Harper Lee like 15 years ago
Good news for baby Atticus: Joe Nocera of the New York Times believes the recently-published Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird but an early draft. In a column Friday, he calls the book “a fraud” and “one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.” I’d say that sounds kind of like libel, except it’s published in the New York Times, so you know they checked him.
Nocera notes that Lee spent the last 50 years insisting she wouldn’t publish another novel, “until now, that is, when she’s 89, a frail, hearing- and sight-impaired stroke victim living in a nursing home.” Tonja Carter, Lee’s caretaker since the death of sister Alice last year, said she found the new novel in 2014. Nocera believes she actually saw it in 2011, when she participated in a meeting with Lee’s former agent and a specialist for Sotheby’s that included discussion of the new manuscript. Carter claims she left the meeting before the manuscript came up and didn’t return. Nocera says, in no uncertain terms, that what really changed—the event that brought this “new novel” to market—was Alice died.
If that’s true, it’s a sad story. Celebrated one-off novelist refuses to write another book for five decades, protected by her sister when she herself is infirm. Sister dies; greedy publisher sells early, crappy draft of novelist’s masterpiece as new novel that makes everyone hate main character.
That last part presupposes that Go Set a Watchman will overshadow or at least rival the popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird, which seems unlikely at this point. Probably, Watchman will be remembered as a peculiarity of 21st-century publishing, if at all. But it seems like a dirty trick to pull on an author who spent most of her life refusing to cash in on the success of her only novel. Maybe a perfectly lucid Lee changed her mind after fifty years, a stroke, and the death of the sister who looked after her affairs. Or maybe she is sitting in her nursing home right now, only dimly aware of what HarperCollins did to her.
A poster by Missoula artist Andy Smetanka parodies the cover of Krakauer’s book.
Perhaps you have not read about this issue in your hometown newspaper for the last month, but Jon Krakauer’s book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town came out yesterday. I am about halfway through, and it is a gripping read. Plenty of local luminaries assured me it was garbage, including Griz correspondent Bill Speltz—who two months ago insinuated that Krakauer was biased and his book misleading, before adding that he would “hold judgment on Missoula until reading it”—and county attorney Kirsten Pabst, who criticized Krakauer for not interviewing her and wrote a memo to Doubleday calling the book “actionable libel.” I quote the Missoulian:
“Pabst did not appear to have obtained a copy before writing the memo; she appeared to be responding to information she had received about the publication, including questions she received from Krakauer in connection with his reporting for Missoula.”
That makes it sound like he tried to interview her. Also, guys: I know you love Missoula, and I do too. But you have to read a book before you determine that it’s a hit job. So far, I find Missoula striking not just for its descriptions of how this town has mishandled rape, but also for its generosity.
How did I miss this cover?
As a New Yorker subscriber, I am constantly A) reading Talk of the Town pieces from six weeks ago and B) enraged by the stories. The New Yorker is the best place you can publish your short story. Yet The New Yorker story is also its own recognizable brand of lame—the exemplar of what Michael Chabon called the “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” For writers of literary fiction, The New Yorker is Harvard: everybody knows it’s overrated, and everybody wants to get in. I was therefore extremely pleased to read this blog post in which several literary magazines, including The New Yorker, reject a story published in The New Yorker.
Whom do I have to kill to get a major award for literature around here?
Good news, you guys: the Pulitzer Prize committee has announced the winners of this year’s prizes in investigative reporting, public service, editorial cartooning, drama, biography, poetry, music and fiction. That last category is the one that counts, unless you’re some weirdo reporter, and it’s also the one in which the committee elected to give no award. They still announced finalists, though: Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace and Karen Russell. Even more than all other authors of fiction, those authors specifically did not win a Pulitzer this year.
The graph above comes from this excellent New York Times article about the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a massive, searchable database of written and spoken language from the last 20 years. As you can see, people sit bolt upright in novels a lot more than they do in journalism or conversation, possibly because interviews rarely start with the subject waking up and possibly because contemporary fiction is more mannered than we think. There is a big difference between vernacular and prose, as anyone who has read Dostoevsky will tell you. People are always exclaiming and crying and saying darling! in 19th century novels—a cataclysm of melodramatic affectation that was supposedly fixed by the advent of modernism. Modern and postmodern fiction prides itself on writing the way people really talk. The work of George Saunders and David Foster Wallace is peppered with likes and neurotic digressions, and if it does not exactly capture how we speak now, it at least gets how we think we speak now. As a little fiddling with the COCA reveals, however, the gulf between lived experience and fiction remains as wide as ever.