Conversations: Harper Lee, Artistic Identity, and 'Owning' Art

On Tuesday evening, the editorial staff of GirlSense and NonSense sat down to have a conversation about Harper Lee, her forthcoming publication of a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, entitled Go Set a Watchman, and the controversies that have come with it. Perhaps we had this discussion after the story faded from media rotation to challenge the notion of 24-hour news cycles. Perhaps we talked Harper Lee because we didn’t want to be too close to the bandwagon of so many other articles written on the subject (including this piece by Lincoln Michel, which is referenced by us several times throughout). Perhaps we are having this conversation now because our busy schedules finally allowed it. (We’ll never tell.) No matter the reason, please enjoy our free-flowing discussion, then join the conversation and tell us YOUR thoughts on Go Set a Watchman.

Josh: Greetings, old friends--old as in the length of time we know each other, not our actual ages. My first question: What was your first thought when it was announced there would be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird?

Pam: “Wow! Cool!” And then I had a few pangs of sympathy for any artist who attempts to respond to something with such a huge legacy.

Sarah: I thought she was dead, so I was initially confused.

Josh: Well, I just died reading that. Pam, what do you mean by pangs of sympathy?

Pam: Actually, I think that my first thought was that she was dead too.

Sarah: So seriously, my next thought was “Why?” I mean, after all these years and after all the first book dealt with, I guess I was wondering what slant the sequel would take. Also, I wanted to know how badass Scout grew up to be. Would it address another aspect of race not already explored?

Josh: I think, for me, the first thought I had was “Why now?” I questioned the motivations behind Lee (which we will get to later) and the publisher. As much as I love To Kill a Mockingbird, I was never left with a sense of wanting to know more about the characters.

Sarah: I agree. I felt like TKAM concluded where it did for a reason.

Pam: But there is the allure of the second book.

Sarah: I think it’s interesting because as much as we hoped to have accomplished since the publication of TKM in terms of race relations, we simply haven’t.

Josh: It might be important to note that this is going to be a manuscript written before TKAM, so if anyone is expecting an updated view of Lee on race relations, it might have to come from the reader’s interpretation and drawing comparisons to present day than it would be a political statement.

Pam: I agree. But I think a second book will help us revisit and gauge our expectations of the issue. It’s important to note that the second book may fail in every way. But she is an artist and they do that sometimes.

Josh: And in some ways, that’s where some of the allure for a follow-up comes from. Having only published one piece of writing in her career (TKAM), people are curious as to whether Lee was an one-trick pony.

Sarah: A rather sick fascination but nonetheless effective in garnering interest. Think Spice Girl Reunion Tour!! That’s what I thought of anyways.

Pam: I’d rather not equate the two. :)  I’m not sure I really believe that’s all that interests the public/readers/media. Writers do this all the time. It’s nothing new. They have success and try to follow it up with something just as good, if not better. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Josh: But both do seem to have the interest in them come from a desire to know whether or not something, or SOMEONE, so culturally significant is capable of producing more cultural significance. (For what it’s worth, I think that’s incredibly greedy.)

Sarah: Amen, Josh. But what’s motivating them (the authors/artists/creators) to follow up with something better? Presumably, their intended audience. At least to some extent.

Josh: How much of a follow up is this, if it was written before TKAM? Is it purely success-motivated? By success, I mean positive reception from the audience.

Pam: That’s a deep question. You’re asking what motivates an artist and it’s beyond audience, I think. There is a much deeper desire to simply create-to do what you’re called to do.  Regardless, it’s words. It’s a creation. Call it a follow-up or a prequel. Are artists motivated by success? Sure. Is Harper Lee? Probably. Maybe. Is she well enough to even say or answer this question?

Josh:  And I think a lot of people are asking that question, hence the arguments that the publication of Go Set a Watchman is exploitative of Lee herself. Do you guys think this is exploitation? What effect does Harper Lee’s health have on your perception of the book’s publication?

Sarah: Looking at the context of when this new publication is happening and such factors as Lee’s declining health, I think there is cause for concern. It’s just so hard to judge. Like the author [in the BuzzFeed article] was saying, we have to assume that she is in fact unhappy with this decision to publish. But how do we objectively gauge that?

Pam: It’s definitely concerning. But I’ve been thinking about Harper Lee’s case compared to other writers who have had their work published against their will. Several news articles have mentioned Franz Kafka and his command that upon death, his work should be burned. It wasn’t. Here we have a living writer, who, speaking through her publishers/lawyers has allegedly given permission. This isn’t comparable to Franz Kafka. She may be being manipulated and coerced but how can we say, as the public and as readers, “no, you can’t publish your work because we don’t think you’re of sound mind”, when we didn’t stop the Kafka traitors?

Josh: I love Kafka’s “The Trial,” which we would not have if people didn’t disobey his wishes (not that I agree with them taking that action, but I ultimately enjoyed the result of doing so). I do think, Pam, that you’re completely right in that this is nothing like that. Despite having a history of being reluctant to publish a second work, Lee has not explicitly left instructions of what to do with her work in case she was not of sound mind, and she hasn’t (thankfully) passed away yet. So the comparisons to posthumous publications seem to be conflating two ideas that need to remain separated.

Sarah: Inconsistent. Yes, it goes back to the question of how and who can determine Lee’s intent/soundness of mind/happiness, etc. Am I an evil person for being glad that we have traitors who give us these works?

Pam: I think the responsibility of Lee’s health and wellbeing lies with her family and should not be speculated by the media. Lee and her family were responsible for the ordering of her estate. If she’s under the control of bad people, it’s not the public’s or readers fault. Don’t get me wrong, I feel bad for her and sympathize with her situation but I just don’t know how/why it can impact the publishing of her second book.

Sarah: But then again, the author of the [BuzzFeed] article brings up that this was a finished publication that she had submitted for publication in the past. Can we glean intent from this act? I tend to agree with the author in thinking that we possibly can. I guess I’m just a little concerned about the timing.

Pam: At the heart of Lee’s story and other artists whose works have been published without their expressed permission, is the question of “Who owns the art?” There are some artists who talk about creating art as if it’s left their bodies and minds, divorced from their being. Once on paper or canvas, does it really belong to them anymore? I think the actions of the public with Kafka’s work answers that question.

Sarah: I agree with your last observation. In a way, I think as an audience member, I feel like the author owes it to the world to have it available for consumption. As awful as that sounds. But as to who owns the art? Ideally, it would be the artist, the creator. But in reality it isn’t always so.

Pam: You’re right to point out the role of the audience. There are also so many artists who have talked about how as artists, their work is not done until someone else absorbs the creative energy manifested in their creative act (a poem, painting, etc.).  As the audience/readers/society, are we just fulfilling our end of the bargain (by publishing or bringing the artist’s work to light)?

Josh: I think that there are two ways to look at this, one in the sense that you’re discussing, Pam, where the art belongs to those who consume it. But I still have to think that until the first consumption of that art, it remains the artist’s, the author’s, and if they wish to not share it, then we ought to respect those wishes. In that sense, Sarah, I think the feeling of being owed is really just false indebtedness. The second way to look at things is from a perspective that is completely devoid of factoring in philosophy on the sharing at art, and focusing solely on the idea of property and ownership. I don’t think that is the best way to view this situation, but I think it may place where the controversy comes through in more context.

Sarah: This is like the tree falling in the forest conundrum. Josh, don’t do this to me.

Pam: This is complicated stuff, no doubt. A way I might respond to your comments, Josh, is by considering the role of the artist. A lot of writers have pointed out that Kafka may have not been “there” yet or able to reconcile the world and his role in it. That to share one’s work and make that decision is big step in the artist’s journey. We didn’t allow Kafka to get to that point on his own, or maybe he did understand and really thought the work was crap. We just decided differently. Where does that power come from? The reader/consumer has power. How much should he/she have?

Josh: I don’t know, and I suppose we’ll all have to live with that lack of knowledge. What I will say is that while I don’t believe artists have complete autonomy, I also don’t believe that readers have the right to demand work, even in the name of calling art a public good. Maybe the answer is somewhere between those two, and perhaps also at the intersection of what is power versus what is responsibility, which is another distinction worth considering.

Sarah: How much power a reader/consumer should have is dependent on what you believe the purpose of creating art is. Is art meant to be consumed or simply created for the sake of being created?

Pam: The problem is that artists define their roles differently, and so does society.

Sarah: Absolutely. It goes back to the question of intent. What did the author intend? I don’t think we have access to that, so we have to look for clues of her intent. Like why she completed the manuscript and submitted it for publication in the first place.  

Pam: Without her, without Harper Lee explaining herself, can we every truly know that? We’re interpreting a bunch of small actions, moments in time, to explain her behavior years later.

Sarah: No, absent her explanation we can’t truly know that.

Pam: We’re trying to define the role of the artist and his/her work in society. People have been playing with that definition and having this conversation for a long time. This is difficult but it’s important to talk about, even if we talk in circles. The last thing I will say is that I went to the library last week to pick up a copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and found that all 5 copies were checked out. I’m glad people are reading the book and are interested in its story.

Josh: And, perhaps most importantly, I think that bringing the difficulty of defining the role of the artist to the table doesn’t require an answer, as long as we are getting others to question their own assumptions about the way the world works and how we reconcile reality with artistry. I think we’ve done that.

Pam: Definitely. We can ask these big questions and have big conversations but at the end of the day, a lot of people will buy a book and read a story. That’s worth celebrating, even just a little bit.

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Here’s where you, my dear reader, comes in. We’ve left so many things open-ended--the power of the author in contrast to the power of the reader, who owns art, even how we should view Go Set a Watchman in light of recent current events that have brought race to the forefront of our cultural discussion. We kept these topics open-ended--without our own conclusions--because we want to hear from you, because, as always, your voice matters. Comment below and join this conversation and others on Facebook (GirlSense and NonSense), Twitter (@gsandns), and Instagram (@gsandns).




Additional Links on Harper Lee, literary estates, and artistic ownership: