Go Set a Watchman: The Inevitable Disappointment of Literary Sequels?

Go Set a WatchmanUntil last week, the prospect of Harper Lee publishing a new book fifty-five years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ seemed about as likely as Donna Tartt churning out novels at the same pace as Stephen King or E. L. James winning the Man Booker Prize. But this is exactly what was announced by her publishers at HarperCollins last Tuesday.

Few details have been revealed so far other than that the book is about Scout Finch returning to Alabama as an adult twenty years after the events in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was written before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but Lee was persuaded by her publishers to focus on Scout’s childhood instead. The original novel was subsequently lost before it was rediscovered last autumn.

The book is therefore pretty unusual in that it’s a sequel which is also a debut novel. It has also been revealed that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was originally meant to be the first part of  a trilogy. The second “bridging” novel was apparently never written and ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was intended to conclude the trilogy. Interestingly, there will be no revisions to the rediscovered manuscript.

As well as excitement, there has also been some trepidation. Although the book was apparently lost, the main question is “Why now?” Despite Lee releasing a statement via her lawyer stating she’s “happy as hell” for the book to be published, there are concerns that the eighty-eight year old author is being exploited following the recent death of her sister who handled her affairs. Perhaps the reaction to the book may have been less tentative if it had been published posthumously.

Whether it’s a book, film or TV show, sequels and spin-offs of popular stories and characters are common because they secure a guaranteed audience. From a marketing perspective, they are therefore less risky compared with new, unknown works. Yet follow-ups to popular books have often been approached cautiously with many sequels failing to live up to intolerably high expectations. They might be premised on a good idea but there are fewer surprises and they rarely capture the originality of the first instalment. Other sequels may stray too far away from the first book and alienate the audience. As ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was written before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, I think general expectations will be different – it is effectively a debut novel and should probably be read as such rather than as a sequel.

Sequels come in many different forms with varying degrees of success. Some have been written featuring characters created by other authors such as Jean Rhys’ acclaimed ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ which explored the possible fate of Mr Rochester’s first wife from ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Brontë. The forthcoming ‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson has been described as an “accompanying novel” to ‘Life After Life’ rather than a sequel and early reaction seems to be positive so far. While ‘The Rosie Effect‘ by Graeme Simsion and ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ by Rachel Joyce were very well-received last year, later novels following the characters of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams or ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott were considerably less popular than the first books. Until this week, I didn’t even know there was a sequel to ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller – it’s called ‘Closing Time’ and was published over thirty years after his bestselling novel.

Harper Lee could publish a book about absolutely anything and thousands would still buy it. But if she had chosen to publish a book unrelated to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ rather than a “lost” sequel, the reaction would certainly have been different. Whether or not it lives up to readers’ expectations, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is sure to be one of the most talked about books of the year. Will you be reading it this summer? Do you have any favourite sequels or prequels?

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31 responses to “Go Set a Watchman: The Inevitable Disappointment of Literary Sequels?

  1. Reblogged this on Ginger's Book Blog and commented:
    Lots of discussion at the moment about this as some believe Harper Lee would only allow more material to be published posthumously. I hope this is really what she wants.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kay

    If nothing else, there will certainly be a lot of publicity and rumors regarding this event. I understand that the publisher will have a first run of 2 million copies. Wow. I guess we will just have to wait and see if the book itself is a good ‘un.

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  3. Yes, I’ll be reading it, although I agree that sequels can be a mixed bag. I am hopeful that this lives up to Mockingbird, but will be surprised if it does. I’m also concerned about rumors that her publicist not only jumped the gun on going public, but bilked her out of millions on Mockingbird.

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  4. I’m very nervous about this one, content wise as well as the potential ethical issues. I feel a bit tentative about reading a book that may or may not be ripping off the author. I’m also nervous about whether it will live up to TKAM, but perhaps the comparison is a harsh one.

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    • I can’t think of any other examples where an elderly author may have had a book published against their wishes. I don’t really know how I will feel about it until the book is released. At the moment, I think I probably will read it but I might change my mind based on what I hear about it.

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  5. I read another article about the exploitation of the author who is not very well nowadays and I think it may well be true. It is impossible to imagine that a manuscript was ‘lost’ and then that a woman who was notorious for her privacy and adamant about not writing another novel would at this later date allow this to happen. As for reading it – that’s a moral dilemma is it not?

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    • It’s a difficult one. I would have thought that the moral dilemma lies more with the publishers choosing to release it than with readers choosing to read it. If there is more conclusive evidence that Lee didn’t want the book published then I imagine there would be a boycott.

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  6. I wrote a little about this the other day, it’s been such a talked about event this week. I was initially excited, and I’m not convinced that Harper Lee is being cruelly manipulated yet – maybe I just don’t want to think that. I have pre-ordered it and I know mu group are already thinking it will be August’s book.
    Some sequels and prequels do disapoint that is true. Although I loved Queenie Hennessey even more than Harold Fry and I also preferred Antonia White’s The Lost Traveller to Frost in May, and Rosamond Lehman’s The Weather in the Streets to Invitation to the Waltz ( even though that one is near perfection).
    It’s a fascinating talking point though 🙂

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    • Yes it’s definitely an interesting talking point and I hope it is what Harper Lee wants. I still haven’t read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but knowing that the sequel is just as good makes me want to read it even more.

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  7. I can’t say that I was thrilled to hear about this release. I was wondering how that was going to work. The book should take place in the 80s and it was written in the 50s. I’m a little dubious about the entire thing. Sounds like a giant marketing ploy to me.

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  8. I have so many feelings about this. I think that in all likelihood I won’t read Lee’s new book. In my mind Mockingbird is perfect and I want to it to remain that way. For that reason, I haven’t re-read it in a long time. But will the peer pressure get to me? Maybe.

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    • Yes, I think reading Mockingbird knowing it is the first part in a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel will change my perspective of it. If I read Go Set a Watchman, I will also reread To Kill a Mockingbird which I haven’t read since I studied it at school.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I will be unable to resist, but you are right to highlight that it is in fact a first novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I am looking forward to reading this, however I really do hope that it is something Lee really wanted. I hope she’s been treated fairly in this matter.

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  11. I am somewhat dismayed that Ms. Lee will be publishing another book. Since she wrote the second book before what we all agree is a masterpiece, how will the second published book compare with the first? I am so afraid I will be disappointed. I had come to accept that Mockingbird was so perfect that Ms. Lee wanted it to stand alone. yes, I will read the new book, but with trepidation.

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  12. I will probably read it. Since it’s going to be published “as is,” I’m not expecting a masterpiece. To Kill a Mockingbird went through a lot of edits. But I’m curious, like everyone else!

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  13. I’m glad I’m not the only one who is dubious about this. I didn’t love To Kill a MOckingbird but probably because it was over done at school. In reflecting I can see it’s importance and that I should’ve appreciated it more. I too, will probably read it!

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  14. I have very mixed feelings about this, but will certainly buy it. Why not? I feel differently about sequels by the SAME author rather that the prevalence recently of modern authors writing seqels/prequels and alternative narratives about someone else’s characters. The Wide Sargasso Sea was a great success, but this is not always the case – Death comes to Pemberley being an example. But another Austen alternative narrative that I would recommend is Jo Baker’s novel about the Bennett’s servants called Longbourn. It is a bit surprising that Dickens and Thackeray haven’t had this treatment, plenty of characters to choose from there.

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  15. Reblogged this on deborahjs and commented:
    Thought you might like to read this, and others post on this excellent blog

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  16. Such an interesting post – and it taught me that there was a sequel to Catch-22! I never knew that either. Plus from reading the comments I realise there’s a sequel to ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, which I’ll definitely be picking up because the first book was brilliant. As for ‘Go Set a Watchman’, I’m sure I’ll read it but I find the debate around it fascinating, if a little unsettling.

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  17. Go Set a Watchman will the most interesting book published this year to sit back and watch. I’m not a lover of To Kill a Mockingbird, so I’m not jumping out of my seat with anticipation to read the sequel. But man am I dying to hear what everyone else thinks about it…

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  18. I was really surprised by the revelations in reviews of “Watchman” this week … and wrote about Mockingbird & Watchman at http://www.thecuecard.com. I dont think we’ll ever know all the details about how the narrative or the father figure changed so much from one book to the other. It’s definitely the most talked about of the year.

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  19. The Cue Card

    I was surprised by the revelations about Atticus with the release of Watchman this week. I just reread Mockingbird last week to get ready for the new book but now I’m not so sure. I wrote about the dilemma over the revelations at http://www.thecuecard.com. But will likely end up reading it eventually.

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    • I think I will read it eventually too but as predicted, I haven’t felt the need to rush out and read it. I studied Mockingbird at school so I’m wondering whether I should reread it first purely for pleasure rather than as a text to be learned for an exam.

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  20. Pingback: Sequels, Scriptwriting and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child | A Little Blog of Books

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