WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Never give a Finch

Lee
I won’t be reading Harper Lee’s, Go Set A Watchman.

Why? Because “Atticus Finch” is gone. Atticus Finch, sans quotation marks, survives in the new novel as a KKK-sampling elderly racist, but the idea that was “Atticus Finch” has been taken away from us. By the publishing business. I won’t have it.

It’s been many years since I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, but the last time I did I was blown away by the effects Lee was able to produce, mainly through one of the most deft uses of first-person narration I know of. Scout, evidently all grown up, is recounting a key period in her childhood. And even though we understand that an adult is really telling the story, we take it to be coming from the child’s consciousness. Translated to the brilliant 1962 film, that book seems as real as reality, even in metaphorically appropriate black and white.

Flash forward (or is it backward, if Go Set A Watchman is actually the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird) and the first-person has been replaced by, from what I hear, fairly bland third-person prose. The exquisite voice is gone. Wherever it went, it took “Atticus Finch” with it.

See, “Atticus Finch” is a concept. A mythical figure. A belief that the angels of our better nature really walk among us. Never mind, as some have suggested, that he wasn’t a very good attorney and might have been a little too passive in his defense of Tom Robinson. Literature rendered him bigger and better than a good attorney: it turned him into a symbol, whether that was Lee’s desire or not. He became a symbol of defiance, of truth, of hope, of diligence, of sacrifice, of unwearied human compassion. And, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, he was a man just about every living human wished was their daddy.

But he’s gone now. Turned into a run-of-the-mill Southern man who doesn’t want Negroes in public swimmin’ pools.

There’s also a technical problem I have with the book — and this is another reason why I blame the publishing business for botching it. The adult first-person narrator of To Kill A Mockingbird would already know her father’s future. She saw it happen before her eyes. Yet there is no hint whatsoever in that book that “Atticus Finch” is anything but the man he appears to be. Yes, she’s recounting childhood memories, but I can’t help but think that we would have detected a mournful irony in her voice if the intelligence telling the story were really aware of her father’s fall from grace in later years.

This is what a lot of people don’t get about first-person narration. It’s more complicated than it seems. The teller, especially in a tale like this one, is anchored in a place in time well after the action of the book. She has all the facts. And leaving out that “Atticus Finch” would not live much longer was either an unforgivable act of dishonesty, or Go Set A Watchman is a sloppy, slapped-together, shameless effort to exploit something that once had unsurpassable value.

If I know modern publishing, I think I know the answer…

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42 comments on “Never give a Finch

  1. Elle Knowles
    July 27, 2015

    Reblogged this on Finding Myself Through Writing and commented:
    I haven’t made up my mind yet on “Go Set A Watchman”, but Kevin has. Maybe his view will help you to make up your mind. I’m torn between wanting to read more from the written hand of Harper Lee or staying true to Atticus Finch.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 27, 2015

      Thanks for the reblog, Elle! This certainly is tricky territory for readers, but I guess we all have to decide for ourselves: to read or not to read?

  2. 1WriteWay
    July 27, 2015

    Damn, and I just bought a copy of it! I wasn’t going to buy it and then read a review by a blogging friend which gave me the idea that it might be an interesting book to read in all its context; as in, it was purportedly her first novel which was rejected. I want to know how Lee initially saw Finch and whether I can maintain that image of Gregory Peck in my mind as I read his parts.

    (And with my B&N membership, I eventually got it for 60% off … I know, cheap, cheap.)

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 27, 2015

      You’ll read it so the rest of us don’t have to! I’ll look forward to your review of it, though. This book probably begs for one of your “different kind” reviews… 😉

      • 1WriteWay
        July 27, 2015

        Hmmm, a different kind of review might work. I wonder, would you approach this book differently if there hadn’t been so much drama around it.

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 27, 2015

        Not sure about that. If it had come out with the usual bit of PR and flurry of reviews, I think the same things about it would bug me. The lack of continuity between the two worlds, the deconstruction of Atticus, the change in pov. I just read Jackie’s review, but it doesn’t change my thinking. In fact, she kind of damns it with faint praise.

        That said, I usually do shy away from books that get the super-hype treatment, like The Goldfinch.

        Hey! Gold. Finch. Someone’s cashing in!

      • 1WriteWay
        July 27, 2015

        Arghh, I hit “Send” before I was finished 😡 What I meant: if there wasn’t all the drama about the “discovery” of the novel, do you think you would read it? Drama always turns me off and that’s why I wasn’t going to read it initially. Then I read a review by Jackie Mallon and changed my mind.

  3. John W. Howell
    July 27, 2015

    You say you are not going to read it or after reading not going to recommend? This sounds like you read it.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 27, 2015

      I haven’t read it. I know, I know: I’m one of those jerks who trashes a book without reading it, but in this case I’m really trashing the idea of the book. Oh, and the publishing business…

      • John W. Howell
        July 27, 2015

        Heh heh heh. I knew that I was giving you the razz.

  4. I won’t be reading it, either, since To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books and I’d like to keep it that way. I’ll leave the wizard behind the curtain, thank you very much.
    What is more troubling are the circumstances of this publication – it all reeks of exploitation and greed.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 27, 2015

      I think the publisher might not have grasped what the earlier book means to people. It’s not often that a novel transcends its period or the author or its own story.

      Is “Atticus Finch, Vampire Killer” that far behind?!

      • 1WriteWay
        August 2, 2015

        Send him back in time and he can fight vampires along with Abraham Lincoln 😉

      • Kevin Brennan
        August 2, 2015

        A time-traveling, vampire-killing Atticus Finch! Let’s write it up together! 😈

  5. In My Cluttered Attic
    July 27, 2015

    I believe this manuscript (especially when submitted and rejected) told Lee all she needed to know. It was not worthy then, nor is it worthy now. However, what it does suggest; if there is money to be made, someone (shameful as it might be) will find a way to make it, even at the risk of tarnishing a treasured memory. Mine of Gregory Peck portraying Atticus, and “Mockingbird” and its portrayal of Finch, are the images I prefer to hold tight too.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 27, 2015

      Exactly. And it sounds like Harper Lee had very little to do with the publication process this time around. I have to think that her preference would have been to let dead dogs lie…

      • In My Cluttered Attic
        July 27, 2015

        I totally agree. Yep, nothing to bark about here. Nice article, Kevin. :@)

  6. kingmidget
    July 27, 2015

    As you know, I have my own thoughts about this. 😉 I think you’re on to something to add to my list of issues though. It would be one thing if the two books were unrelated but clearly this book was never meant to be published and that the stories are connected requires that they have some connected logic. That Atticus turns out to be the typical racist of his time doesn’t really surprise me or bother me — I think that kind of conflict within people was all too common back then. But, as you describe it, the voice shift from one book to the other is troubling.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 27, 2015

      I’m hearing from some other readers that the best way to appreciate Watchman is to think of it as a completely different fictional universe and of the characters as not the same ones from Mockingbird. I mean, WTF? No, the book is being sold as something of a sequel to Mockingbird, so there has to be some level of continuity.

      • kingmidget
        July 27, 2015

        I read the Divergent series a few years ago … it’s one of those futuristic trilogies targeted at young adults. My kid was into it so I thought I’d read it as well. The first two books were told in first person from the lead female’s perspective. All of a sudden, the third book switched to third person with the chapters alternating between the lead female and the lead male. It completely destroyed the story for me.

        I agree, if it’s the same universe, the style and POV needs to be consistent.

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 28, 2015

        You’re a bigger man than I, sir! Between Twilight, Divergent, and Hunger Games, American literature is down for the count…

      • kingmidget
        July 28, 2015

        I read a lot of those books because my kids were reading them. Twilight was absolutely horribly written. But, you know, I generally agree with the benefit that they created — they got kids reading. Unfortunately, it may have been a short-term benefit. My oldest doesn’t read a thing now. Too focused on his damn phone.

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 28, 2015

        Arrrggghhhh!

      • kingmidget
        July 28, 2015

        Right there with you on that. Absolutely frustrating to me how much time the rest of my family wastes with their phone and the TV.

  7. sknicholls
    July 27, 2015

    Unless you are doing a study on the progress of novel evolution, it would be a shame to read this book.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 27, 2015

      Yeah, it might be a good example of one of those before/after analyses, where you study how an author revised a first draft…

      • 1WriteWay
        August 2, 2015

        And that exactly is what interests me about the book. If I understand correctly, it was a draft of what came to be To Kill a Mockingbird. I haven’t even started the book, but thanks to your suggestion that it might lend itself to “a different kind of book review,” I have people in my head debating its merits already. Even if we could agree that the novel is interesting as “a study on the progress of novel evolution,” it wasn’t pitched that way. If it truly was meant to be a sequel, then it should have been edited with that in mind. Instead, again if I understand correctly, they published the novel pretty much as they found it. Which is why I wouldn’t have bought it without the multiple discounts.

      • Kevin Brennan
        August 2, 2015

        The reading public seems to be falling into two camps, one like me that says, I like me my original Finch, thank you; and another that says, The new Finch is more realistic and three-dimensional. Well, I keep going back to the fact that Lee’s editor must have said quite plainly, Your first draft doesn’t work, Harper. Try again.

        If that first draft didn’t work then, why should it work now, without revision?

      • 1WriteWay
        August 3, 2015

        Exactly. I’m not expecting the novel to “work.” I expect to find it interesting to read what Lee originally intended, especially since she started with 3rd person. But I don’t see it as a sequel, not if they (that is, Lee and her editors) didn’t bother to edit it with To Kill a Mockingbird in mind.

  8. Charles Yallowitz
    July 27, 2015

    There really seems to be a lot of strangeness in regards to this book. It does seem like it wasn’t to be published, but somebody got a copy and decided to go through with it. I remember reading that Harper Lee had a stroke years ago, so she can’t be the one pushing the release. I don’t know. Something just feels . . . off here.

  9. julz
    July 28, 2015

    Read your piece courtesy of Elle’s re-blog and thought I’d add my two pence (UK).
    The reviews I’ve read here, and the same tone of discussion was had somewhere on Radio 4 recently is that – yes this is a travesty!

    To Kill a Mockingbird has been on the English GCSE exam list (16 yr olds) for years, and is held up as a lesson in racial tolerance. The original book – now published – is nothing like, and has destroyed people’s beliefs – in Harper Lee as well as everyone else – including the greedy publishers.

    I have to say that I am writing this before reading not only the book – but the free version of the first chapter that I have bookmarked and not yet got around to!

    What your thread hasn’t mentioned is that this book was the original manuscript that a canny editor suggested wasn’t good enuf, but if she wrote it from the child’s point of view, and maybe it now seems the editor did more than just suggest……could be worth publishing.

    This might just explain why Harper Lee has hidden from the world ever since and took the money without ever writing anything else! (The current publication has been sanctioned by her relatives, perhaps to pay for fees to look after her in her old age?)

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 28, 2015

      Thanks for commenting, Julz! I agree completely, having heard many similar rumors about the book. (Not to mention the rumor that Truman Capote actually wrote To Kill A Mockingbird!) The biggest sin here is that the publisher seems not to have realized what To Kill A Mockingbird represents, and ignoring that, even discarding it, has been destructive.

      • julz
        July 28, 2015

        agree – which is why I added my twopenny’s worth – but they certainly ran a very successful PR campaign – we’re all talking about it!

  10. HK Abell
    July 29, 2015

    I especially like your comments about first person narrative — people jump into it so quickly, thinking it’s the easiest form of writing. But it is so often done poorly that I generally shy away from it when writing or reading traditional fiction (Helena, on the other hand, breaks all rules).

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 29, 2015

      Glad you agree with that! Maybe it seems most natural to tell a story from the first-person, but there are technical, even philosophical, issues to be aware of when you do.

      As for Helena, I have a feeling she always has a good reason when she breaks the rules…

  11. clanton1934
    August 3, 2015

    I definitely concur that the publisher has done Harper Lee and “Mockingbird” a disservice. I published a blog: “Say it ain’t So Atticus” which explained my feelings. Harper Lee is an American Icon. “Watchman” can only tarnish her reputation. ccr

  12. Carrie Rubin
    August 10, 2015

    I wasn’t going to read it, but then my book club chose it for our September read. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy it since I don’t know if the author was really behind its being published. So I reserved it at our library. I was over #700 in line. Now I’m down to #400 and something. Not sure I’ll get it in time…

    Great point about the first-person narration blunder.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 11, 2015

      I’ll look forward to your take on the book, Carrie.

      A few peeps seem to have misinterpreted my point to be, “Stay away from this book!” I’m just saying that I don’t want to read it. I don’t doubt at all that a lot of readers will appreciate what it represents.

      • Carrie Rubin
        August 11, 2015

        It’s certainly sparked its share of controversy. It’s the Donald Trump of the literary world.

      • Kevin Brennan
        August 11, 2015

        Ha! You made my day with that one! 😝

      • Carrie Rubin
        August 11, 2015

        🙂

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This entry was posted on July 27, 2015 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , , , .
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