hand, the accused is Black. For some, that’s all it takes to assume he did it.

(Warning: Spoilers for Mockingbird ahead.) Atticus Finch is handed the case by the judge, and asked to defend the accused. He takes the case because he has to. But because he’s an excellent lawyer who believes that everyone deserves the right to a fair trial, he gives the man one. Scout and Jem sneak into the upper balcony where the African-American people sit, and listen to the entire case, unbeknownst to Atticus. Through very careful cross-examination of Mayella and her father, and in a reasonable discussion with Tom, Atticus presents a case that no one could deny: Mayella lured Tom into the house and kissed him, and her father came home, saw it, and beat her senseless and forced her to accuse Tom or he’d kill her. The evidence is undeniable.

Unless, of course, this is the South in the 1930s. In which case Tom is convicted. When the verdict is handed down, Scout and Jem are beside themselves. They can’t believe what they just heard, and they’re enraged at the obvious injustice. Atticus, on the other hand, quietly packs up his bag and walks out of the courtroom. As he does so, the children are tapped on the shoulder and turn to see every African-American person in the balcony standing out of respect for their father.

A lot more happens in the book, but this court case stands at the centre, and is the reason we still read and study this book today. Atticus Finch has been hailed as one of the great heroes of literature, a man who stood up for his beliefs and went against the status quo to try to ensure that a man would be treated as an equal, regardless of the colour of his skin.

Harper Lee never published another book. As the years went on, there were stories of an editor who’d worked heavily on the book with her, and tales that her friend Truman Capote had written large portions of it. She and Capote were very close, and it was said that she equally contributed to his development of his own classic, In Cold Blood.

Then, last year, to the shock of the literary community, HarperCollins announced they had the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, a long-lost book that was now coming to light. No sooner did every bibliophile add this new took to their to-read list on Goodreads than the news came out that Harper Lee perhaps wasn’t on board. Reportedly senile and in a nursing home, she was being taken advantage of, reports said, and didn’t want this book to see the light of day. It would be akin to reading someone’s teenage angsty poetry, and no author of the calibre of Harper Lee should be remembered for that. Reportedly her sister had fought tooth and nail to keep the manuscript suppressed, but when she died at the age of 102, there was no one left to fight on behalf of Lee. Enter an unscrupulous lawyer and a money-hungry publisher, said the reports, and you have Go Set a Watchman.

Now I was torn. I really wanted to read more of Harper Lee’s writing, but was the book sanctioned by her? The publisher said yes; the public said no. It was unclear what was true. HarperCollins was touting this as the sequel to Mockingbird, a book set 20 years after the events of the first one, and that we’d see what would happen to the characters. In my excitement on the first day, I’d pre-purchased the book, and then promptly forgot that I’d done so.

Fast-forward to July, when the book came out, and appeared on my doorstep. I didn’t realize I’d ordered the book, and had half a mind to simply return it. Especially now that, in the week before its release, it had come to light through reviewers that the Atticus Finch in this book was actually a racist in his later years, that Scout was flaky, the writing was weak, and this was not the sort of book that fans of Mockingbird would want to read. Not only are the characters disappointing as hell, but there are ENTIRE PASSAGES that are exactly the same as in Mockingbird, said the reports. Who would want to read that?!

But I also discovered something else — this was NOT the sequel to Mockingbird, despite HarperCollins promoting it as such. This was the original manuscript.

Suddenly, this was an entirely different matter. There was no way I was sending the book back now.

And so I read it. And as a book, it’s fine; at times it’s great, and at times it’s lousy, but overall, it’s fine. If this had been Harper Lee’s first foray into fiction, it probably would have done well, and she would have been promptly forgotten. No one would have been studying this book 55 years later.

BUT... as a historical document that sheds new light into one of the greatest books ever written, Go Set a Watchman is perhaps the most important book of the 21st century thus far. Because this is not a sequel — it’s the very book that was handed to Tay Hohoff all those years ago. And when you read it, you can see exactly where To Kill a Mockingbird came from.

Scout returns to Macomb County years after her father had defended a Black man against wrongful rape allegations, and he won the case. But when she goes to town and sees him in a town meeting, where he allows a man to speak shockingly racist things, and seems to back him up, she’s appalled. She can’t believe the very man who’d given her so many values as a child could have turned into this person. And then we get flashbacks to some of those moments of her childhood, with her brother Jem and their friend Dill. After she has it out with her aunt about what she overheard her father saying, she confronts Atticus, and there’s a long section of the book that consists solely of the argument between the two of them, with her offering up every attack against his racism, and him calmly taking those attacks and throwing back something else. Scout comes off as rational, intelligent, sympathetic, and outraged, and Atticus is infuriatingly calm, and in a couple of moments, a little unnerved. I won’t say what ultimately happens, but I will say that when I read the dialogue between the two of them, it seemed like very daring material for a book written by a white women from the South in the 1950s.

And, perhaps, it’s why it wasn’t published. Maybe the world wasn’t quite ready for a book that was that sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement.

I will warn you now: reading Go Set a Watchman won't always be a pleasant experience. There are moments of abject racism in this book where you'll want to hurl it across the room. And there are moments of outdated sexism that will just make you shake your head. But the thing is, we can't turn away from those moments. Because while the sexism is, as I said, largely outdated, the racism, devastatingly, isn't. There were times in Go Set a Watchman where I couldn't believe how progressive some of Scout's arguments were against her father. And then I had the depressing realization that the only reason they seem progressive is because we're still saying them

Reading this book before Mockingbird — and should you take up both of them, I strongly urge you to read Watchman first, and Mockingbird second, because it’s a much richer experience to see the genesis of Mockingbird than to read it as a sequel, which it is not — I could imagine the editor working with Lee. I imagined her reading it and saying look, I really like what you’ve done here, but I think the argument at the end simply isn’t something the publishers will go for. Why don’t we be a little subtler with how we jar their sympathies? See these little moments where we flash back to Scout’s childhood? I have to admit; that’s where your book really comes to life. Why don’t we simply come up with a way to actually go back to that time and recreate the very summer that she spends so much of this book talking about? She keeps referring to an Atticus that’s clearly not the one in these pages: what if you showed us that Atticus, but let’s not make it easy. We’ll paint him as a hero, but let’s have the judge force him to take the case; he’s not just taking it out of the goodness of his heart. And right here, where you say he won the case? What if he presents an irrefutable case and actually loses? Wouldn’t that garner the sympathies of audiences even more? And since this is the story of outsiders, why not have one closer to home? Like maybe a next-door neighbour who never comes out of his house? I want to evoke that voice of childhood: Scout and Jem are children who don’t see black and white, they simply see people. It’s only in the jadedness of adulthood that racism festers and grows. I want the story told from the point of view of a child. Perhaps that might force the audience — without them even realizing that it’s happening — to realize that Scout is right.

And Harper Lee went back to the drawing board and reimagined the entire book. There are stories I’ve heard of Lee going through serious anxiety while working on the book, of throwing the pages out of the window at one point and then calling her editor to tell her what she’d just done, and of her editor ordering her outside to go and pick up all of those pages. She was encouraged, coaxed, and sometimes perhaps forced to get a better story out of what she’d already written. But reading Watchman, you can see the same wit, style, and sense of humour on every page. I don’t believe Capote wrote this book, because the voice of In Cold Blood is very different than the one we get here, and with the exception of whatever editing actually happened at HarperCollins within the past year to get this book to publication, we can assume that most of this book is Lee’s raw manuscript. And there are moments of brilliance in there.

Right before I started reading this book, I saw a review in Entertainment Weekly that gave the book a D+, if I remember correctly, and it said quite simply: don’t read this. If you do it will ruin your experience of To Kill a Mockingbird forever. After having read Go Set a Watchman, I can honestly say that that review is one of the single most irresponsible pieces of journalism I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. Read Go Set a Watchman for a perfect example of a work of fiction that was rejected. Read it to see how much work an author really has to go through to get from Draft A to the finished product. Read it to see just how much input an editor can have in a book. Read it to realize that not everyone can be an author, and the few who do are the ones who have gone through editorial processes like this one. Read it to see how the germ of a great idea may be hidden in a not-so-great one. Read it to see the flashes of brilliance that Lee exhibited even in her unedited first draft. Read it to see what a remarkable writer she really is. Read it to convince yourself that there’s no way Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and that instead, this book is the result of the sweat and tears of one author, working alongside a very encouraging editor.

And then go read To Kill a Mockingbird. And see what the result of all that work can be. Read it to see that it’s not the cut and dried book people seem to think it is. Read it to see that Atticus isn’t exactly a civil rights hero — he was forced to fight the case, and when he lost he simply walked out of the courthouse and shrugged his shoulders because he’d done the best he could and that was that. Read it to see where the good passages in Go Set a Watchman became exquisite ones in Mockingbird. Read it and marvel at what an extraordinary book it still is, and always will be.


Joshua said...

To Kill A Mockingbird is my very favorite book, full stop. I was already a voracious reader when first it landed in my hands at twelve years old, but I wasn't prepared for how completely it drew me in and swallowed me up. It was the first book I ever read that made me gasp aloud, that caught my breath in my throat and made sudden tears spring to my eyes. Reading it was an experience that changed not only the way I felt about reading itself, about language and storytelling, but also rewrote code in my heart and mind that permanently altered the how I look at the world and consider the other individuals with whom I share it. Mockingbird hit me at the perfect time in my life to serve as a defining moment of anagnorisis, and to be honest, I can't quite imagine who I'd be today if I had never read it.

This being the case, I've had obvious misgivings about reading Watchman, and I still can't make up my mind. To put it plainly? I'm afraid of it. I fear my own inability to absorb at a remove, as a scholar and not just the broad open wound I become when approaching so much of what I read. In spite of your lovely and impassioned assessment, and regardless of how illuminative it may be to the editing process, I'm just not sure I am willing or able to risk altering its brilliant successor's home within me for a look behind the curtain. Does that make sense? Or am I just being paranoid?

Joshua said...

(I do, however, appreciate the humor in how badly that comment needs an editor...)

Nikki Stafford said...

LOL on your second comment, Joshua! :) I can say that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all-time favourite books as well, and I've read it a number of times. I read it when I was in grade 9, again in grade 12, again in university, then after I graduated, etc. I find it's a very different story every time I read it, depending on where I am in my life.

All that said, if you go in knowing that this is not Atticus Finch, but a rejected version of him, I don't see how it would alter the actual character you've come to know and love. Think of it as a time travelling movie or episode, where someone is shown a glimpse of the future. The Atticus in Go Set a Watchman has a lot in common with the one we know. He's not a hillbilly sitting on his porch steps shouting the n-word at people as they walk by — he's still a reasonable man, which is perhaps what makes his racism so difficult to swallow (perhaps it WOULD be easier to think he was a hillbilly on the steps). When he has the big discussion with Scout, you can see him reasoning with her, using the law in his favour, quoting people, talking about recent events in the media. But she says some things that unnerve him, and make him think. And she constantly reminds him of the man he used to be.

But think of it as something from science fiction: this is the future that COULD have been. But thanks to Harper Lee's editor, and Lee's tenacity and motivation to come up with a better version of the story, that Atticus was prevented from coming true.

I will say that the stand against racism is much more devout in Go Set a Watchman: To Kill a Mockingbird is a kinder, gentler argument against it. Like I said, it's not always easy to read, but perhaps a good swift kick, like the one Scout verbally issues in the book, is something society might need.

Keep me posted on what you decide to do! :)

Kiki B said...

I loved this post. Thank you for articulating many things I felt while reading Go Set A Watchman that, as a non-editor, I could not fully explain myself. I could see so many seeds planted with this book but was ignorant to the writer/editor process.

I read Go Set a Watchman this summer. I tried to not read reviews before so it would not spoil or change my own feelings about the book. I had heard people say they did not like it and it was not worth readying. So, of course, I did like it -- I'm sure that was heavily because a) I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, b) Love Harper Lee, c) someone said I shouldn't read it for myself and d)someone else told me I shouldn't like it.

I think Watchman touched on too many things that might have made readers uncomfortable and how narrowing the focus to Mockingbird made it so powerful.

And I loved your comment "I find it's a very different story every time I read it, depending on where I am in my life." I love that reading meets you where you are and believe that no two people read the same book. For me I took away some very different feelings about father/daughter relationships and how sometimes your hero has to fall when that hero is a real person.

Again, thanks for such a great post!

JennM said...


How are you! Long time no talk!! I was wondering if some day you could create a post about how you became an editor, or what one needs to be come an editor? I'd love to hear how you got to be doing what you're doing - a very cool job! And what others who might be interested would need to do.

Missing the Ladies of the Third Tuesday Book Club - BIG TIME: Please say hi to everyone and send my best.


Shimon said...

fascinating. you have convinced me.