Concerning Atticus

You will no doubt have heard by now that Harper Lee is releasing what is (sort of) the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, called Go Set a Watchman. (In fact it comes out today I think) I say ‘sort of’ because she actually wrote it before Mockingbird, which adds some complications that we’ll get to in a minute. Watchman has caused, as you will have noticed if you spend any time at all on the internet, a bit of a Fuss. This is because, primarily, of the portrayal of one of Mockingbird‘s more famous characters, that of Atticus Finch.

(Before I go any further, a quick disclaimer. I have not read Go Set a Watchman yet – publishers being astonishingly lax in sending me advance copies of things – and it has been a long while since I read Mockingbird. This is not, then, going to be a deep literary analysis of either, but what we already know about Watchman brings up some issues that I think are interesting, both as a writer and a reader.)

In Mockingbird, Atticus is pretty morally unimpeachable. He fights against racial prejudice in the court trial that the book is centred around and has a number of memorable things to say about tolerance and understanding of others than have been quoted and valued by all sorts of people ever since. Atticus kind of became the idealized figure of the ‘ally’ for the struggle against many types of inequality and injustice in society.

Watchman flips that table over. Atticus in this book is explicitly a racist; he’s in favour of segregation, apparently attends a Klan meeting, and has some pretty ugly things to say. His daughter is apparently horrified to discover this about her father, and I suspect this is probably the main thrust of the novel, but the reveals about Atticus Finch have already caused a lot of, ah, vigorous reaction.

Some people feel betrayed (I read about one person who wants to rename their cat because of this) by having a character they used to like and respect ‘changed’ on them. Some people are angry that this undermines the message of Mockingbird. Some readers feel that a hero (whether Atticus or Harper Lee) has let them down.

There’s a bunch of interesting stuff going on here, to me. (And this is without any opinion from me about the portrayal of Atticus Finch – that will have to wait until I at least read the book, yeah) Harper Lee created the character and so presumably you’d think she can do what she wishes with him, but readers don’t always see it that way. Another famous example is the reaction Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got when he decided to end his Sherlock Holmes stories with the death of his detective – he got accosted in the street and people went around dressed in mourning. (Brief aside: have to see Mr. Holmes when it comes out – Ian McKellen as Holmes? Yes please.) He eventually changed his mind.

I rather doubt Harper Lee is going to do anything similar, but the way readers react to something like this shows how strongly we identify with some of the characters we read about. We feel like we know them. We admire them and take inspiration from them and, in a lot of ways, make them ‘real’ to ourselves. These imaginary people can become intensely real in the way we think about them and deal with them intellectually and emotionally. If you want a fairly common example of that, think of the popular quote from Battlestar Galactica about keeping the military and the police separate because if you don’t the enemies of the state tend to become the people. It’s a great line. It got quoted a lot recently in the civil unrest in the U.S. People always attribute it to William Adama, not the writer who wrote the dialogue. Because if you watched the show, Admiral Adama became (both due to the writing and the actor’s portrayal, of course) a vividly real character who had some points of view that were easy to admire. You might even name your cat after him.

So it’s not necessarily hard to understand why people have an emotional reaction to having a character that they feel a strong connection with suddenly change significantly, or ‘be changed’, to give the writer their agency back again. Readers liked and respected Atticus Finch. You don’t have to look very hard to find people who say the character inspired them in their real lives. )That’s a tremendous achievement for a writer, by the way. I mean wow.) Now they learn that they didn’t know Atticus the way they thought they did. Ooof.

Now, you might argue that this is exactly what Harper Lee was going for, especially given that this is (apparently) Scout’s reaction as well. She wants that horror of discovering something unpleasant about a person you thought you knew. (In which case, I have to say, well done!)  This is slightly complicated by the fact that Watchman was written first and it isn’t clear – especially given the long space of time between the publication of the two books – how much the interaction between it and Mockingbird was originally intended. It also isn’t clear how much revision/rewriting or ‘correction’ affects the different portrayals of Atticus in the two books.  However, Go Set a Watchman does what it does to Mockingbird and the character(s) we thought we knew from it now.

As an author, how much, if anything, do you ‘owe’ to your readers and their connection to what you wrote before? We often complain, as audience members, about the endings of previous movies being ‘ruined’ by sequels, a new plot development ‘spoiling’ what has happened before, and about changes to characters like the (effective) change to the character of Atticus Finch. I guess obviously every artist relies on their audience, so do writers have some responsibility to keep their audience happy, or at least relatively content, in their treatment of beloved characters and settings?

It’s a difficult question and I’ve kicked it around myself a fair bit. I’ve been disappointed by authors and filmmakers who did things I didn’t like to stories and characters I liked.  Did they do something wrong in taking their fiction in a direction their audience would not have chosen?  I think ultimately my answer is ‘no, but’.  You have to allow the writer to do what they want with the characters and imaginary worlds they created. Sometimes they may not take things in a direction you, as reader, would have chosen, but ultimately the toys have to belong to the writer if the creative process is going to work at all. The ‘but’ comes in because I do think that if, as a writer, you’re going to reveal something that fundamentally changes a character that your audience is likely to be invested in or how what you’ve previously written is understood, you’d better make sure you’re doing it for a good reason.

In other words, it better be a great story. If you’re going to kill your detective, it better be a sendoff worthy of the character. If you’re going to turn a previously sympathetic character into a villain, make sure it’s worth it, and not a cheap trick. If you’re fortunate enough to have gotten your readers invested in one of your characters, I feel like you mustn’t take that lightly; there’s trust involved in following you on the journey you’re taking them along, make sure the trip ends up feeling worthwhile. (Which is not to say ‘happy ending’ necessarily, because there is a lot of very good fiction that doesn’t do that) That said, and again without having read Watchman, I do feel like we should give Harper Lee the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

Another interesting thing (and I apologize, this is turning into a long entry) that I got from William Gibson’s Twitter is the possibility that the Atticus Finch from Mockingbird and the Atticus Finch from Watchman inhabit different ‘fictive universes’; in other words, despite having the same name and inhabiting broadly similar settings, they are not the same character and the two stories are not really meant to go together. They’re different takes or iterations of a character Harper Lee had in mind, at different points in her thinking as a writer.

This happens all the time, really, if you think of all the different ways familiar characters get interpreted in different stories about them. Depending which tales you read, you encounter quite different King Arthurs and the characters around him. The continuity of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens character is sufficiently erratic that probably all the novels don’t ‘go together’. There are, at last count, approximately ten billion interpretations of Batman, many of which cannot be reconciled with each other.

This is all more-or-less fine, or has been historically. Audiences seem to be getting a little more continuity-obsessed these days so perhaps authors will be able to get away with it less. However, different takes on the same character, sometimes by different authors, sometimes by the same one, is far from an unusual thing. Maybe that’s what Lee was doing with these two novels, perhaps not.

Either way, there is a freedom we have as readers that allows us to short-circuit the whole problem, if we choose. We can cheerfully ignore any part of the imaginary world that we want to; it being imaginary, after all. As far as I am concerned, there are only three Indiana Jones movies and only one Highlander. Heck there are only three Star Wars movies and I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. The Atticus Finch people loved is still there, in Mockingbird. The words on the pages have not changed; the positive message is still there. You can choose to stop the story there.

It is the writer’s absolute freedom to take a story, its setting, and its characters in whatever direction they choose. As long as the story is a good one, it’s very hard to argue that any decision they make is ‘wrong’. It is the reader’s absolute freedom to step off the ride at whatever point they desire. Ultimately we consume art for our own pleasure and edification, and so it is equally hard to argue that any such decision is ‘wrong’.

I’ll have to read Go Set a Watchman to have any coherent thoughts about it. I find the debates surrounding it fascinating already – and there are other issues that I haven’t even gotten into here, because this thing is already long enough. The number of differing opinions and the level of passion that this book has triggered off indicates, very clearly, how strong and impact fiction has on real people and their lives. Pretty amazing.

I’m stopping myself here.

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