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 It is completely outdated in a way that no part of Mockingbird is.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.

Sick Time Equals Media Consumption! (a bunch of random reviews)

I started the new year with a cold, so I’ve been consuming a lot of media. Here are my impressions on what I have watched and read both while I was sick, and just in recent memory. Some of my selections are current and trending, some are not. As always, assume spoilers.

TELEVISION

The Flash: Season One
I started out really liking this show, and hating it by the end. I liked most of the characters (Mark Hamill’s Trickster being my hands-down fav), and there were some really great fights (especially early on), but the whole thing bogs down when Barry Allen and Co start taking prisoners. It bothers me that they keep people in solitary 24 hours a day, and there was rarely any evidence in the show that the prisoners were being fed, or talked to, or given any room to exercise.

I don’t care if they’re scary meta-humans that no normal prison is equipped to deal with, that’s still torture. And the show never does enough to address this gaping thematic wound to satisfy me.

Then the secret keeping got really tiresome. By mid-season, every time Barry and Iris were on screen together, I started shouting, “JUST TELL HER YOU’RE THE FLASH!”

And then the season finale — oy vey. The few reviews I read were mostly positive, but I thought it was awful. The “science” was especially laughable. Barry talks himself out of time-traveling and then does it anyway, and accomplishes nothing by it. And Eddie kills himself to stop Eobard, who didn’t need to be stopped at that moment, thereby depriving us of two of the show’s main characters AND causing a wormhole to destabilize, endangering the whole world and ending the season on a cheap-looking CG cliffhanger.

The whole point was to get Eddie out of the way so Barry and Iris can be together next season sans any pesky moral qualms, I guess. But then why even create Eddie and his relationship with Iris in the first place?

The season had a lot of promise, a lot of good characters, but it honestly felt like a first-draft script still focused on an end the writers had unknowingly written themselves out of. Despite Grant Gustin’s adorable face and the promise of more crossovers with Arrow (some of the best parts), I’m not all that interested in the further adventures of Barry Allen.

Arrow: Season Two
I’m a season behind in this show — oh well. I’ll keep it short. The overall arc was good, but this season had a lot of padding, and again there were too many characters keeping too many secrets from each other. Writer’s hint — having characters reveal information about each other to each other moves the plot along.

But I thought it ended fabulously (is Dark Thea as much fun in Season 3 as I think she’s going to be?), and I could watch Stephen Amell climb that salmon ladder all damn day.

South Park: Season 19
Wow. Who would have thought that South Park would run for 19 years and still show no sign of stopping? I grew up with this show, and it’s really grown too in a way that The Simpsons and Family Guy haven’t. It still looks sophomoric when I compare it to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s other big, important work, The Book of Mormon, but compared to where it started with an elephant fucking a pig? Why, it’s positively sophisticated now.

Season 19 is all about how Internet culture affects our lives and how we relate to each other. Like Season 18 (but entirely separate from it, as Randy Marsh doesn’t seem to be Lorde anymore), the narrative continues and builds from episode to episode. We follow the rise and fall of gentrification in South Park, and some surprisingly nuanced points are made about poverty, new trends in marketing, and new trends in media. The town is literally updated, with new minority characters added as well as new locations and amenities. The show actually mocks its old self by having the characters desperately point to Token as their example of a non-white friend to try and prove they are progressive.

I’ve felt kind of “meh” about South Park for awhile, but season 19 is very good. Even that weird episode about yaoi. It is absolutely worth a watch.

BOOKS

Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin
Having only read the first two of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea books, I grabbed another of her books at random off the library shelf. Changing Planes turned out to be a collection of travel journal articles about imaginary places. Each reads like an entry one might expect from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only less comedic and more philosophical. Each story presents a new, alien “plane” that stands in insightful juxtaposition to our own. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I highly recommend it.

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King
Considering that Stephen King is my writing guru (his On Writing is really, really good), I haven’t read all that much of his stuff. I’ve seen The Mist and The Shining, I finished off The Dark Tower series earlier this year, and I’ve read Cujo and some of his short stories and, of course, On Writing.

So I also picked up something at random from King off the library shelf. The Eyes of the Dragon is a solid YA fantasy novel, good fun on its own but with some surprise appearances of characters and settings from The Dark Tower.

I like King’s penchant for self-crossovers and reimaginings. It fits in with my own understanding that a character, once formed for one story, is going to be re-used and recycled and reimagined by fans, and possibly fit into other “real”, published stories later. Like how the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz has transformed into Elphaba from Wicked. Or how there are dozens of versions of King Arthur between books, movies, and TV shows, from child Arthur of The Once and Future King to jock Arthur of Merlin to comedic Arthur of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

No reason the original author can’t also get in on the reimagination action.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
I’m stretching back in time a bit here (I finished this one last summer), but I just wanted to add this book to my review dump here. While the ending was messy and the world doesn’t make sense if you stop to think about it, the whole thing is super stylish, high energy, and fun. If you’re like me and you think you should probably read more sci-fi to expand your fantasy-oriented reading list, pick this one up.

FILM

The Hateful Eight
Oh look, a timely review instead of a totally random one! I saw The Hateful Eight just before I got sick, and it was amazing. Amazing. I don’t want to spoil much because this movie is such a ride, but I will point out that Captain Phasma wasn’t the only “non-traditional” (i.e. not a sexpot) female villain this Holiday Season. I have never seen a woman in a film treated like Daisy Domergue before.

Seriously, this movie is a must-see. Like, go see it! Now!

The Thing
I discovered that Quentin Tarantino was heavily inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing in making The Hateful Eight. So when I got sick, I decided to watch The Thing. And it’s good! I love traditional film effects, and the ooey gooey monsters in this film are tops.

Watching the films nearly back to back, the parallels are pretty obvious. Both take place in snowy isolation (Antarctica vs. late 1800s Wisconsin), and both involve a group of people who start picking each other off because they are infected (by an alien…virus?/by hate, bigotry, and greed). And Ennio Morricone wrote excellent soundtracks for both. Apart from that, the characters and genres are quite different, so the two movies don’t just feel like an echo of each other.

I like The Hateful Eight better. The dialogue is better, the acting is better, it actually passes the Bechdel test for women as well as people of color, and the filmography is so pretty you’ll cry. But if you want to feel like a real film buff, give The Thing a watch too. Those monsters are totally worth it.

Bone Tomahawk
Now that I’ve gotten started, I could keep going. My husband and I watch a lot of movies together, especially horror, because my husband loooooves horror. But I’ll stop for now with the excellent horror/western we watched yesterday; Bone Tomahawk.

Despite the title and the assumptions you can probably draw from it, I don’t think this movie is racist. At first glance the murderous bad guys are “Indians”. But my favorite character, “The Professor”, is played by actual Native American Zahn McClarnon, and he states, “They aren’t Indians. They are Troglodytes.” And while dictionary-troglodytes don’t have tusks, or throat bones that make them sound like a pack of wolves, neither do Native Americans.

Like The Hateful Eight, most of the characters are white men, but like The Hateful Eight there are enough “minority” characters and the film is conscious enough about race and sex that I won’t complain. The acting is great, and the dialogue is superb — I felt like I was watching something new by Shakespeare at times.

The plot is a bit bare-bones, so (unlike Shakespeare, or The Hateful Eight) there isn’t a whole lot to think about after watching it. But it’s a solid film, and I do recommend it to western fans and horror fans alike. Don’t let the title turn you off.