Go Set a High Expectation: The new novel from Harper Lee

As we impatiently await a copy of Go Set a Watchman, published today, Editor of gr Rowena Morcom sympathises with Harper Lee and the immense pressure of following up one of the greatest novels in history. 

51+CUXo8aDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The long-awaited new novel by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, is being published this month. And the anticipation is palpable.  After her first – and until now only – book, To Kill a Mockingbird, became a modern classic around the world, the pressure was on to produce a work that would equal if not surpass its predecessor.

I have sympathy for authors who have written global bestsellers and are publishing their next book. The expectations upon them, from other people and themselves, are huge. How they can think clearly enough to write a few pages, let alone finish the book and let it finally go to the publisher? I thought this when Dan Brown has such success with The Da Vinci Code, although he had already a number of books under his belt. Debut authors with a bestseller on their hands must find the second book particularly difficult.

Another author closer to home with immense pressure upon him is Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief.  This story has swept around the world, growing in popularity since it was first published 10 years ago. The film adaptation rocketed the book to even greater heights. His next book, purportedly titled Bridge of Clay, is long awaited by his millions of fans, who are all clamouring for him to finish it.

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdBut it’s not only the author who feels the weight of expectation. Readers can feel it too. Sometimes – but not always – I find that the higher my expectations of a book is before I read it, the less likely I am to really enjoy it. I had this experience with Gone Girl. Many people told me how wonderful it was: friends, family, gr readers and people in the park where I walk the dog. That’s a pretty high level of recommendation. But when I read it I thought it was a good read – but not that great. I found it just enjoyable. I wondered if it was just me who found it a medium read. Or did I not concentrate enough when reading it? Was my mind elsewhere? I felt that maybe I should read it again, but obviously I didn’t. Do you sometimes feel the same way about books that come with high expectations?

I wonder if the same thing will happen with Go Set a Watchman. I am certainly looking forward to reading it, although she certainly set the bar high with To Kill a Mockingbird. No-one I know has read Go Set a Watchman, so no-one has been ramping up my expectations! But I loved To Kill a Mockingbird (and I loved Gregory Peck as Atticus in the movie as well!) so I have some level of expectation that I will bring to this new book.

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Sometimes I get a little shock when a friend who I feel I have a reading synergy with doesn’t like a book that I lent them. And vice versa. I once gave a friend The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to read and she hated it. I didn’t think anyone would ever not like that book.  But it just wasn’t for her. Like food she wouldn’t want to eat, wine she’d prefer not to drink, or movies she’d rather not see.

We all have a list of books we didn’t like. I certainly have a few that evoked an unexpected negative reaction in me. Twilight (although I’m not really in the target market) would be close to the top of that list, and another is Wuthering Heights. I know that the latter may cause a collective gasp, but I just couldn’t bear the depressing weather and battered minds of the characters, although it certainly evoked a sense of place.

I wonder what the media reaction will be around the world to Harper Lee’s new book. And how will Harper Lee, now aged 89, cope with that? I hope we can all approach this new book with an open mind. Whether you or I will love it is yet to be seen, but I very much hope that it’s a raging success. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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And Baxter, who loves a good long roll in the grass.

PS Happy 14th birthday to us too!

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