In which I tell you what you should think about “Go Set a Watchman”

In case you haven’t already made up your mind.

I agree with the editor who rejected Go Set a Watchman.  But I can also understand why he didn’t want to give up on Harper Lee.  She obviously knew how to write.  She could create vivid characters and evoke a sense of time and place.  What she didn’t demonstrate in this book is that she knew how to write a novel.  Just at the point when you expect the tension to ratchet up–when she discovers that her beloved father and the man she thinks she’s going to marry have joined a citizens’ council to fight integration–the plot stops dead in its tracks, and we have to endure a series of long conversations between the narrator and her uncle, lover, and father.  Show, don’t tell, Harper!

I actually found those conversations reasonably interesting.  Here are smart, presumably reasonable men at the dawn of the Civil Rights era making the best case they can that Civil Rights is a bad idea, both for them and for Negroes.  I don’t find it a convincing case, and neither does the narrator, but it’s well presented.  What Lee should have done is dramatize the case they are making, but she doesn’t (and maybe couldn’t).  She walks right up to the drama–she has Atticus agree to defend a black man for running down a no-‘count white drunk; but he does this only to keep the NAACP lawyers from taking the case and potentially riling up the town by getting the black man off on a technicality. That has a lot of potential, it seems to me.  But ultimately this goes nowhere.

Her editor could have told her to focus on that plot element, but instead he evidently told her to focus on her childhood; the reminiscences that are interspersed in Go Set a Watchman are charming (and also completely extraneous).  It made perfect sense to weave a novel out of them.

And it also made sense to avoid focusing on the grown-up Scout.  Lee gives her a good narrative voice, but her life never really comes into focus–what is she doing in New York?  Is she happy there?  I got the sense that Lee really wasn’t particularly interested in her; Atticus was all that mattered.  I wonder why.

Great books, bad Amazon reviews

Here‘s a delightful article that simply quotes one-star reviews of great books on Amazon.  (I read about it in the Boston Globe this morning and assumed it was recent–but it’s actually from way back in 2005.)

Some of the reviews just kinda miss the point, like this one of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“In the novel, they often speak of a planet called Tralfamadore, where he was displayed in a zoo with a former movie star by the name of Montana Wildhack. I thought that the very concept of a man who was kidnapped by aliens was truly unbelievable and a tad ludicrous. I did not find the idea of aliens kidnapping a human and putting them in a zoo very plausible. While some of the Tralfamadorians’ concept of death and living in a moment would be comforting for a war veteran, I found it relatively odd. I do not believe that an alien can kidnap someone and house them in a zoo for years at a time, while it is only a microsecond on earth. I also do not believe that a person has seven parents.”

Some of them simply employ different critical standards from the rest of us. Here’s a one-sentence pan of Lord of the Rings:

“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

And some of them do have a point.  Here’s a takedown of Gravity’s Rainbow:

“When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.”

And this one pretty well sums up The Sun Also Rises:

“Here’s the first half of the book: ‘We had dinner and a few drinks. We went to a cafe and talked and had some drinks. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. Dinner. Drinks. More dinner. More drinks. We took a cab here (or there) in Paris and had some drinks, and maybe we danced and flirted and talked sh*t about somebody. More dinner. More drinks. I love you, I hate you, maybe you should come up to my room, no you can’t’… I flipped through the second half of the book a day or two later and saw the words ‘dinner’ and ‘drinks’ on nearly every page and figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”

I just love that last sentence.

I wonder if you could chart a book’s reputation over time by the customer reviews.  The Sun Also Rises has 621 reviews; On the Road has 811; Slaughterhouse-Five has 911. That’s getting to be a reasonable sample size.  In any case, writers can take comfort that you can’t please everyone; some people are bound to hate even the best books.  Everybody likes To Kill a Mockingbird, right?  It now has 87 one-star reviews in Amazon.  Here’s one:

i had to read this book in 9th grade. i heard that it was supposed to be this wonderful american classic, and i actually looked forward to reading it. well, all i’m gonna say is that it sucked. it was just like any other book, nothing special. yes, the prejudice part was good, i think it could show people that we need to accept our differences, but it just wasn’t that deep. i got bored after 20 pages. all in all, i was very disappointed and to whoever gets an assignment to read this, good luck.