Wednesday, August 5, 2015

An Open Letter: The Tongue of the Wise

Dear Wade and Charles,

Although the page counter for my blog indicates otherwise, it would seem that only you two have read my comments regarding Go Set a Watchman. And you may not know each other, but both of you have an interest in all things Harper Lee as do I. So as Joan Rivers was fond of saying, “Let’s talk.”

Neither of you will be surprised to know that I’m making this public or that I dare borrow scripture for the title. After all, aren’t we about to discuss a novel with a similar genesis?

My first disclaimer is that I haven’t read a single review by anyone who has read the book except that of Nancy Anderson. Anderson, retired professor of English, is a scholar of the work of Harper Lee and other southern writers who asserted long ago that Lee had written more. Know, Wade and Charles, that I was intentional about this so that I wouldn’t allow the opinion of others to color mine. I’m addressing, not you specifically here, but offering my opinions about those dubious, questioning folks, quick to accuse or criticize in any way either the subject matter or craft of Go Set A Watchman, i.e., I’m setting myself up as Watchwoman for Watchman. (That won’t surprise you either!)

Before granting such ones even the courtesy of conversation, I will pose a few questions of them: Have you ever written a novel? Have you ever started a novel and written as much as 200 pages of it? Have you written as many as two novels? How old are you? Come back to me with your first 200 pages and I’ll be happy to discuss any or all criticisms you may have.

reading does count as your license to critique to some degree, if you read in several genres and if you read within the novel genre both literary novels and what I term page-turners, the single-shot plot-laden novels.

Still with me, guys? To start our discussion, let’s consider both the subject matter/theme and the craft—the larger picture before we start a magnified look.

Subject and my say on it: Jean Louise Finch, the grownup Scout, mulls over a sentence from her learned, aging Uncle Jack in which he has quoted three authors in one sentence. She’s a bit surprised that it actually makes sense to her. I hope that what I think about this book’s themes at this point will make a little sense written in a similar sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t go home again; yet no man is an island.

On craft: Voice is not always evident and rarely consistent in an early draft. Newly-drawn characters may not be distinguishable from one another in dialogue because their speech patterns are so similar. It is in the refining of that character based on her interaction with others that the character takes on singularity.

It has been said, in fact, that there is no good writing, but only good re-writing. I’m not clear on just how much time there was between the surfacing of Watchman and its actual publication. That it was there for years and had been forgotten or misplaced is so easy to understand. Anybody who’s been a writer for any length of time will have boxes of manuscripts at various stages of revision. That, too, is a universally known truth. Another such truth is that poor health can impede, scotch, or totally squelch creativity. Survival at some point becomes utmost.

Sena Jeter Naslund, Director of the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University and author of nine novels and two collections of stories, said in a July meeting of  Alabama Writers’ Conclave in Fairhope that voice is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience, and himself. She related the story of how during the writing of Ahab’s Wife, she “heard” her protagonist Una speak what became the very first engaging sentence of the novel: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Time was required to develop a voice as clear and inimitable as Naslund’s Una.

I’m guessing the same was true for Lee’s development of her renowned and revered Scout. It is my understanding that Watchman was what was left of the anatomy of a novel with its younger ribs of Jean Louise stripped away and revised to create Scout and To Kill a Mockingbird. Time and health have both been obstacles in Lee’s bringing forth this long-undisclosed treasure of the voice of Jean Louise.

Not to be ignored are the truths in this gift to the world, albeit belated. To excerpt Proverbs 12: 18. “...the tongue of the wise brings healing/Truthful lips endure forever/....”

Your turn, fellows.

With anticipation,

Watchwoman Kathleen



Charles Kinnaird said...

Well NOW you've gone and done it, Kathleen! Drawing me in to actually read Watchman! When the news first broke, I blogged about the controversy of whether it was truly Ms. Lee's wish (Wayne Flynt calls her Nelle, as do the townsfolk of Monroeville, but he is a friend, and I dare not use any other appellation that the more formal "Ms. Lee"). My statement at the time reflected my own mixed feelings:

"If I may be allowed to have conflicted views, here is my thinking at the moment. It may be that the publishers are the vultures who finally got through to make a little more money. On the other hand, since the novel was written prior to To Kill A Mockingbird, I can see literary value in it just to see what the author was thinking, what her writing was like and what she was focused on in the period leading up to TKAM. For those defending Harper Lee’s privacy and personal wishes, I can see that it is quite possible that the author may simply not have wanted her earlier writing made public, given that she was so reticent in all things regarding TKAM in spite of so much public interest throughout the years.

"I want to read it. I’m not sure I want to buy it. I want to take a long look, I want to drink it in, but I don’t want to invade a respected author’s privacy. I want to walk through her wonderful house, as it were, but I don’t want to barge in uninvited. I want Harper Lee to tell us everything, but I respect her right to tell us nothing more than what she has already said in her acclaimed novel. I want this information to be out there in public, just like the keepers of J.R.R. Tolkein’s estate released so many unpublished tales from Middle Earth to shed light on The Lord of the Rings. I do not want to think about how the keepers of Harper Lee’s estate may be pulling a fast one.

"But it is Harper Lee’s writing – it must be good. It is about Scout all grown up, and Atticus is there to. Surely there is great benefit in that. In the end, our life’s choices are like what I imagine Atticus Finch would advise, we walk with our eyes open to all the nuances of justice and injustice, then we do the thing that we can best live with as we carry on with our lives." (A New Novel by Harper Lee - Literary Prize, or Vulture's Prey?

Those were my thoughts in February, but you have set some wise parameters for discussion. I have three separate deadlines forthcoming, but as time allows I will delve into the work. In the meantime, I will keep an eye on your blog for more discussion.

Kathleen Thompson said...

Welcome, Charles! Today has been a Gran day for me with a twelve-year-old granddaughter and six-year-old grandson. Golden days for sure when I'm with them. Great to get our discussion going--I've only skimmed your note but will dig in soon… be talking soon!

Kathleen Thompson said...

Charles, I've had time to read your comments a little more closely. I think good people have to be in denial about the whole process of how things get published and why. I'm a near-total cynic myself, but I have to keep thinking about why writers write in the first place. Would you and I be writing this dialogue in a public place if we weren't interested in reaching out to others, hoping to make connection with one soul on this spinning planet?

Money means very little to those who are ailing in body or spirit. ( I think.) What may be there is this hope of finding people like you and Wade and me who care. And why is that so all-important to a writer? Only God knows. (I'll try not to add mind-reading to my credits.) He made us.

Read in a hurry, but relish as you go. It was not a page turner for me, but there are all kinds of reasons for that. See my comment to Wade on his Facebook page. Can't find you on Facebook!

BTW, it has always been a conundrum for me on what to call her. I ended up just using the very "literary" last name here, out of respect for her, and the wrath of all Wayne Flynts everywhere!

Charles Kinnaird said...

Here's a word worth reading from none other than Ursula Le Guin. She very effectively describes the complex nature of our ties to family and culture which makes addressing the evil of racial injustice a complicated issue. I very much enjoyed Ms Le Guin’s comments and perspective. I think she is right on target about how these moral issues of social injustice can be very complicated in light of the intertwining of all of our family and community relationships. I would only add that Jean Louise may not have grown up free of racial prejudice (Ms. Le Guin notes that Watchman makes no effort to explain how Jean Louise grew up "without racial prejudice.". As one who was raised in the Deep South who left and then returned to be shocked by the racists attitudes, I can say that the journey away from home can be transformative. In my case, my own unnoticed racism was made clear to me by my move from one culture to another. If I had never left, I might never have been so shocked at the racism that was evident upon my return. I suspect something similar could have happened to Harper Lee/Jean Louise

Charles Kinnaird said...

I forgot to share the link to Ursula Le Guin's review:

Kathleen Thompson said...

Thanks, Charles, for this very interesting piece by Ursula Le Guin. I think she nailed the whole thing on many levels, and I admire her good wishes for both the "old woman" and the "young woman" who wrote WATCHMAN. What I'm not certain about at all is Le Guin's speculation that perhaps Lee didn't work more on WATCHMAN because she couldn't bear the truths of it (did I get that right from what she said?). We could all speculate about this area, but a few know first-hand that Lee did have other writing projects in mind, i.e., the Alexander City story that she purportedly researched a great deal. As you've said, Charles, "…these moral issues of social injustice can be very complicated." Please read my post from Edward Reynolds and his interview with the poet, Sonya Sanchez. The whites of New York were no more lily-white than were Alabama whites.

Charles Kinnaird said...

Yes, Kathleen, I read the Reynolds piece the other day. I had forgotten about the true-crime case in Alexander City that she had researched. My mother was a long-time high school English teacher at Dadeville High School just down the road. It was during that time that one of my mother's friends in Camp Hill (just a little further down the road) told her that Harper Lee was staying in Camp Hill, and would she like for her to see if she would come talk to her senior English class. My mom asked me if I would like to drive down if she could swing it (I had just graduated from college). I told he yes I would, Mom later informed me that Ms. Lee would not be visiting her class. I was not surprised, and therein is the story of the time I didn't meet the famous author.

Kathleen Thompson said...

Are you a member of Alabama Writers Forum? Danny Gamble posted a review by Don Noble. He was absolutely on target near the end of the review, I thought. "Let's be grown up…" So many people need that advice, including me sometimes!! Also given his literary "status" if you will, I think he was compelled to do the kind of analysis required by the traditional book review for the reader: that is, you must state the positives and the less-than-positives. I think I give the book FAR more positives, simply because the nature of its genesis as stated in my blog. But in a "book review" one has a limited amount of time to cover everything. One example is Jem's getting extracted from the plot so suddenly. That's what one does if the aging and ailing author is not able to revise and explore that "smoking gun" in the future. That is, alas, a major problem: all those wonderful smoking guns set forth in TKAM. The audience is incensed, I believe, because they feel a little robbed of the whole story. To repeat Don's advice, grow up.

Kathleen Thompson said...

Not you, Charles--that incensed audience! : )

Message in a Blog

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