With the dog days of summer upon us, I finally have some time to write. Two days ago I read some tips to help me become a better writer. Tip #1: READ MORE…WRITE LESS. Realizing I seldom read and spent far too much time writing, I took that advice and ordered both of Harper Lee’s books. The purpose of reading both her novels: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and GO SET A WATCHMAN was to glean tips from this famous author and improve my own writing.
Not comparing these two books proved impossible since the characters and storyline had distinct parallels. The most glaring problem for me in GO SET A WATCHMAN was that although it contained a plethora of southern historical information, I had the distinct feeling the author was “dumping.” In literary circles that simply means a writer just interjects a bunch of details (some which have little to do with driving the story forward) at the expense of the storyline. It’s a way of telling the reader without taking the time to show them.
NOTE TO SELF: Show rather than tell!
The second thing I found rather disheartening in GO SET A WATCHMAN was the way the author book beat readers over the head, cramming information down their throats rather than letting the readers figure things out for themselves. In defense of Harper Lee, I believe the immense change in Atticus Finch’s character was a tough sell and she more or less had to over-explain things rather than allow readers to figure out what actually made Atticus Finch tick. In the last few chapters of this book, much of the conversation between Scout (now called Jean Louise) and her uncle reads like a Psychology 101 manual as she tries to explain the real Atticus. The question looms…which one is the real Atticus Finch?
NOTE TO SELF: Never dumb it down; readers are more savvy than you think!
The most disappointing thing about GO SEE A WATCHMAN was that several of the same characters in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD bore little resemblance to those in the recently published book. The African American woman the Finch family hired to cook, (Cal) moved out immediately after Jem’s death (Atticus’s only son). It was illogical that the woman who stayed with this family for two decades, raising Atticus’s two children, would abandon this family as such a difficult time. The Cal I knew and adored simply wouldn’t have done this. The characters of Atticus Finch was problematic to many readers in Harper’s new novel, as well. The seemingly new and improved New Atticus bore little resemblance to the previous one. He never spoke of his only son’s death, something I found unsettling. As someone close to Atticus’s age, I’m noticing a trend. As we grow older, the values we hold dear become MORE pronounced with age. In reality, the old Atticus would have continued fighting for equality, just as he always had and, if anything, his views would have been even more progressive than they were in TKAM. (Of course, if you’re of the mindset that the real Atticus was a bigot, then this doesn’t really apply).
NOTE TO SELF: When writing, know your characters well enough to give them a lengthy interview, asking them tough questions. If they aren’t authentic, readers will quickly lose interest.
I was raised in the 1950’s and 60’s, and I don’t recall such a fierce hatred toward our government as was exhibited in Harper’s last novel. This was apparently what drove Atticus Finch and other townspeople to dislike blacks and try to limit their opportunities (according to GSAW). To me, this struck me as odd, and I found myself wondering why Harper never eluded to that in TKAM. It felt like the modern day concept of anti-government was being stuffed down our throats rather than reflecting those times with authenticity.
NOTE TO SELF: Avoid the urge to politicize the events according to your own, personal views.
This is a novel filled with lovely descriptions, but beyond that, it was disappointing. Still, in spite of the fact I took several days to reread TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and two more days to read GO SET A WATCHMAN, I’m forever grateful to Harper Lee for generating conversation and forcing me to remember that writers labor over their works, trying to give meaning to this thing we call life. At least, that’s what we’re SUPPOSED to be doing. Lee’s last book has generated nearly 500 reviews on Amazon, forcing readers to reevaluate how they feel about Scout and Atticus. Anytime we question old ideas and take a fresh look at life as we know it, that’s a very good thing. I encourage you to reread your favorite classic and see if the lens through which you see it has changed.
Thanks for letting me share. It would mean a great deal to me if you’d leave a comment. If you’ve read either of these books, I’d love you to share your thoughts!