February 12, 2015
The announcement that Harper Lee might publish her second book in a career defined entirely by That Book, has, if you’ll forgive the cliché, rocked, well, the world.
To Kill A Mockingbird has sold more than thirty million copies and been translated into forty languages, according to its publisher’s website. It has gained a place in the canon of American literary classics, and is considered, by many, to be an excellent representation of race and racism.
I don’t think Mockingbird is nearly as bad as some have insisted, but it’s nowhere as spectacular a creation as others claim. As a piece of literary fiction, it has the freshness of a work produced before the years that all fiction was doomed to being workshopped in Creative Writing Classes in the book mills of the University of Iowa’s Writing Program and its clones. It’s hard not to be at least mildly charmed by Scout and Boo, and the descriptions of a sleepy, sunlit Southern town are vivid enough to capture the imagination of people in places nothing like Maycomb at all.
But, still, Mockingbird’s success has less to do with its brilliance as a work of fiction than with the fact that it crystalises a perfect fantasy about race and racism, a fantasy that transcends political boundaries because it also speaks to a universal wish-fulfillment about what happens to those most brutalised and marginalised.
In this fantasy, brutality is acknowledged; it is resisted, there is even a degree of triumph; the saviours are slightly flawed but well-meaning; the subjugated are completely disempowered even after a momentary triumph but remain grateful and silent.
Mockingbird lives on the way it does through the fantasy of empowerment of a particular class of saviours, a fantasy that could just as well be translated, literally and metaphorically, by well-meaning Indian liberals sobbing about the torture and rape of Dalits as by the European liberals decrying the plight of the Roma. There is, of course, a deep specificity to Mockingbird in its depiction of Southern racism before the ostensible end of Jim Crow laws but there is also a wide plasticity to it. In its ability to create a desirable narrative about racism, it allows for people across the world to imagine an acceptable end to brutal histories, an end that involves no revolutions or violence, only the gentle, plodding rhythms of deep feeling.
It is almost, not quite, but almost unfair to hold Lee responsible for that as a novelist. Without the benefit of a body of work by which to consider her politics of representation (and interviews with authors do not actually count as bodies of work, regardless of what you might think), it’s hard to say what her fiction, if she continued, might have had to contribute to a larger conversation about race and racism.
So it’s understandable that the announcement this week that a second book, a sequel written before Mockingbird, is forthcoming should be greeted first by a wave of euphoria and giddy expectation.
All of that is now being tempered by more recent speculation that Lee, now in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Alabama, is much too senile to have consented to this work being published in her lifetime. Commentators and reporters point out that this the announcement comes after the death of her sister, Alice Lee, who died in November last year. They point to Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer who also has power of attorney over her matters, as a scheming and manipulative woman who may well have conned Lee into signing a declaration that she is excited about the newly rediscovered manuscript being published.
All of this might well turn out to be true. It’s not just famous people and authors but ordinary people who have to worry about their life savings or their estates being swindled by greedy lawyers, family members, or some combination of both. Presumably, Lee’s monetary value is, well, too stupendous for me to even do the math, so there is probably a great deal at stake.
But here’s my problem with this whole greedy-lawyer theory, besides my unease at the gendered nature of all this Carter-bashing: If Alice Lee, a lawyer herself and apparently a very good one, was as canny as everyone claims she was, would she have allowed her sister’s estate to be left in charge of Carter, who has been known to the family for decades?
Yes, this story about suddenly rediscovering a lost manuscript stinks like very dead fish, but isn’t it more likely that this has all been a carefully plotted series of events and, that, in fact, Alice Lee and perhaps even Harper Lee herself in her more lucid time, actually meant for this “rediscovery” to appear at this opportune moment?
Call me cynical, and I am deeply, deeply cynical, but I’m not in the camp of Harper Lee worshippers who see the author as a minor god and would rather believe that the legal team behind one of the planet’s most bestselling and beloved authors would blatantly swindle her estate than the simple truth: that this is an expertly whirring cog in the publicity campaign of a book, the only one ever written by said author.
I don’t begrudge Harper Lee her success or what I assume are her many, many millions. As a writer, I’m sympathetic to my brethren, most of whom are scrambling to eke out a living. So when I see or hear of anyone, regardless of what I think of their work, being successful as a writer, my response is simply, You go, girl — take the money and run! But I’m also a cynical realist, and I don’t think it does anyone, least of all writers, any good to engage in conspiracy theories when the truth is more prosaic and revealing.
To Kill a Mockingbird is ensconced in the Canon of Very Great Books You Must Read, not because of its sublime qualities as fiction but because it managed, by a series of historical accidents and coincidences, to strike exactly the right note at the right time. Its brilliance is not in its execution as a novel but in its ability to speak to a set of universals that defy reality and allow us all to fondly imagine how particular forms of legalised social brutality might end.
It makes sense that Lee never produced another book. Who could, with such a weight on their shoulders? But it also, then, makes sense, that what I call the upkeep of Mockingbird has been to ensure that it remained The One, and that anything else by Lee would be attached to The One, even if it was to be a sequel.
So, yes, there might well be some kind of nefarious plotting behind this news of Another Book By Harper Lee, but I suspect that the real story is one that Lee’s readers and fans might not want. For many of them, it seems, it’s almost preferable that Lee be seen as a manipulated victim rather than as the centre of a well-oiled publicity machine that has been humming along for decades.