I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, but something about a book review I read yesterday sent me over the edge. Usually, I would consider myself a reader, but in this instance it seems more important to be a writer. I need to get down on paper (I mean the Internet) why I made the ethical decision not to read Go Set a Watchman. And it’s not because Atticus Finch is racist.
There is of course the question of whether reading can even be an ethical decision. The reality, though, is that tweets fly around everyday (see what I did there?) about the ethics surrounding books. Shouldn’t we support the indie writers? Shouldn’t we help provide the little guy money and exposure by buying their books, by reading, by reviewing? I’ve only been in the game a couple of months, but I can say with certainty that the book blogging world has an ethical stance on corporate versus indie publishing; they encourage absolute support of the latter. So at least occasionally we already look at what we read as a moral choice.
If we ethically choose what to read, shouldn’t we also ethically choose to abstain from reading?
I said it yesterday and I’ll say it again today: I haven’t seen buzz like that around Go Set a Watchman since the last Harry Potter book came out. I sincerely believe that if the bookstores had caught onto this sooner and decided to open at midnight, they would have made a killing. For some reason, it’s speaking to multiple generations: those of us who are the same age as Harper Lee, those of us who remember her writing as “classic,” and those of us still in high school reading To Kill a Mockingbird wondering what all this new talk is about.
Is it the talk or the publishing campaign that made this so popular? Probably a little bit of both – but it’s the talk that bothers me. If you’ve been following this book at all, you already know about the suspicious circumstances behind the finding, buying, and publishing. Harper Lee’s sister, who up until recently acted as her attorney and protected her estate, passed away. Both Harper and her sister had stated very publicly that none of Haper Lee’s other work would be published. Then “suddenly,” with magical timing, Harper Lee’s current lawyer discovered this long lost important book. The publishers didn’t even speak to Harper Lee directly about buying it. They spoke to her lawyer, and issued statements by “Harper Lee” delivered by – you guessed it – the lawyer. If the lawyer didn’t get a cut of this deal I would drop dead of surprise right here and now. Those still fighting to protect her with scrutiny questioned whether Harper Lee is even able to consent to the publication; she is a stroke victim, nearly deaf and blind in assisted living.
All of these suspicious circumstances that we will only know the answers to 100 years from now aside, there is also the issue of the body of work itself. If you are reading it, you may want to bear in mind that it was written BEFORE To Kill a Mockingbird. If Harper Lee had wanted to publish Go Set a Watchman instead of To Kill a Mockingbird, or even following, she certainly had ample time to do so. More troubling, it’s an unrevised version of the book that is currently released. IT’S HER ROUGH DRAFT. Lee used it as her starting point prior to To Kill a Mockingbird, so there are entire passages that are word-for-word identical in both. From what I understand, sections of Go Set a Watchman also completely contradict the timeline and/or events of To Kill a Mockingbird.
I’m no expert on writing, but I’d put my money on this: if Harper Lee wanted Go Set a Watchman released in the world, it would be odd for her to decide Draft One was ready to be scooped up by millions. If you can name me any author who would prefer that to a well crafted book, let alone one author who has succeeded in writing a classic piece of literature for all time, I’ll drop dead of shock for the second time in just a few paragraphs.
I haven’t interviewed or spoken with Harper Lee. I can’t tell you with 100% certainty that she didn’t want this novel published. I can tell you that logically it stands to reason that as Harper Lee only decided to publish with a new lawyer after decades of stating she would never, as she sometimes does not understand what is being asked, and as the initial draft of the “new” book largely contradicts her beloved classic, there are good odds this was not her wish. Or, maybe more likely, this was not entirely her wish. There are good odds that this was exactly the wish of the publishers and agents and lawyers who have made millions off this deal (or will inevitably). And if you don’t want to call it logic, call it instinct.
Assuming it isn’t the author’s choice to release published work, or even that it just probably isn’t, should we read it? Should I? There is such a morbid curiosity I hold about what’s in there. Especially now that it is out in the world with bits and pieces of plot floating around. But if I read it, am I not contributing to what could very well be a corrupt situation? Can I read it and ethically feel ok about my choice? What about reading it from the library, without the exchange of money? The problem is, the library’s numbers are tracked, too; we already have a wildly long waiting list. And what does that say? It says we will buy it. We will come. If you can (possibly) con an author into publishing something they desired to stay secret, we will buy it from you and make you wealthy, little to no questions asked. We, the bloggers, the readers, the writers. We will help you do it.
It’s a bit dramatic, I know. When I was taking my social movements class in grad school I had a complete existential breakdown (a real one, not like one of the ones we all thought we were having in high school) after I watched the documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like. It’s about the Battle in Seattle, where protests against the WTO became radically violent…at the hands of the police. In one scene an officer knocks a gas mask off of a protestor and sprays him directly in the face with tear gas, just before the camera cuts away to the evening news which talks about the strong police restraint and complete lack of tear gas. It was depressing. We can’t even protest anymore, you guys. You have to have a permit for your marching route and if they say no, you’ll be arrested for marching. For SITTING. And with the globalization of, well, everything, nobody is going to give a shit that you got arrested in rural Ohio protesting..well..globalization.
I really disappointed my social movements professor, who wanted the class to be a motivating force for his students. Like we were all going to go out and change the world. And then he taught me the most important thing any sociologist, any postmodernist, any humanist can know; you can’t change it all at once. (I mean, duh. We still have a gender pay gap and black male children who are brutalized by our protective forces.) But you can change it with a baby step. And you can change it where the capitalist system actually gives a shit: corporate bank accounts.
So that’s what I do. Ethically. Morally. Even when it comes to what I get for free, I want my one number on someone’s statistical report to reflect my support. I can’t support this. I won’t. Not with so many unanswered questions. It’s true that my one number is nothing among thousands. But maybe if ten other people start thinking ethically about their reading choices after this, and 10 more after them, and 10 more after that…maybe eventually we’ll be the thousands on the other side of the fence. Determining what should be published, rather than only reacting to it.
And hey, maybe you still think this was Harper Lee’s choice and ethically it’s right to read and enjoy the publication she finally released. At least you pondered it enough to make an ethical reading decision.