Newspaper article International New York Times

Don't Do It, Harper Lee

Newspaper article International New York Times

Don't Do It, Harper Lee

Article excerpt

The literary canon is a fickle thing. What is classic one moment is outdated or surprisingly flawed the next.

The news was greeted online with tweets and tumbles of enthusiasm and joy: Harper Lee, the writer who swore she would never publish another book after the instant classic "To Kill a Mockingbird," had changed her mind. Her new book will be released in July.

Or, not a new book, but an old one, written decades ago. And it's not an entirely new story either, but a companion of sorts to "Mockingbird," actually written before that novel.

The forthcoming title, "Go Set a Watchman," involves the same beloved Finch family, with Scout all grown up and Atticus still at work and their little Alabama town in a new state of turmoil.

"Hurray!" the crowd cried.

"Um, wait a second," I thought.

Those eager masses, now overflowing with unconditional love for a book they have not read, propelling it to No.1 on Amazon Wednesday, will be the very people wielding pitchforks if Ms. Lee's second book does not live up to expectations that have been building for decades.

The form the literary conversation takes has changed drastically since the initial publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird," in 1960, when professional critics led the public discussion and private assessments were confined to classrooms and parlors. Internet culture, where a one-star Goodreads review by a 14-year-old can be as persuasive to some as a book critic's 1,200-word newspaper essay, has leveled the field.

We are, after all, in the age of the hot take, the contrarian opinion and obsessive fan culture, in which celebrated work belongs solely to the rabid enthusiasts, not its creator. I've worked as a literary critic, mostly online, for 13 years, and the only time I feared for my life was when I blogged that the Harry Potter books were terrible. ("Literati? Try Litersnotty!" was my favorite response.)

Maybe it seems unfair to compare "To Kill a Mockingbird" to a children's epic fantasy series, but the sense of connection that each inspires is similar. Most of us came to "Mockingbird" as children, or at least teenagers, and our attachments to books we love while growing up are much more emotional than those to stories we pick up as adults. Atticus and Scout are more than just characters in a book; they are family.

And those of us who think the book is perfect, who went on to construct our own adventures for our favorite father-daughter team, might feel less forgiving if our fantasy does not line up with Ms. Lee's. It's not only the fans that Ms. Lee has to look out for. While her first novel is firmly established in the canon, it is not universally supported. It has been under attack for years by some serious critics for being simplistic and problematic in a privileged- white-lady-solves-the-race-issue kind of way. …

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