‘I Told You So’
In under a week, Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman has sold more than 1.1 million copies in the States, according to HarperCollins, as reported by Sarah Weinman at Publishers Lunch. Don’t worry, there are 2.2 million more copies for you to buy, we’re told.
In the UK, my associates at The Bookseller are reporting Penguin Random House’s (William Heinemann imprint) first-day sale figure of 105,000 copies.
Update 21 July 2015: New data reported by Kiera O’Brien at The Bookseller gives us Watchman in the No. 1 spot in the UK Top 50, selling 168,455 copies in its first week there, or sales of more than £1.8 million ($2.8 million).
A neat bit of numbers comparison from my associate O’Brien in London: “E L James is 37 years younger than Lee and sales of Grey plummeted 37 percent last week to 41,943 copies” in the UK, landing there in second place between Watchman at No. 1 and To Kill A Mockingbird at No. 3.
One of the more interesting tests we get in the bargain with this publishing event has to do with the book’s huge “one-day laydown,” as it’s called in the business: a rare near-simultaneous global release that required extensive preparation and security procedures to keep copies from getting out early. If you’re interested in the logistical headaches of that feat, Jennifer Maloney at the Wall Street Journal has a good write-up from four days before the launch of the book, Delivering Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’ to Readers Worldwide.
As my colleague, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones, wrote in Let the right edition in:
The release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman provides another moment to reflect on the developing ebook market and how it mixes with the print sector. Released globally in print and ebook format, and at various retail prices, there are three competing editions in the marketplace (hardback, ebook and audio): which will prevail?
What he’s pointing out here is quite cool. As much as literary fiction fans may enjoy seeing so much brouhaha around a work that doesn’t sit on romance shelves, that may not mean that print copies are the ultimate winners in the format bowl. Jones writes:
The assumption that readers prefer to read commercial fiction in ebook format but buy printed copies of the more serious stuff is not always borne out by the charts. As The Bookseller noted in its half-year review (published last week), two of the biggest books of the year so far have radically different sales mixes. The Girl on the Train, for example has sold 294,000 print copies at an average selling price of around £9; the ebook, selling for £3 less, has sold 440,000 copies. The performance of Grey is almost the exact opposite: it has sold 688,000 copies in print (average price of round £4.50) and 395,000 in its digital format (current Amazon price £3.66).
Read your Watchman on any device you like (including paper), the best news of all to some: Not a single shade of Grey darkens this one, although the controversies around Watchman may be more interesting than the book itself.
As noisy as the entertainment-mongers are most days of the week, many readers — yes, even closet lit-lovers you don’t suspect in your own neighborhood — still get a sweet gust of satisfaction in knowing that at American Barnes & Noble stores, The Lost Symbol now holds a lost record in first-day sales. Harper Lee blew past Dan Brown like bats out of Vatican City.
And as hyped as it has been for months, Go Set A Watchman offers just about everybody an opportunity to say, “I told you so.”
‘The Spokesman of the New South’ Told Jem So
For example, the prolific author James Scott Bell in The Whole Truth About Atticus Finch at the Kill Zone group blog site, tells us that in teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, he long ago noticed a passage in Chapter 15 in which Atticus Finch hands young Jem the speeches of Henry W. Grady to read. Grady (1850-1889) was an Atlanta Constitution managing editor who is said to have turned the newspaper into a mouthpiece for his own views, which included white supremacy.
Bell quotes, in part, from writings by “The Spokesman of the New South,” as Grady was known:
What is this negro vote? In every Southern State it is considerable, and I fear it is increasing. It is alien, being separated by radical differences that are deep and permanent. It is ignorant — easily deluded or betrayed. It is impulsive — lashed by a word into violence. It is purchasable, having the incentive of poverty and cupidity, and the restraint of neither pride nor conviction. It can never be merged through logical or orderly currents into either of two parties, if two should present themselves. We cannot be rid of it.
An interesting modern side note from The New Georgia Encyclopedia on Grady: He was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame — in 2004.
What Bell is illustrating is that even in To Kill A Mockingbird, discerning readers might have picked up on the Finch character’s layered personality. For Bell, this positions Finch as “flawed and therefore human,” and not the near-saintly courtroom crusader associated by many with the face of Gregory Peck from the 1962 film. Bell asks something not all that far from a deep discussion about online hostility this past weekend at Writer Unboxed:
Are we compelled to hate those who hold views we cannot abide?…Jesus taught people to hate the sin, but love the sinner. In a world of so much hate, this message is exactly what we need to hear. Harper Lee’s novel, so long locked up in a safety deposit box, may therefore be more important than we think.
Scholars Told Us So, Too
Bell is not alone in a little déjà vu on the “surprise” of the segregationist Anti-Atticus of Watchman.
Laura Marsh in These Scholars Have Been Pointing Out Atticus Finch’s Racism for Years at The New Republic introduces us to three professors whose more-than-usually nuanced readings of Finch pick up on such factors in Mockingbird as his assignment to defend Tom Robinson, the black rape defendant — he doesn’t volunteer to take the case.
Marsh quotes a 2010 paper by one of the scholars, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, who writes that even though Lee has the attorney say that to understand someone you must “climb into his skin and walk around in it”:
Neither the jury nor the audience of the novel have learned anything about Tom: where he lives, what his family is like, how he treats his wife and children and others in his daily life.
We Could Have Told Everybody So
For those of us who were raised during the last century in the Deepest South, Finch’s ugly nature in Watchman — and suspected (by some) conflicted nature in Mockingbird — is not the big gulp it may be for others. In my childhood I knew many white citizens whose regard for their black friends and associates appeared to be rigorously authentic.
And yet, these folks, including my grandparents, were members of transitional generations whose cognitive dissonance was as gracious as their speech patterns.
These were all loving, highly educated, thoughtful people emerging from an all-pervasive system of bias — in some particulars, formalized in law.
Even when components of the nightmare began to fall away, it wasn’t unlike the collapse of the Berlin Wall: many were left unsure how to continue in any way but in voluntary perpetuation of what had been institutionalized for so long.
None of that excuses anything, and it’s not meant to, as I write it here.
But I knew many men who looked like both Atticus Finch and Anti-Atticus, lurching from one revelation to the next regression.
Much is still being re-drafted at home. A lot of us don’t live there now.
Keeping It Straight
Suw Charman-Anderson writes in The Single Most Important Thing You Need To Know About ‘Go Set A Watchman’ that many have struggled to keep clearly in mind — or to understand in the first place — the relationship of Watchman to Mockingbird. The two books are not, of course, a story (Mockingbird) and its sequel (Watchman). Although Watchman is set later, it was written first.
Go Set A Watchman is the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, a draft she extensively revised and changed. We cannot look at Watchman as any kind of continuation of Mockingbird, we cannot expect the two books to share a coherent world view or think of the characters as the same people who’ve ‘changed’ between books, because Watchman is not a deliberately planned out sequel to Mockingbird at all. It is not set in the same universe.
And, perhaps understandably, this unusual circumstance may be giving some readers fits as they think of it like the film, television and book sequels with which they’re so entirely familiar.
Charman-Anderson lays some of the problem at the feet of the publishers, so eager to move those 3.3 million copies. She writes:
The HarperCollins press release muddies the waters hugely about what this book is, calling it “a newly discovered novel”, and implying – but not saying – that it’s an entirely new book and a sequel.
Those of us who covered the release of the work may be fully conversant with the odd circumstances here: It’s a-not-new-book-related-to-The-Famous-Book-that’s-set-after-The-Famous-Book-and-yet-written-before-The-Famous-Book. You can hardly blame the general reading public for easily jumping into that little dialectic with anything but eyes glazed over.
But Charman-Anderson, like many of us, worries about how the novel has come to its release and about how that release has been characterized:
It is unfair to Lee to publish it as if it were a finished novel, or to in any way represent it as her second novel or as a sequel.
And No, They Don’t Get A Do-Over
Here, she is aligned to a good degree with the author William Giraldi, who titles the final part of his three-section essay on Watchman for The New Republic Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’ Should Not Have Been Published.
Giraldi is careful to exonerate Lee the artist in terms of the book-craft revealed in Watchman:
For once, none of those flaws in the novel can be blamed on the author: She was learning how to write when she composed Watchman, and wasn’t able to ready this draft for publication. In the two and a half years it took her to turn this mess into To Kill a Mockingbird, she evolved beautifully as a stylist and storyteller, helped along by an astute editor. It’s impossible to believe that a sound Harper Lee wished for this thing to be published, impossible to believe that her sister-protector, Alice Lee, would have allowed it to happen.
And when all is said and done about the bringing forward of this manuscript and its publication, unedited, these may be words to remember:
This befouling book does not come close to meeting the immoderate predictions of its publisher (a “masterpiece” that “will be revered for generations to come”). It should have been permitted to retain its quiet dignity boxed in the author’s archives. The manuscript might have been mildly nourishing for future tweeds in search of tenure, but it should never have been expensively packaged, gaudily hyped, unscrupulously employed as chum to lure lovers of Mockingbird.
Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in “the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” as Percy Shelley put it in a different context. And futurity, I’m certain, will forgive Go Set a Watchman. I’m not at all certain that it will forgive those who conspired to sell it to us.