Why I Refuse to Read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

This is not a draft.

Though most first novels aren’t first novels at all, but the first book a novelist finally got published, my first novel, “Power in the Blood” is truly a first novel—the first novel I ever wrote. But what it isn’t is a first draft of a first novel.

I don’t know of a single author who wouldn’t change things about his or her first novel—myself included—and that’s after it was rewritten and edited many, many times. Professionals don’t publish drafts. This little piece you’re reading right now, which is only a short opinion piece in a small-town newspaper, isn’t a draft. I wouldn’t dream of publishing a draft of something as simple as this—let alone a novel.

This is not a draft, but Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is.

What it isn’t is a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s just an earlier draft of that now iconic novel—a novel that isn’t just iconic, but canonical, perhaps the closest thing to the Great American novel we are likely to ever have.

As a novelist, I’d love to read Lee’s early draft. But as a novelist, I wouldn’t want anyone reading an early draft of any of my novels without my permission. As a novelist and as a person of principle, I can’t read an early draft of a book that has been out for decades now when I believe the author never wanted it published.

Supposedly the 89 year old author who had a stroke in 2007 had this to say: “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” But I remain unconvinced—and very suspicious of Carter, who put out the statement. Not only are there questions about the copyright, who discovered the manuscript—and when and where—but this has all happened after the death of Alice Lee, the author’s older sister who served as her counselor and caretaker for decades and when Harper herself is described by friends as 95 percent blind, profoundly deaf, with memory issues.

 I believe if Lee wanted this earlier draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird” published it would have happened decades ago. In fact, correspondence from back then suggests that when all the discussions about a second novel were happening following the incredible success of “Mockingbird,” “Watchmen” was never considered because it was never anything but a draft that became “Mockingbird.”

If I thought Nelle Harper Lee had all her faculties and truly wanted “Go Set a Watchman” published, I’d be the first to buy a copy. But I don’t. Back when she had all her faculties and trustworthy representation she didn’t publish it. I believe this is the greed of the many who will benefit at the expense of an elderly, infirmed, isolated lady, who is a national treasure and deserves far, far better. 

I could be wrong about all this, but until I become convinced otherwise, out of respect to the now vulnerable and compromised author and her peerless masterpiece, I have no intention of reading what amounts to film on the cutting room floor or the excess marble not used in the perfect statute that is “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Posted on July 16, 2015 .