July 15, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Wacky Wednesday: What’s the deal with Go Set a Watchman?


go set a watchmanTopics discussed: Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, Barnes & Noble, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bryan Burrough, Barbarians at the Gate, RJR Nabisco, Powerhouse Arena, Choire Sicha, William Giraldi, Neely Tucker, Alice Lee, Tonja Carter, Charles J. Shields, Caroline Casey, Alexandra Alter, Jennifer Maloney, Jimmy Buffett, Andrew Nurnberg, Vladimir Nabokov

Mark: So . . . how about that Harper Lee book?

Alex: It’s out now! I just got a copy. It’s pretty. The woman at Barnes & Noble said that lots of people are buying it and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book together. I’m reading that one first. Are you going to read it, Mark?

Oh also, what exactly is this? We’re writing on a Tuesday, but to publish on a Wednesday? Two for Wednesday? Wacky Wednesday?

Mark: Yes, Wacky Wednesday. That’s the official name. Periodically, when the book world gets too wild and crazy, we have to publish our column on a day of the week different from the day that we refer to in the title of our column. Because we are all about logic.

Earlier today I went to Powerhouse and also bought a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, which I’m very excited to read. I did not buy Go Set a Watchman because I don’t think I’m going to read it. Not for, like, ideological reasons, but because there are too many  books. I need to read Between the World and Me, and I still have to finish Buddenbrooks, and I want to read Bryan Burrough’s 1989 book Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco. RJR Nabisco! That’s a way better topic for a book than going to set a watchman.

So: Harper Lee. You and I haven’t really spoken much about Go Set a Watchman recently (at least in this column; We’ve spoken way too much about it on Gchat), but literally everyone else has, and also, we’ve already devoted like 5,000 words to the topic.

But Alex! We still have to talk about it! This is by far the biggest publishing story of the year, and a totally sui generis event. In scale, coverage, and controversy this story totally dwarfs everything else we’ve talked about and everything we’ll talk about in 2015. And unlike most other important publishing stories, people really give a shit about this one! Hence why everyone has already chimed in.

Originally, I thought that for our Wacky Wednesday we could simply pull quotes from the early coverage of the Go Set a Watchman announcement and compare it to the stories we’ve been told about the book in the last few days, which in many cases are wildly different from the stories we heard in February. (Funny how that turned out.) But then it turned out that Choire Sicha had done a down-and-dirty version of this very thing for the Hairpin, and also that William Giraldi wrote a sophisticated version of said thing for the New Republic.

So there go my grand plans.

Instead, I’ll ask you a question. Now that the book is out and the contents are pretty well-known, what do you think about the crazy marketing campaign that so captivated and infuriated us over the last few months? Was it worth it? And was it effective?

Alex: Everybody should read the pieces by Sicha and Giraldi—I’m really excited for Giraldi’s follow-ups, by the way—as well as BusinessWeek’s excellent piece about the controversy. Those are really good pieces!

A couple things. First, let’s give credit where credit is due. As far as I can tell, we were the first people to point out that Go Set A Watchman was a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a “sequel.” The original New York Times piece (though I’m pretty sure this was added later) notes that Lee thought of it as a “parent” to the book—that strikes me as an accurate descriptor, but still something of a misleading one. Anyhow, it should be said that we just jabbed at the official narrative—it was the Washington Post’s Neely Tucker who delivered the first suplex to the version of events presented by HarperCollins and Tonja Carter, Lee’s attorney. I’ve always wondered if we would’ve gotten more credit for that if we didn’t do it in a stupid column called “Two For Tuesday,” but I guess I’ll never know the truth. Also, that doesn’t matter at all. I’m just a petty man with a giant ego.

Second, can we even call what we’ve witnessed a marketing campaign? A book like Go Set a Watchman doesn’t really need anything like a marketing campaign—its existence alone is what sells it. This is a book that most people never expected to see: a second novel from Harper Lee!—that’s the book’s selling point. All HarperCollins, Tonja Carter, and Lee’s various agents had to do was tell a story that stuck to that narrative. That’s not what happened.

Instead, nearly every aspect of the original story published in the Times has not only been questioned by outside observers repeatedly, but contradicted by the supposed participants. (The initial story was amended several times to reflect the initial confusion and controversy that greeted the book’s announcement—things have only gotten more complicated.)

While the question of Lee’s involvement in the publication itself has largely been put to rest—despite concerns, she seems mentally competent and the State of Alabama determined she is not the victim of elder abuse—there are still larger, more abstract questions hanging over her role. A convincing account as to why the book is being published now hasn’t really been made to me—a fact that becomes all the more unsettling when you consider that Alice Lee, Harper’s sister, attorney and, by many accounts “protector” of sorts, passed away just months before the book was announced. The publication has been explained as being the result of a “discovery,” but none of the principal actors seems to agree as to when the book was discovered; Lee’s comment that she always thought the book would be published, to my mind at least, only raises more questions.

I have one theory as to why the book is being published now (spoiler: it’s pretty cynical!), but I’ll wait to get to that for a bit. What do you think of the “narrative” surrounding the book, Mark? And do you think it’s silly that I’ve spent so much time obsessing over it? Caroline Casey thinks it’s bad for my brand and I can only suspect Michael Schaub does as well.

Mark: Well, first, if we’re going to give credit where credit is due, we need to thank Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird, the terrific biography of Harper Lee. After all, the column we wrote after we read Shields’s book was based on specific passages in his biography. (That column also marked the only time we’ve ever actually conducted research for Two for Tuesday. I hope never to repeat that deviation from the norm.) And indeed, in her original article about Watchman (or some revision thereof), Alexandra Alter quotes Shields, who expressed strong doubts about the book’s lineage. This is not to say that we shouldn’t get mad props–we should. But let’s give Charles Shields some props, too.

Now, as to the very important question of your brand: lol.

Also: hahahahaha.

Only slightly more seriously, I think Caroline is wrong and that obsessing about the “narrative” surrounding this book is very good for your brand, but that’s only because your brand is already “insidery publishing guy who periodically makes reference to Jimmy Buffett.” (My brand is “not enough followers to compute” [frown emoji].) So as long as you send off a tweet about “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” in the next twenty-four hours, your brand will be intact.

And I don’t know, maybe you and I have been spending too much time together, but obviously the narrative of this book is totally fascinating! You’re absolutely right that there really hasn’t been a traditional “marketing campaign” for Go Set a Watchman of the kind we’re used to seeing, and that’s because all everyone needed was a narrative.

Now that the book is out, the book itself is the story, and given that fact and the fact that we’re in the midst of Lee-thinkpiece-overload, I imagine that this column will be read by even fewer people than usual, which is why I feel pretty comfortable saying that the narrative of this book is completely unbelievable. It’s always been unbelievable, but Tonja Carter’s allegedly definitive Wall Street Journal piece somehow made an unbelievable story even more unbelievable. That’s an impressive–even unbelievable–feat!

But that’s neither here nor there. Why do I find the narrative particularly interesting? Because over the last five months, we’ve gotten to see–in an unusual amount of detail–how a company goes about selling a product. Book publishing is not nearly as refined and sophisticated an industry as it’s often said to be (if you and I could get jobs, it must be a pretty unrefined industry), but even so, one rarely has the chance to encounter a product sold this aggressively. Especially when the selling is less about marketing (no one is getting Harper Lee’s face tattooed on their backs) and more about a single story: the newly discovered book, thought lost to history, revealed and brought to the world.

I want you to tell me your cynical explanation of why Go Set a Watchman is being published now, but first, let’s talk a little more about the rollout for this book. Let me ask you a wilfully naive question, because I think it’ll yield a good answer: why did Harper (Collins, not Lee) keep the book under wraps? The reviews, on the whole, have been decent, especially given that we’re talking about an unedited first draft.

And while I’m at it, a slightly less wilfully naive question: why wait five months? Did Andrew Nurnberg, Harper Lee’s agent, want translators to have their translations ready in time for the English-language release? That strikes me as the only plausible reason (the Spanish- and German-language editions are indeed coming out this month), because everything that happened with this book could have happened much more quickly. It doesn’t take five months to produce promotional material, and as we all know, the book only received a “light copyedit.”

Alex: Yesterday, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a Watergate-style “What did you know and when did you know it?” joke about this book. It didn’t end up working–in large part, I think, because I’m not really joking. I really want to know what people know and when they knew it, because it’s not clear if everyone knew everything they know now five months ago, or even close to it. This feels like a rush job—or, at the very least, like the principal players were somehow caught off guard when a bunch of people were like “Wait, what?” when Go Set a Watchman was released. I suspect that we won’t ever know exactly what everyone involved knew or when they knew it, but I’d bet that a lot of the people at the center had very different ideas about what Watchman was. I suppose the apparent lack of collusion is probably a strike in the book’s favor, though.

As for why Harper kept the book under wraps—isn’t that just what you do with giant releases? That was certainly the case with Harry Potter, perhaps the book’s closest analog. (Though social media wasn’t quite what it is now when the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and The Overlong Resolution, came out in 2007. I also don’t think Go Set a Watchman will provoke as many tears as the last Harry Potter book did. Dobby!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Come back, Dobby.) Those books were kept under lock and key, partly to protect from piracy (a bigger risk now that ebooks make up something like 30% of the market) and partly because publishers think they only have something to lose.

That may not be the case—friend of Two for Tuesday Jennifer Maloney reported that the book’s early reviews, which foregrounded Atticus’s racism, actually increased the book’s sales. Data has suggested that negative reviews raise the sales of under-the-radar books but depress those of bestsellers, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here—perhaps because the reviews only added to people’s curiosity, perhaps because they weren’t really all that negative.

As for why they waited five months, I think your instinct is right, though I still think it was a mistake. I love it when records are released out of nowhere, or when there’s a really minimal lead-up to that release. I would have liked it if they had done that with this book! (Though let’s be real, I’d also probably argue that a surprise release was evidence of the general shadiness around the book’s publication. Still, the publishing nerd inside me would think it’d be cool—book crashes are cool.) I also would’ve liked it because it would have been a boon to bookstores—one major benefactor of the long lead time is Amazon, which owns the preorder market, along with lots of other markets.

Another possibility (I’m getting cynical here!!!) is that there wasn’t a lot of confidence in the quality of the book, or its longevity, and that the best strategy to making it a mega-bestseller would be to expand the preorder period. That Harper et al. anticipated mixed reviews and therefore stretched out the lead time and limited access to the book in order to ensure that, for five months, they would control the narrative. For five months they pretty much did!

I felt crazy for a lot of that period, as I routinely questioned that narrative, mostly on Twitter, mostly to crickets. Over the past week or so, a number of people and prominent publications have launched an assault on that narrative, but still, for five months—even as the various players kept fumbling the ball—the dominant narrative dominated. That didn’t start to change until BusinessWeek published their piece, though I don’t think it really became a tsunami of dissent (well maybe not dissent—questioning? Can you have a tsunami of questions?) until Michiko Kakutani and Sam Sacks published their reviews on Friday.

Of course, I’m letting my conspiratorial brain run wild! So I’ll stop myself, for now, so I can save some of my conspiracy capital for later. Have you been surprised by the response over these past five months, Mark? Do you still miss Dobby? Or were you more of a Lupin/Tonks kinda guy? Actually, now that I think of it, the one that really got to me was Fred. Fred was my dude. I’m a Fred and also a Miranda.

Mark: We can’t both be Mirandas! *I’m* a Miranda!

And (EMBARRASSING CONFESSION ALERT) I haven’t read Harry Potter, so I can’t speak to Dobby, but I do like his name. If I had read Harry Potter, I would probably be missing Dobby right now. And Lupin. Lupin is a good name.

Have I been surprised by the response? No. Indeed, if anything, I’ve been somewhat shocked by how much skepticism has been aired in public. I think you’re generally right that the cheerful, official narrative dominated for months, but even the Times quickly published a more skeptical story, and you mentioned Neely Tucker’s great piece, and there were others. It’s true that it’s hard for you and me to gauge how widely the skepticism was felt–all we did was talk about our skepticism! But my sense is that this has never been the clean rollout that everyone would have wanted–there were too many questions too early on.

Speaking of Neely Tucker: Neely Tucker is the man. He was, as far as I can recall (and I can’t recall too well, because this happened five months ago. Five months was so long ago, Alex! Five months ago I’d never heard of Minions, and my Yanis Varoufakis tattoo was still fresh), the first prominent writer to interrogate the narrative in a really forceful way. And yesterday, he wrote a must-read piece in the Washington Post where he close-reads Tonja Carter’s Wall Street Journal op-ed and finds it . . . lacking. I won’t say much more, because this column is already quite long and we’ve got a ways to go, but everyone should read Tucker’s piece. I find close reading to be a weirdly apt approach here. We’ve been handed so many half-truths and elisions that a perceptive critic can find the faults quickly, without even doing much reporting. (Though Tucker did a lot of reporting.)

Alex, over the last few days, you’ve discussed something called the Original of Laura Problem. Can you tell our readers about the Original of Laura Problem?

Alex: I can! I’m talking, of course, about butterfly fan Vladimir Nabokov’s “final” “novel,” The Original of Laura, which was–deservedly–controversial when it was published. In Go Set a Watchman you have something far more complete than what we saw with Original of Laura—in part because Lee was a normal person who typed on paper and didn’t write on notecards like a sociopath. But still, the two works are comparable. Watchman is a draft—at this point it’s universally acknowledged as such—and if it were to have gone “undiscovered” (or unpublicized) until after Harper Lee’s death, the assumption would have been that Lee did not want the book published. Publishing it would have been far more controversial than this publication has been, and it would have also run the risk of being a curiosity: the book’s status as a draft would come to the forefront, obscuring some of its interest to laypeople. It seems fair to assume it would be a Big Book, but certainly not the Big Book it is now.

By publishing it now, with Lee’s presumed consent, everyone involved can point to Lee and say, “She wants it published.” Her presence makes the manuscript’s questionable status much less questionable—it obscures the rough edges in the book itself and helps smooth over the numerous contradictions in the narrative surrounding its publication. After all, do you want to contradict Harper Lee? Hell no, I don’t want to contradict Harper Lee.

In other words, by publishing the book now, a lot of tricky moral questions are dodged. Or maybe not quite dodged—they’re raised by weiners like me, but they don’t have the kind of weight they would otherwise, because those questioning the story behind the book’s publication can’t pretend to speak for Harper Lee. By publishing the book now, Harper et al. have a monopoly on Harper Lee’s voice, her agency.

Again, it seems like they actually have her blessing, as well, and this has tempered a lot of my criticisms and assuaged a great deal of my concern. It seems that this may not have been part of the plan Alice and Harper made, but Lee seems content enough with how things are proceeding now. Still, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the timing itself is . . . fortuitous. That, even if Harper Lee isn’t being taken for a ride, the reader might be.

But I’m also too close to all of this, which makes it sound like I’m Columbo in skinny jeans, but whatever. I realize that I’m prone to flights of fancy, and the Original of Laura Problem is probably better used as a thought experiment for how books are packaged and sold than an actual narrative involving Real Powerful Publishing People. I’m a drone and I think part of me wants to see the publishing world above me as being wildly different than the one I regularly talk to my peers about. I want to imagine that the people upstairs, the people with the real power, know what they’re doing and think six steps ahead, and plot for decades, waiting to pounce when their preferred outcome arises. I know that’s not the case: the bosses can be even bigger fuckups than we are. (Though not our bosses, of course!) Or at least, they’re just as clueless, just as unprepared, just as desperate for something like Go Set a Watchman to land on their lap.

So, after painting this big, weird picture, I’m going to back away from it and lay out the theory I find most plausible: that all of the weirdness and all of these narrative inconsistencies surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman stem from the people involved being human beings that didn’t quite understand what they were doing and weren’t quite prepared for the consequences of what they’ve unleashed. I like thinking that there’s some kind of conspiracy here, but it strikes me as something more like simple opportunism: someone saw an opportunity and everyone around them jumped. (That someone seems to be Tonja Carter, but who really knows. Have we mentioned that there are a *ton* of unanswered questions here?) They clearly didn’t “get their story straight” because there wasn’t really a story—people just had different ideas about what happened and those ideas have since come into conflict.

Mark: Two final thoughts:

1. Columbo in skinny jeans? I know Lieutenant Columbo, and you, sir, are no Lieutenant Columbo.

2. This is a good place to end, both because we’ve gone on for way too long, as usual, and because your final theory really is the most plausible one. It’s not a flattering one, but it’s a comprehensible one–everyone’s intentions are accounted for, and everyone’s behavior is graspable, if not noble. So much of book publishing is about taking risks and throwing stuff against a wall and figuring things out as we go along. And it’s true at every level, which is hard to believe, but true nonetheless.

I don’t know why, but I’ve got the Cars on the brain. So let’s close this Wacky Wednesday with two classic new-wave jams.