It’s the release day of That Book. You know, the Unpublished Book by the Woman Who Wrote That Other Book That Everyone’s Read.
There’s a lot of chatter this morning on the subject of Go Set A Watchman. The reviews are a bit stinky, the numbers are off the scale, the queues are snaking around the bookshops. So, here’s my reasons for not buying or reading it.
I cannot be certain that the author intended this manuscript to ever be read by the public.
Does that matter, much? Most of the time, probably not. An author who’s written, say, a dozen books and meets a tragically early demise at the hands of a combine harvester or an alien death ray may have one unfinished work which, with a bit of spit-and-polish, might be an interesting read.
Not that it’s likely to be much good, mind. I’m a great believer in the final heave over the finishing line for a book, the author sweating away under the whipcrack of the editor’s pen. Books improve at an accelerating rate, is what I mean, until they don’t. I won’t read The Pale King, because I don’t think it will be as good a book as it would have been if DFW hadn’t decided the lights were too bright for him to leave on any longer.
But this author is different. This author wrote a book of such one-off transcendence that she seemingly decided that she’d never write anything of the same quality again. Nowhere to go but down. There’s something sad and magnificent about that position, as if she were admitting the mystery of her own genius and her own uncertainty at ever being able to tap into it again.
But now, this new book appears. This first draft of somewhat murky provenance. The critics are giving it the thumbs down, as did the editors who first saw it. The character of Atticus Finch, a fiction of such energy that we can all picture him sitting here reading a book while we work, has been oddly and unnecessarily smeared with uncertainty. And what’s more, the craft behind the original book has been revealed to all. Oz is no longer magnificent. He’s just an ordinary woman who, decades ago, had another stab at a book that didn’t work and somehow, perhaps to her own surprise as much as anyone’s, turned in something magnificent. And then, seemingly, said it was unlikely to happen again. She got old, as we all get old, her affairs were handled by professionals and middlewomen, and at some point one of them decided to dust off this old manuscript – which the author had not once unpacked in five decades – and decided to get it published.
So, no, I won’t be reading Go Set A Watchman. You go right ahead. I’d rather leave Atticus and Harper where they are, unique and unimpeachable and untouched by our sordid world.