Authorial i/n/t/e/n/t/ consent
I find myself reading about consent a lot. Having grown up in a culture which socializes guys not to take “no” for an answer, while socializing girls not to make trouble and always put other people’s wants and comforts first, it’s no wonder a lot of people don’t seem to understand consent in that context. Then there’s the whole Harper Lee and her “new” book situation. Is she healthy and aware enough to give informed consent? Does she actually know what’s going on, or is she a victim of the younger lawyers from who sister’s old firm who have taken over her estate now that her sister has died?
When I had read that her home state had initiated an investigation because of the reports of coercion, and that the state had determined that she had given her consent freely, I was mollified. I also rationalized it by comparing it to volumes I own of posthumously published material from Arthur Conan Doyle and from J.R.R. Tolkien. Those early drafts (heavily annotated by experts) and small one-offs originally created for a limited audience are fascinating and very educational, particularly from a writers’ point of view. If I can own those and enjoy them, do I have a right to condemn anyone who purchases this “new” book?
Of course, there is a difference. Tolkien and Conan Doyle have been dead for decades, these things have the notes and commentary making it clear that they are drafts or incomplete works. They aren’t being represented as something the author thought was a finished product. They’re clearly an exercise is the academic study of the work of those writers, and intended to illuminate the other works of the author.
But now I read that the investigation that looked into Harper Lee’s case did not include any medical personnel. No part of the investigation seemed to focus on whether she still possesses the capacity to give informed consent. That changes things a lot.
I do like one local book reviewers’ take on it: he read the new book, says the first chapter is amazing and you can understand why instead of outright rejecting it, the editor asked her to write a different story without the flashbacks to the narrator’s childhood, but rather to tell a story about the protagonist as a child. And then as you get into the rest of the book, the fact that this is a first draft of a first novel by a novice author is clear. And, he says, you can see why, with the help of an agent and the editor, it took her about a dozen rewrites of that second version of the book to arrive at To Kill A Mockingbird.
His conclusion: don’t buy the new book, “it’s a trap!” Instead, he advises you to read (or re-read) To Kill A Mockingbird. You can read all of his reasons why here: When Was the Last Time You Read To Kill a Mockingbird? Do You Remember How Funny It Is?
One other reason: there is absolutely no doubt that at the time Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird that she thought it was complete, that she was ready for it to publish, and that she knew what she was doing.
It’s also, if my very vague memories of reading it in my early teens, a very good book. Which I intend to re-read soon!