By Dennis Abrams
At The Guardian, Alison Flood reports that Michigan’s Brilliant Books is offering refunds for Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, saying that customers “are owed apologies for portrayal [the] long-lost manuscript as a ‘nice summer novel’ rather than an academic curiosity.”
As the store posted on its website:
We at Brilliant books want to be sure that our customers are aware that Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel or prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected. The book, and some of the characters therein, are very much a product of this era in the South.
We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce’s stunning work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and his original draft Stephen Hero. Hero was originally rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic Portrait. Hero was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans — not as a new ‘Joyce novel.’ We would have been delighted to see Go Set A Watchman receive a similar fate.
It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate t his as “Harper Lee’s New Novel.” This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted). We therefore encourage you to view Go Set A Watchman with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.
The Guardian quoted the store’s owner Peter Makin, who spoke to independent publisher Melville House, and said that he made the decision to offer refunds after speaking to a “loyal paying” customer.
“She was saddened. She explained that To Kill a Mockingbird was her favorite book of all time and she had been so looking forward to reading Go Set a Watchman, but now she knew it wasn’t the book she had been led to believe it was,” Makin told Melville House. “I immediately apologized, and offered her a refund, which she accepted. I realized then that we needed to offer the same thing to all our customers, of which there were dozens across the country, and explain why.”
Makin said that the response to the store’s decision has been “overwhelmingly positive, humbling and touching,” adding that while they were still selling the book, “We are a bookstore, so we wouldn’t not carry it … we do explain to folks what it is, so that they buy it with their eyes open.”
Also at The Guardian, Michelle Dean asked whether Harper Lee readers demanding refunds “were expecting far too much.”
“From the beginning, we knew that the manuscript was at best “recently rediscovered”, not new. It was always presented as a first draft of Mockingbird, though there was much debate about whether it was truly a standalone novel (the jury still appears to be out on that question). And no buyer, even for the smallest and humblest of stores, was unaware of that when they ordered their own supply. The fact is that people wanted to read a new Harper Lee novel no matter what its provenance and no one truly wanted to get in the way of that. No amount of reporting and concern was going to stop anyone from publishing and selling that book.
“Readers bear some responsibility for that, I think. After all, the customers who now report being unhappy with the book still went into the store and bought it. And I can’t help but feel the reason they are wanting to return it has nothing, really, to do with a concern about exploitation or first drafts or literary merit at all. They are readers who are upset the book is not as good a “read” as they hoped … And there is a more sinister question: how many of these dissatisfied customers, I wonder, are especially angry or disappointed because of the unflattering portrait of an elderly, racist Atticus this book contained? What is a bookstore doing when it insists that that revelation — and all it implies about racial politics in America — is purely “academic”?”