All the dismay expressed about the flawed, racist Atticus Finch character in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, versus the saintly Civil Rights attorney and crusader Atticus was in To Kill a Mockingbird, has me thinking about Zadie Smith’s popular quote about redlining her published novel to rid it of “every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor” just before reading from it at an event. As writers, we know the work is never really “finished”, but if we had the chance to publish a new version of a story we’ve already released into the world, would we do it?
If you could, how would you rewrite your characters or story?
Would you revisit an earlier edit, more true to the version you originally wanted to publish, as Lee did? We know that Lee wrote Watchman before Mockingbird, but the editor she submitted it to in 1957 advised her to shift the focus. Lee has admitted of the resulting edit that went on to sell 30 million copies, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” Watchman was published unedited, released on July 14, 2015.
Would you change the work to reflect your personal evolution or new information about the topic acquired over time? Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t rewrite her post-divorce memoir Eat, Pray, Love, but after remarrying, her book Committed reflects a new perspective on the institution of marriage.
Would you, like E.L. James recently did with her Fifty Shades spinoff Grey, give a supporting character the protagonist treatment?
Would you rerelease your work exactly as is because the times call for rethinking the themes you explored? To Kill a Mockingbird was released July 11, 1960, just three weeks shy of the day Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad called for a black state; five years after white assailants Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were acquitted in a nationally publicized trial for the murder of 14 year old black teen Emmett Till whom they later admitted to beating, mutilating, shooting dead, and dumping in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Go Set a Watchman hit bookstores one day after Sandra Bland, a black woman and vocal advocate of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, was found dead in a Texas jail cell due to a disputed suicide, after being pulled over by an aggressive white police officer and subsequently detained.
Or would you just tighten the language, cutting those redundant / show-off / pointless phrases you were too close to the text to notice before?
If I could, I think I would do most, if not all, of the above.