The Power of Fiction to Traumatize the Reader.

I don't think I've ever mentioned this on this site before, but as of this writing, I am employed by two separate but equal libraries.  One is located in an affluent, multicultural area while the other is in more working class environs. However, the response to one particular controversial novel's release has been almost the same at both places.

Harper Lee's original draft for the novel that eventually became "To Kill a Mockingbird" has apparently always existed in some form despite its author's fervent desire that it never see print.  In that draft, the beloved Atticus Finch (Immortalized by the late, great Gregory Peck in the film version) was a vicious racist and member of the Ku Klux Klan. That's a far cry from the liberal, social justice oriented Finch of the final version.

Prurient interest caused multitudes of readers to place the book on hold at their local libraries.  Since July 14, "Go Set a Watchman" has been on constant hold at both libraries where I work.  The moment a copy is returned and checked in, a hold slip prints off for the next person.  But something interesting has taken place at both locations and, according to one of my co-workers, it has been a rather consistent and ongoing occurrence.  Many people are getting as far as holding a copy in their hands before walking up to the circulation desk and asking us to remove their holds.  The consensus?  "I don't want this book to ruin 'To Kill a Mockingbird' for me."

As someone who has never cared for the novel, who has in fact found it condescending and emblematic of a greater issue I won't discuss here, it's difficult for me to wrap my brain around the idea that people are so enraptured by Lee's final version that what amounts to an alternate history "what if" tale disturbs them so greatly.  Perhaps it's because most of them are not speculative fiction readers, meaning they're unprepared for the concept of alternate realities.  For them, "Watchman" is capable of wiping out all the perceived good gained from "Mockingbird."  For while those who overcome the urge to read the new novel look unhappy, those who have actually read it seem downright traumatized.

"Atticus Finch as a racist?" they say in tones normally reserved for discussions about real-life killers and sex offenders.  It is as if the very notion is enough to destroy their concepts of right and wrong.  It cannot be denied that Lee created something special in that character.  It also cannot be denied, based on admittedly limited observation, that the strongest reactions have come from essentially the same type of person.

As my co-worker said, "I've only really heard those reactions from white folks. I'd love to hear the whole response."

She is not a woman of color, by the way, nor is she particularly fond of Lee's original novel.  She's also right.  Every single person who has either refused to read "Go Set a Watchman" or read it and been thoroughly horrified has been a white female, and none of them young.  That means "Mockingbird" is a book that defined at least two generations of whites, if not more.  No doubt the movie helped the novel attain its prominence, but the fact remains: older white women are not happy about this new Harper Lee novel featuring a character many of them probably wished was their father.

That's the sort of response/devotion that tends to go to disreputable scumbags these days such as the title character of E.L. James' ridiculous ode to abusive relationships.

The response from these library patrons, while perhaps a tad over the top, is testament to the power of lasting literature and the ideas it imparts unto its readers. Those mental midgets who decry "message fiction" haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about. All good fiction contains a message and here it is boiled down to its barest essence as put by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. whose works impacted me greatly:

“Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”


UncleDave said…
Go Set a Watchman is a novel set many years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not an alternate reality. It's a sequel.
c nadeau said…
Incorrect. Not only was it written first, it is an alternate take on the story she eventually told in the version her editor convinced her to write. That makes it a version of events taking place alternatively to the final version.

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