Don’t Publish Your First Draft! Go Set a Watchman Reviewed

I wasn’t going to read Go Set a Watchman. My interest was piqued enough by the sketchy circumstances surrounding its publication that I read “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise” by Catherine Nichols over at Jezebel, which I thought told me everything I needed to know.

Then Harper Lee died, another round of articles came out, and for some reason I thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll read Watchman now.” I do like to be Well Read after all, and I was in need of another book at the time. I guess news as advertising works.

So I read it. And my first impulse was right. It was not worth my time. It is not worth anyone’s time.

It’s a goddamn first draft.

This isn’t news. It’s there in the Wikipedia. Harper Lee wrote Watchman in the 1950s. She used this manuscript to attract a publisher, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff really liked Lee’s work — she described Watchman by saying, “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line.” But she also noted that it was, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”

So Hohoff helped Lee through several drafts, until Watchman became To Kill a Mockingbird. Along the way, the focus of the story changed. Watchman is about Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young woman, coming to grips with the fact that her paragon father Atticus is merely human after all in rather dramatic fashion, against the backdrop of late 1940s southern race relations (which were shockingly bad). Mockingbird, by contrast, features Scout as a child who observes Atticus’s struggles as a white lawyer defending a black man in court in the early twentieth century south (when race relations were even worse).

It is true that at one point there were two sequels planned for Mockingbird, and if Watchman had been edited it might have served as book three of that planned series. But it has not been edited. As a result, there are some big issues. Tom Robinson, the black defendant, is found guilty in Mockingbird, but acquitted in Watchman. There are passages copied from one book to the other. Some characters are more thinly conceived of in Watchman than in Mockingbird, which is weird for something marketed as a sequel.

But the worst offense in my mind is the ending of Watchman. It is completely outdated in a way that no part of Mockingbird is. Jean Louise is dismayed by the overt racism of Atticus, her pseudo-boyfriend Henry “Hank” Clinton, and diverse other characters. She does not remember these characters being so racist during her childhood, and doesn’t understand what has changed. She fights with Atticus, Hank, and her uncle Jack about it, and eventually comes to an understanding with them. And part of that understanding is a good laugh at the notion that most people would ever marry outside of their race.

Maybe that was one of the more centrist positions on the issue in the 1940s and ‘50s, but as the key plank in Atticus’s bridge across the philosophical gap between himself and his daughter it is groan-worthy. This is a book about race published in 2015. It was predestined that people in mixed-race marriages would read it, and they did, including myself.

I don’t know why Lee didn’t edit Watchman, whip it into shape at least a little for its twenty-first century audience. I imagine she must not have been capable — the soundness of her mind was extensively questioned when news of Watchman’s impending publication first surfaced. I can’t imagine she simply didn’t want to expend the effort.

Whatever the reason, Watchman remains a first draft, an early version of a thing that got better. Yes, the focus and plot are substantially different from what it became. That doesn’t make it a stand-alone object, worthy of being contemplated on its own.

And while it could be argued that seeing a Great Novelist’s creative process laid bare is instructive, I argue otherwise. You learn writing by reading a lot of finished texts (both ones that you love and ones that you hate), and then by writing your own. Lee’s process is only meaningful to me because I already know it, and can relate to it. I have learned nothing by seeing Lee in her proverbial underwear, and I don’t even have the benefit of voyeuristic thrill. I just feel mildly embarrassed for her.

Alright. I guess I could have learned that Atticus Finch was a racist all along. But like Nichols said, if you paid attention, Atticus always was.

Potter (No) More

So I guess there’s more Harry Potter stuff happening. A movie in the works, a play, some short stories on Pottermore about American wizardry.

And I can’t really get into any of it.

Part of it is that I spent the last decade analyzing and re-analyzing the Harry Potter books with my fellow nerds and by myself, for fun. I picked the Wizarding World apart already in a previous post, and I’m done with it as a concept. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Pottermore stories all sound like prequel material, the kind where, yeah, we really do know or can infer all this stuff already.

Moreover, much of the new material is set in America, which feels like pandering. I don’t know who decided that Fantastic Beasts and the new stories should be set in America, but I’d bet that’s a marketing decision, not an authoring one. Harry Potter’s charm is in part that it’s British! That it comes from a place dotted with castles and teapots, and not my own coffee-fueled, sky-scraper-studded land. Countries are not all the same, and JK Rowling’s style of whimsy doesn’t hold up well in an American context.

For instance, the new stories have already upset actual Native Americans. I assume (you assume, we all assume) that Rowling meant to be inclusive. But the fact is that certain Native Americans took offense at Rowling’s appropriation of their mythology, specifically “skinwalkers”.

Now, Harry Potter has always cherry picked from history and mythology, but it has largely been European history and mythology. In America, that’s default, that’s baseline, everyone’s welcome to do whatever they want to European history and mythology. But with Native Americans, their stories are still their own.

In the Wizarding World, there is no religion, no pandemics, no global warming. Racism is replaced by anti-muggle, anti-mudblood, anti-poor, and speciesist sentiments. There is no Al Quaeda, Boko Haram, Daesh, or KKK, just Death Eaters. That works in England, island alone by itself, relatively pure until the last decade or so as darker-skinned immigrants started pouring in to make the food better.

But that kind of whitewashing doesn’t work in the intersectional morass that is America. Well, not without complaint and ridicule by the left.

Me, I don’t mean to complain or ridicule. I’m just checked out of the Potter Club. Oh sure, I’ll probably go to the theme park when I get the chance, and I’ll reread the books someday — they’re good books, they’ll be fun to revisit. But that’s the thing. They’re books, a private conversation between me and Jo. A conversation she ended by saying, “Their adult lives were stable and boring. Don’t try to get more out of me because the story is over, there is no more.”

I want to respect that statement (even if the epilogue that contained it was objectively not good). Although, if Rowling had changed her mind, and Harry Potter and The Cursed Child was going to be an eighth book by Rowling, I would go buy it.

But it’s not. It’s a play by some other guy. Rowling had a hand in it, but it isn’t hers. It’s half fan fiction.

It’s hard to watch this happen to Rowling. While I’ve been privately picking apart her stories, learning this craft of fantasy storytelling from many authors but especially her, the marketers have made her their cow. And all the Potter milk is coming out pasteurized now.

As much as I want to be JK Rowling, get that popular, touch that many lives, maybe it isn’t worth it when others start to write your stories for you.

When Our Icons Betray Us

What a week. There were terrorist attacks in Jakarta and Istanbul, there have been more disappointing results in the cases of law enforcement officers who injured or killed people, those discontents are STILL holed up in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, the environment…well, let’s just not go there.

And we lost David Bowie AND Alan Rickman. (Rest in peace, Metatron — I guess God wanted his Voice back.)

And then, because we all needed the emotional whiplash, a story emerged (re-emerged, really) that Bowie (hardly even cold yet) committed statutory rape with underage groupies back in the 70‘s. And he was accused of rape once in the ‘80s as well.

So what is anyone supposed to feel, morally, about that?

First, if you have strong feelings about this kind of thing already, you are totally entitled to them. Sex crimes are, by their very nature, a highly emotional topic. If you are most comfortable spending the rest of your life avoiding the creative works of Bowie or any of the many, many singers, musicians, actors, writers, directors, artists, etc. who have committed a sex crime, I understand.

But for me, it’s getting more complicated than that.

Like many people, I do have what I’ll term an “Ick List”, a set of celebrities whose works I try to avoid. Some are known sexual predators or abusers (Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Chris Brown, R. Kelly, Terry Richardson). Some have done legal but icky things (JD Salinger used and abandoned a series of college-age English majors; Katy Perry wore some very derogatory Jew-Face for her “Birthday” video).

But I haven’t put Bowie on my Ick List. Or Michael Jackson. Or Woody Allen.

So why? What’s my excuse? It isn’t just because I happen to LIKE Bowie, Jackson, and Allen. The Catcher in the Rye meant a lot to me as a teenager because I could identify with Holden Caulfield’s struggle with depression. I suspect I’d like Polanski’s films if I saw them. Full disclosure — I even like a few of Perry’s songs.

It isn’t because Bowie, Jackson, and Allen were cleared by the courts. Rape is notoriously hard to prove, and while I would like to believe that those three men were innocent of rape (or that Bowie’s underage partners were, as Lori Mattix insists, so willing they can’t possibly be victims) I don’t know that. No one knows but those men and the people who might or might not have been their victims.

It isn’t contrition. Allen has continued to say creepy things about his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. I don’t know if Bowie ever publicly regretted his statutory rape, and his flat denial about raping Wanda Nichols may have only earned him more distrust from the Femterweb if it was a current event.

Seriality has something to do with it — Salinger’s many misused girlfriends, the many accusations leveled against Cosby. Character definitely has something to do with it. Richardson always comes off looking like a sleaze, Polanski fled the country, and Perry does have a penchant for very problematic lyrics. Kelly and Brown just strike me as bad men, certainly not the kind I want serenading me.

Meanwhile, I saw/rode Captain Eo again last time I went to Disneyland, and Jackson seemed so sweet and pure-hearted while fighting that crazy spider woman with the power of love, dance, and muppets.

So I have my own moral algebra — I make no excuses for it, it is what it is — but it gets more complicated than that. Because one of my favorite current pop stars, Lady Gaga, decided to work with Kelly and Richardson. And I really liked the song she did with Kelly, and the clips of the abandoned video with Richardson intrigued me. My understanding is that Gaga decided to work with these two known abusers BECAUSE they were abusers and she was working through her own rape. But she still funneled more money and fame their way, empowering both Kelly and Richardson in a way that they did not deserve.

That’s really the problem with watching, listening to, looking at, or otherwise supporting known abusers. Whether the creator is a separate entity from their creations or not*, sexually abusive creators don’t deserve all the money, power, and fame. They don’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing that millions are enjoying their work. They don’t deserve to be lofted up above their victims by society. They don’t deserve to be legitimized while their victims are de-legitimized.

So the question becomes, “Does your personal boycott matter?”

Maybe? We’ve come to the point where at least 95% of our society has condemned Cosby. His reruns have been pulled off the air, he lost gigs, and media-wise he’s very rarely anything but the butt of others’ jokes now. This only happened because a lot of individuals personally refused to watch him perform.

But unless the members of your particular Ick List reach Cosby-esque proportions of wrong-doing — unless guilt is certain, chronic, and unrepentant — society probably isn’t going to care about your personal boycott. It will not, in the long run, make one jot of difference.

Yet I maintain my Ick List. I’m not about to go buy myself a copy of Black Panties, even though Kelly’s voice was so beautiful on Gaga’s “Do What You Want”. Why? Because I want to feel like I have some control in this sometimes awful, always chaotic world. I can’t stop terrorism, or decrease the endemic racism in our justice system, or teach rural ranchers about the big picture, or end climate change.

But I can change the channel, flip the station, put down the book, click elsewhere, and get away from the art that represents a person who has transgressed.

The moral of this blog post? Avoid or enjoy any media that you want, because your relationship with the media you consume is all about you.

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*I wanted to say more about this philosophical question here, but I had to kill that darling for sake of flow. I’ll just have to write another blog post about it.

Long Live the Goblin King!

I’m sure many people have made better, more informed statements about David Bowie in the last 48 hours. Considering his entire body of work and how much (or little) I have listened to or seen of it, I can only consider myself a casual fan. But I am a creative individual living on this spinning rock we call Earth, and so Bowie did touch me and shape me. His influence was too enormous not to.

He was at the cutting edge of media for decades. He pushed music — both the actual music part, and the performance part, where the singer (and their band) takes on a character. Not satisfied with the characters of “falling in love” or “falling out of love” or anything as common as that, he created and performed through personas, some of them quite fantastic. And in pushing the performance of music, he pushed story. He pushed culture. He pushed our understanding of what it means to be human, and not-human.

And most relevant to me, well, I don’t think I can say it better than his New York Times obituary. “Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut…his message was that there was always empathy beyond difference.”

My work is very different, but I try to get at the same message. I’m lucky to be able to take inspiration from such a great spirit, and to still have the chance to first experience new parts of him as they live on, left behind for those of us left on Earth.

Rest in peace, David Bowie. Enjoy your final flight, and your ascension as a Blackstar.

Shakespeare and That Sad Puppies Thing

When I was a kid, my favorite Shakespeare play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Typical answer from a fantasy nerd, right?  But now, it’s probably Othello.  From Act I to Act V, Othello is a damming critique of (17th century) English and European society.  Iago is only able to orchestrate Othello’s fall because of the widespread bigotries that plague their society; racism, misogyny, and a general disregard for addicts.

Merchant of Venice and Hamlet were the other two contenders, but Othello wins hands down because the titular character has a full blown panic attack.  Contemplating Desdemona’s (invented) betrayal and the reparative action required of him by the demented Man Code of his time (murdering her), Othello becomes so unhinged that he babbles half-incoherently before falling “in a trance” to the stage.

Yup, that’s a panic attack.

You probably get the idea that while elves and aliens are important to me, so are more meaty and realistic things.  I like to see race, gender, and religion in my speculative fiction.  I like to read about mental illness (and wellness).  If the characters are fighting a daemon or a mega corporation that’s all well and good.  But when it becomes clear the dragon is a stand-in for something else, something I or my friends have to deal with in real life, that’s when I’m jumping up and down in my seat.

So I don’t get the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies.

If you haven’t heard (you probably have, I’m about two weeks late to this party and in Internet Years that’s a millennia) a bunch of dimbulbs worked together to ensure that only “fun” stories were nominated for the Hugos this year.  “Fun” as opposed to “niche, academic, overtly [leftist]”.  Mainstream escapism for the overprivileged as opposed to anything else.

Trust me; I like fun speculative fiction.  And I write fun speculative fiction — chock full of spells, swords, spaceships, and monsters.  But there’s more to life than that, and there’s more to fantasy and sci-fi than that.  The genres are transforming into what I wish they had been in my youth.  They’ve grown up along with me, along with all of us.

Hopefully, the Puppies will grow up soon too.

A few words for Sir Terry Pratchett

“Fantasy isn’t just about wizards and silly wands. It’s about seeing the world from new directions.”

I came across the above quote as I looked over Sir Terry Pratchett’s Wikipedia entry, shortly after learning that he had died*.  It’s been awhile since I read any of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but I did read a dozen or so of them as a teenager and enjoyed them thoroughly.  They were fun and funny without being brainless.  There was a physicality to Discworld despite its ridiculous premise.  I could feel the solid bulk of those four massive elephants and the cosmic turtle beneath me as I read.

AND THERE WAS DEATH.

You always knew something exciting was about to happen when DEATH showed up on the page.  DEATH was funny.  DEATH was meta.  DEATH scared the crap out of the other characters on the page, and for good reason.  Despite all the wonders and magic of Discworld, DEATH was permanent.

DEATH is exactly the sort of big, serious topic that I want in any fantasy novel (whether I read it or write it).  I also like to explore racism, sexism, classism, and other sundry forms of bigotry, as well as self-acceptance — as do many other fantasy writers.  Pratchett wasn’t the only one using magic, wizards, and gods to wrestle with difficult concepts.  Drizzt Do’Urden’s biggest struggle is the color of his own skin.  Ben Holiday buys the Kingdom of Landover because his career, status, and wealth are meaningless and empty to him.  The House Elves of the Wizarding World are happy to work, just please don’t beat them.

And yet, I had a high school English teacher who flat-out refused to allow book reports on Harry Potter.  That same teacher first encouraged me to write — and then discouraged me by refusing to read anything I had written.

It does seem like the wall is starting to crumble, that sometime in the last fifteen years the excuses for excluding all fantasy from serious Literature started running out.  The Return of the King won an Academy Award, fer chrissakes!  But I still have people tell me, “I don’t read fantasy.”  And I don’t get it.

How else can you cope with DEATH, but with fantasy?  With fantasy, you can turn DEATH into a character, talk to him, get comfy with him.  With fantasy, DEATH might give you a peek at the other side.  With fantasy, DEATH becomes just one more adventure.

I don’t know where else you can get that but with religion — and hey, a lot of that is fantasy too!

Rest in peace, Sir Terry Pratchett.  And thank you for crafting such a fun place to visit when adolescence and depression had me down.

*Sir Terry Pratchett passed away on March 12th, 2015, after struggling for many years with a rare form of Alzheimers.  I only mention this because it wouldn’t be a proper Pratchett tribute without a footnote, now would it?