“Go Set A Watchman,” an early incarnation of Harper Lee’s “To Tell A Mockingbird” is causing an enormous amount of chatter in the literary world.
We all know “Mockingbird” from school or from the movie, a redemptive tale of a proud lawyer who stands to do the right thing for black man accused of raping a white woman. The Atticus Finch in “Watchman,” though, is a man steeped in the culture of segregation, stranding with community values that say people of colour are less than.
Indications of this are in “Mockingbird,” but we choose not to read them, instead projecting our own modern mores and expectations onto Atticus. We liked it simple and sweet.
The transformation of the challenging “Watchman” into the attractive “Mockingbird” was overseen by Harper Lee’s editor at Lippincott. She did what an editor does, taking raw work from a strong artist and shaping it into something that the audience will engage and value.
This meant cleaning “Mockingbird” up, getting it to the level where the country wanted to be around civil rights at the time of publication. It meant making the book a huge hit, still loved today, a kind and warm look at those who transcended racism rather than being mired in it.
The release of the earlier “Watchman,” 50 years later, is challenging our vision of that clean and easy tale we engaged in “Mockingbird.” The rawness and nuance that was inherent in Ms. Lee’s original creation is now again visible and we are forced to look again at what being mired in something and transcending it really means.
Janet Mock has said that her editor instructed her that while we should write at a seventh grade reading level for most things, when talking about trans, we should be writing at a third grade level.
Is this what Harper Lee’s editor told her about writing on racism in the late 1950s? That people weren’t yet ready to engage it on a mature level and that they would much more easily take a sweet and sanitized fable to their hearts than they would a more realistic view?
Clearly, the strategy worked for Ms. Lee. “Mockingbird” is huge and very well loved.
This blog contains over 1.1 million words of my writing, all raw and none elegantly edited to be easy for an audience to love. We don’t live in a culture where even “Mockingbird” would be so gracefully transformed and accepted. Today, product has to be product, designed for short attention spans and clear expectations.
I am certainly not “on trend” or “influential,” not speaking for where people are now in a way that marks me as a voice people want to follow. I search to understand the world around me, to say what I see, not to shape a story that others will embrace.
“What will happen if you never find what you need?” asked TBB, in a voice tinged with fear and a bit of sadness.
What if nobody every really engages my work, mirroring me in a way that is affirming, let alone no magical editor ever hears me and wants to help my story reach an audience who can be moved & touched by it?
I watch transpeople who stayed in the closet for years get fêted as heroes because they have producers who make their story and their appearance easy to engage and affirm. They know how to make product that works the audience.
And I get more and more alone, working so hard to speak up. I know that my work ripples out there, not because I have followers, but because people have picked up splinters I have created that pierced their armour and made them see themselves in a new way. I am not aspirational, a role model, but I am stimulating, a spreader of thought.
What will happen if I never find what I need?