A writer, sitting alone with a computer, lives a courageous life. It begins with an internal struggle to manage thoughts, to edit fearlessly and then expose the work to the public where it will be praised, ridiculed or ignored. I think Harper Lee at 82 is remarkably brave to come out with a second novel – really her first – and allow it to draw breath after 60 years. To Kill A Mocking Bird is a classic in American literature, beloved around the globe and still reaps a healthy income for the author. The upcoming publication of Go Set a Watchman — the manuscript having been recently found in her sister’s safe deposit box — is bound to be compared to the novel that made her famous. Expectations for it will be high and that’s the risk.
Some authors don’t want their earliest, unpublished manuscripts to go public. Albert Camus buried his first novel, A Happy Death in his desk. When it was printed, posthumously, it stirred curiosity but little enthusiasm. Camus had been right to hold it back. Dr. Seuss also buried his work, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, but someone found it and ignored his sage opinion that it should never see the light of day. Which raises the question: Why didn’t these authors destroy their unwanted manuscripts? Why stick them in a drawer for some promoter with dollar signs in his eyes to resuscitate later and throw the ill- formed creatures to the literary wolves?
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, long time editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse advised writers to “kill their darlings” — meaning a writer should cut out words until only the most essential are left standing. (“Easy Chair,” by John Crowley, Harper’s November 2014, pg. 4) The same advice should apply to novels. Some works aren’t meant to be born. Camus knew this and yet he didn’t kill his darling, as Quiller-Couch advised. He and others like him left their off-spring to lie like invalids in a dark room.
Perhaps, I understand. To destroy an entire script, to commit it to the flames — not merely a word, a line or a paragraph but an entire ill-formed creation — is like killing a first born. Few have that degree of courage because the element of love persists.
In the case of Go Set A Watchman, I hope the book’s delayed birth will suffer no ill effects from the passing of an era. Instead, I and millions of other readers are holding our breaths, anxious to see Harper Lee’s sequel burst upon the literary stage with a full-throated roar.