…Go Set a Watchman, The Neon Bible, and Ethics in Bookbuying
Like a lot of other big-time book nerds, I was both surprised by and giddy over the recent news that Harper Lee would release a second novel this summer. While To Kill a Mockingbird was not necessarily as formative a title for me as it was for many of my peers, I still harbored an interest in Harper Lee’s curious career and withdrawal from public life. In my years of teaching literature, To Kill a Mockingbird, or TKAM, as most of my lecture notes abbreviate it, took on greater depth for me. The more I read it, the more I understood what so resonated with my students about this coming-of-age story. So of course I was excited by the prospect of reading the book’s sequel this July.
My excitement, like many others’, was short-lived, though. Mallory Ortberg over at The Toast does such a thorough job of pointing out the many flapping-in-the-wind red flags raised by Vulture’s interview with Lee’s editor, Hugh Van Dusen, so I won’t belabor the details. The interview left most of us nonplussed at best and fearful of blatant malfeasance at worst. I’m deeply unsettled by Van Dusen’s suggestions that Lee’s deafness and blindness are good excuses not to communicate with the author to even verify that she indeed wishes the book (one she’s long said she did not intend to publish) to go to print. Is Lee being taken advantage of by opportunists, or did she truly have a change of heart about releasing her novel?
Gothamist’s article, “Harper Lee Reportedly ‘Hurt and Humiliated” at Mental Health Speculation,” only deepened the perplexity over Lee’s real feelings about the book’s publication, with some sources close to the author saying that Lee’s lawyer, who may have spearheaded the publication push, is using Lee to her own advantage, and other sources saying quite the opposite.
In the wake of this kind of question about the author’s true wishes, what’s the reader to do? Is it even right to buy and consume a book that may have been wrung out of the author against her will? Lee Siegel over at The New Yorker essays through the problem and comes to the conclusion that could be paraphrased, well, who’s it gonna hurt? “…even if people’s darkest fears are confirmed, it’s hard to see what harm the publication of the book, somewhat oddly titled ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ would do,” Siegel says. (Seriously, you’re going to criticize Harper Lee’s title choices? Siegel!) To me, that’s a bizarre ethical position. Siegel must interpret “harm” in a rather limited way if it seems harmless to use an artist’s work for personal gain against her will. And I don’t think that the concern over Lee’s own agency in her artistic life is, as Siegel says, “wildly out of proportion.”
So is this a book we as individual readers ought to buy? Honestly, I don’t know what I ought to do as a reader in this case. I think about another title I’ve loved and taught over the years: John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible. The book itself is a short, emotionally mature novel that, for many of my students, at least, was their first literary foray into devastating effects of misogyny and economic inequality in America. It served as a vehicle for developing their empathy, but we were never supposed to have this book in our hands.
The story of the book’s publication, at least as we have it from the publisher, is that Toole wrote the book as a teenager and sent it around to publishers without garnering the least bit of interest. Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was published (thanks to the tireless efforts of his mother, Thelma) many years after Toole’s suicide. Thelma, ostensibly because of complex legal issues surrounding The Neon Bible’s legal standing under Louisiana’s inheritance law, would not allow the book to be published. She bequeathed the manuscript in trust to an advisor with the explicit understanding that he would never seek to publish the book. The advisor, however, disregarded her wishes, and we have him to thank for The Neon Bible’s presence on the library shelf today. We know with no doubt that this publication wasn’t what Thelma wanted. Toole himself said in correspondence that he thought the book “was bad,” and he had ceased sending it out for consideration, so what would he have wanted?
So far, I’ve read and taught and recommended the book with my own self-assigned impunity, but is that really an acceptable moral position to take? Does the good the book has done outweigh the wrongdoing that put it in our hands in the first place? I have no easy answers, only questions.