Why Doesn’t Google Fix Its Obvious Flaw?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 5, 2016

Yesterday I searched Google for a book review of All the Birds in the Sky  by Charlie Jane Anders. I carefully created a search request that would give me exactly what I wanted.

           “all the birds in the sky” review anders

Yesterday it returned 37,500 links. Today it returns 38,900. If I take out the quotes around the book’s title it returns 461,000. If I add “book” to the search request and keep the quotes it returns 41,100. This is absolutely ridiculous.

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If Google was as smart as it should be, the returns should be something like 78 or 123, or if there’s really a lot of book reviewers in this world, maybe 478. I can’t imagine that a book released two weeks ago should have garnered that many significant reviews, even counting bloggers, and I was wanting good blog reviews.

I’m reading All the Birds in the Sky and wanted to know what other people thought of it. I wanted significant reviews where readers pondered the implications of the story. Some of the returns on the first pages gave me what I wanted, but even those pages were cluttered with links to sites that weren’t book reviews. And I discovered that some review sites only give a minimum description of the book, as if the book hadn’t been read, but merely summarized by an overworked journalist, or composed by one of those new AI content creators that can crank out narrative that looks like it was written by a human.

Many of the returns were like this one “Babe of the Day – Penelope Cruz…” that had no information about the book. But there is a mention of the book in this guy’s blog links column.

Google’s AI should have been smart enough to know this site wasn’t a book review. Google’s AI should be smart enough to know that most of those 38,900 links aren’t book reviews either. Hell, I gave it a helpful hint by putting in the world “review” in the search query. Any half-ass AI should know that the words in the quotes is a book title, and the last word is the author’s last name.

I have to assume that offering me 38,850 links I don’t need helps Google make money. Google, the reason I gave up cable TV is because it made me pay for hundreds of channels I never watched. I don’t think I can cut the cord with Google. Bing gave me 5,600,000 results on the same query. Duck Duck Go doesn’t tell me how many returns it finds, but it does check mark some of its returns, as if “hint hint” these are the ones you really want. Their results come in a continuous scroll, so there’s no telling how many results there are.

Here is the search query I’d like to use with Google:

       “all the birds in the sky” review anders words>600 –notbuying

Google would know I wanted book reviews containing more than 600 words. Also, it would know I didn’t want to see any sites selling the book, so don’t bother sending me sites trying to sell the book. Of course if their AI was really sharp, I should be able to ask for:

       Give me significant reviews of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

And it would.

JWH

Autistic Characters in Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I started reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion yesterday, and realized I was enjoying yet another book with an autistic first person character. This got me to thinking, just how many books have I read with an autistic character, and then wondered, just how often autistic characters show up in fiction. So far my list includes:

GoodReads lists 65 books on their Autism in Fiction list, some of which I find quite surprising, like To Kill a Mockingbird. And it turns out I have another book on my to-be-read pile, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon that features an autistic character. It appears listing autistics in fiction is quite popular, and Wikipedia even has a list of fictional characters in books, movies, television and comics that are on the autistic spectrum. If you search Google for “autism in fiction” you’ll find a lot to read.

the-rosie-project-graeme-simsion

Most of the books have been from the last twenty-five years. Didn’t autistic people exist in the time of The Bible, Shakespeare or Charles Dickens? I do know that Confessions of a Crap Artist, written by Philip K. Dick in 1959 has a very autistic-ish narrator. And strangely, isn’t Mr. Spock from Star Trek very autistic like? There is a danger to retroactively diagnosing characters from the past with autism, just read “Sherlock does not have Asperger’s or Autism, Thanks – From 4 Psychiatrists” or “We Shouldn’t View Sherlock as an Autistic Savant.”

Many people do not consider Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be autistic, but I do, because he has some autistic like traits. And I think that’s what’s interesting about these books, they don’t all define their characters as autistic or having Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis that’s been replaced with the term autism spectrum disorder. That’s because it’s very difficult to pigeonhole people into precise mental categories. I’ve written about this before, “Don’t We All Have Personality Traits in the Autism Spectrum?” and “Reading Novels To View Reality From a Diversity of Mental Spectrums.”

I think is extremely fascinating we all want to clearly define people into categories, but our own unique traits are usually invisible to ourselves. Just like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project, who is unaware of his Asperger’s symptoms, we can’t see our own quirkiness. Think how often you have heard your voice on a recorder and found it shocking. Or how disturbing it can be to see photographs or videos of ourselves. Our inner self-image seldom matches outer evidence. So it’s easy to understand that other people see you far different from how you see yourself.

In the The Rosie Project, Don decides it’s time to get married and goes about finding a wife in a very systematic way. The whole time I was reading this story I couldn’t stop picturing Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. But doesn’t everyone fumble around trying to find their soul mate? And if we’re honest, aren’t we all clueless about finding compatibility?

People wonder why there’s been an explosion of autism in the general population. Some wonder if we always had autistic people and are just getting around the labeling them. Can you remember an old relative with autism spectrum traits? Others think the increase is from an environmental cause, and a few people have suggested the increase in autism comes from more super-intelligent people mating with each other. I have no idea, but I do find that characters in fiction with moderate amounts of traits from the autism spectrum appealing. (Although severe amounts are horrifying and tragic.) And I think that’s so because we can identify with their problems and admire their eccentric skills. Don’t we all have some kind of communication problem, or compulsive behavior? My friends consider me very good at communication, yet I’ve always felt a slight sense of agoraphobia when it comes to socializing. And I certainly wish I had the organizational skills of Sheldon and Don. I do know I pass all the tests for introversion with flying colors.

And how often do you feel that your friends are clueless to seeing the real you? Aren’t we all on a social awareness spectrum? If we fall into a certain range, does that put us on the autism spectrum? I have long ago given up on the idea of “normal” people. I assume we all exist on a hundred different spectrums – picture a mixing board in a sound recording studio. I doubt anyone has sliders position in the center all across the board. And I expect what we now call autism spectrum disorder will be broken up into several spectrums in the future.

Finally, I wonder if we were all characters in a book like Don Tillman, and readers got to see just how we think, wouldn’t our logic for doing things and making decisions seem peculiar to others? Aren’t we all strange little birds?

JWH

All the Time in the World is Still Not Enough

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 7, 2016

All during my work years, while I toiled away at my 8:30-5:00 grind, I endlessly ached to be free. I just wanted time to write. Now that I’m retired, and have all the time in the world, it’s still not enough. I’m writing regularly, devoting hours a day to my task, but I’m not keeping up with all the ideas that beg me to give them birth. Recently I found Big Magic at the library, a lovely new book on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert. I highly recommend this book to those who struggles to be creative, whether at writing, music, art, dance, acting, or even robot design, while holding down a fulltime job and believing they don’t have enough time. Gilbert provides 276 pages of inspiration and advice that’s backed by the wisdom of her success. I know many people who are prejudiced against Elizabeth Gilbert for that same success, but I’m not one of them. Her advice resonated easily with my experiences.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert carefully illustrates that we all have enough time to be creative, no matter how busy our life, or how much free time we can find. She goes on to prove it’s the kind of shit sandwich you’re willing to eat that determines creative productivity. Gilbert explains that creativity always comes at a cost. It’s not about finding time, but paying the price. Writing every day is one of the costs. Whatever shit you have to eat to make yourself write is the cost. People give up on their dreams because they won’t suffer the shit that it takes. Her metaphor is crude, but makes a lot of sense if this is your kind of struggle.

I have all the time in the world, and it’s still not enough. What I’ve been learning the hard way, it’s not about time, it’s about work. There will always be an endless list of ideas I can write about. There will always be a limited amount of time. What determines my creative output is effort, not time. Everything Gilbert writes about I’ve been learning since I’ve retired. Time and again as I read this book, her advice clarified what I’ve been learning on my own without conscious clarity.

It really comes down to sticking to a project until it’s finished. It doesn’t matter how important the art, or how ambitious the scope, or whether it will make money or not. All that matters is getting into the zone and working. You work at what you like, and you don’t worry if anyone else will like it, buy it or judge it. Time isn’t an issue. It’s not about what I’ve done, or hope to do, it’s only about the project I’m working on at the moment. And at this moment, I’m reviewing this book.

Essay #995

Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.

Downward_to_the_Earth

I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.

JWH

Are Quickly Written Books Worth Reading?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 9, 2015

One of the most impressive books I’ve ever read is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson—she interviewed 1,200 people and spent ten years writing a history of African-Americans migrating out of the south from WWI to the 1970s. One of the most impressive novels I’ve ever read, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert took her five years traveling the globe to research and write. Harper Lee spent three years working with an editor after she submitted Go Set a Watchman and before it become To Kill A Mockingbird.

Should we trust authors that write and publish several books a year? I know writers write to make a living, but when I reread my favorite novels that were hastily written back in the 1960s I often wish today they had gotten a few more drafts. They aren’t holding up because not enough time and thought was spent on them.

Phoenix Rising

I just read Phoenix Rising by William W. Johnstone (with J. A. Johnstone) which came out in 2011. The trouble is William W. Johnstone died in 2004. J. A. is William W.’s nephew and carefully groomed writing assistant. Phoenix Rising is a breezy, easy read, but on the thin side. It was obviously quickly written, first of a trilogy so far, meant to hook readers to sell future installments. Since I’ve found several books published in 2011 with J. A. Johnstone name on the title page, I assume Johnstone is a novel writing factory. (I even have to wonder if he sub-contracts with ghost writers.) Both Johnstones were incredibly prolific, keeping a number of series going concurrently. Firebase Freedom (2012) and Day of Judgment (2013) are sequels to Phoenix Rising.

Earth_Abides_1949_small

Now I’m not against Mr. Johnstone making a living as a prolific writer, but as a hardcore book lover I’ve got to protest. I don’t like the practice of using a dead writer’s name as a logo to sell books. Nor do I like the idea of reading books by ghostwriters who crank them out for hire. And I really hate, and this is the most important point of all, of buying a book that sets me up to buy another. This modern trend of producing trilogies and endless series is bad for the art of the novel.

Now I admit I have many bookworm friends who love continuing stories and buying books by commodity authors. If you’re reading to kill time does quality matter if you keep turning the pages? But, if you read books to experience the human heart in conflict with itself, then you should worry about how much time it took to write a book. I read Phoenix Rising because the sub-sub-genre of survival fiction, which is part of the sub-genre of apocalyptic novels, which falls under science fiction, a topic I’m addictive to reading.

AlasBabylon(1stEd)

I’m not sure I would have realized just how thin Phoenix Rising is if I hadn’t also been listening to Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In one standalone volume, Niven/Pournelle gives readers far greater depth than a shelf of quickie prepper paperbacks.

Since I’ve been studying survival novels I know they have key aspects that define their appeal. First, is the cause of the catastrophe. Johnstone comes up with a horrendously unbelievable reason for civilization collapsing. One only Fox News fanatics could believe. Second, and more importantly, is how do the survivors survive. The more practical details the better. Johnstone’s not too believable here either; everything happens too easily without much drama. Finally, readers want hope. No matter how bleak the collapse, they want believable theories how humans could rebuild. What holds a survival story together is its characters. Readers want sympathetic characters to vicariously experience “how would I do it myself” situations. I think Johnstone has fans that find his type of characters appealing. They are likable good people, but the dramatic experiences their creator provide for them is flimsy, rushed and unsatisfying. Johnstone does offers hope for the future but I’d have to buy two more novels to find it, and I won’t.

I consider Earth Abides by George R. Stewart the gold standard of a survivor story. Isherwood Williams is a character that I can identify with as he experiences a series of enlightening conflicts that force readers into thinking about the mortality of our species. Earth Abides inspired Stephen King’s The Stand and many other end-of-civilization novels. We’re currently experiencing a flood of cozy catastrophes where a handful of people must survive the immediate months after the collapse of civilization.

Surviving the apocalypse is an extremely complex event. It’s all too easy to turn it into a cartoonish cliché. And I think any book written in a couple of months can’t do the subject justice.

For people who haven’t read the classics of this sub-sub-genre, Johnstone’s story is probably intriguing enough. Especially for people who think surviving is a matter of having a gun and a will to use it. Maybe Johnstone’s characters get deeper in the second and third book, but I won’t be reading them to find out. To many better books give me everything I need in one volume.

Johnstone covers all the basics, but with no finesse and style, and no insight other than conservative philosophy that’s failing to help civilization now. Because Johnstone’s premise for the collapse of the United States is so thoroughly anti-liberal using absurd extremist logic it’s hard to take the rest of his insights seriously. His story could have been far more powerful if he had put his novel through several drafts and made his premise chillingly realistic. His attack on Obama is juvenile. If liberal ideas can destroy the country like conservatives believe, then the extrapolation of how that works needs believability that would convince liberals and moderates too. Obviously Johnstone is selling to a ready-made audience of true believers. Phoenix Rising might make some bucks off of naïve readers, but it fails at creating a memorable storytelling experience.

Here’s a way to compare a great novel to hack series. A great novel has the philosophical impact of a single A-Bomb that we never forget, while hack writing gives us faked movie explosions with each volume that are momentarily thrilling, but easily forgotten. Series novels are a marketing decision, not an artistic endeavor. If you bought this novel to read on the plane it’s probably entertaining enough.

I’m not saying some stories don’t deserve the trilogy treatment, although even the best trilogies I can think of would have been artistically superior as a single large novel. Writers must love trilogies because they can sell one story three times. It also means they don’t have to edit and distill their meandering narrative into a coherent whole. And how often have you been wowed by the first book of the trilogy only to be disappointed in the next two volumes? Hack writers find it much easier to write three or more so-so novels than one great story.

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And when we think about great literary novels of history, how many of them are series? Would Trollope and Proust be more read today if they had written stand-alone novels like Austen and Dickens?

Many bookworms are like addicts. They consume books. The William W. Johnstone brand appeals to their hunger, and his books are a quick fiction fix. But his books will not be remembered. They might be a commercial success now, which is fine for the writers and publishers. But they get so little enthusiasm from fans that they don’t have entries in Wikipedia. That’s quite telling.

Millions of people want to be writers, and many of those would-be writers see developing continuing character stories as key to making a living. I can’t blame them for that. But what they crank out is fast food. If you’re a bookworm that craves novels that expand your map of reality then I’d avoid books with sequels.

My protest of the Phoenix Rising series is not because it’s bad, but thin, hastily written, with stretched out stories without the fully developed elements of a satisfying novel. If readers want a powerful trilogy on the survivor theme they should read:

  1. Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart
  2. Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank
  3. Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I know I’m going to come across as a nut here because trilogies and continuing character series are almost the norm now.

JWH

Why Women Choose Not To Marry

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 30, 2015

Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own by Kate Bolick is a fantastic book for men who want to understand modern women. Kate Bolick, an editor at The Atlantic, has written something that is part memoir, part literary history, and part feminist declaration of independence. Bolick interweaves her personal memories of growing up and choosing not to marry with the history of other women who made the same decision. By using five women from different time periods Bolick creates an evolutionary chronicle of women who chose to swim against the social current and found personal freedom. Bolick’s inspiration came from:

Spinster

In essence, Bolick asks why should women be a slave to biology, society and men. Bolick explores no new feminist territory, but she has written the latest dispatch from the front, and she’s written her story in a very engaging and compelling way. I highly recommend Spinster.

The heart of Bolick’s tale is to ask why should women marry. Her book is personal, but it could also be a sociological study. The reasons why women today can decide not to marry is because of all the changes in society over the last two hundred years. Bolick’s five muses are five advanced explorers in feminist history. They represent the choice between wife and all the other possible roles women can chose from.

We can examine that history easily enough by asking what compels women to marry:

  • Biology
  • Love
  • Family and children
  • Religion
  • Financial security
  • Peer pressure
  • Cultural brainwashing

Young girls don’t decide to go boy crazy in their teens, but hormones drive them to seek out the perfect mate. Peers and society put a cultural spin on that impulse that we rationalize is a choice, but it’s not. In recent centuries society has created the story of love to cover over biology, but in earlier times women were married off for economic reasons. They had zero choice. Love gave them one choice. Even after the invention of romantic love most women felt compelled to make a good match for financial security. Men were seen as providers and protectors. Everything in church, school, pop culture and society pushed girls to believe marriage was their true goal in life. It’s amazing that any women broke free of this programming. They now have an infinity of choices.

The marriage myth started to break down when women began to earning their own living. Society still favors the man economically, so most women still choose to marry, but that’s changing. Even some of the women Bolick profiled eventually married, giving them economic freedom, and sometimes wealth.

What’s really changed things has been sexual freedom. When women discovered they could have romance and sex without becoming a household slave is probably the beginning of the breakdown of marriage. If all women become financially independent, finding romantic partners without cultural guilt, what reasons are left to marry?

Having children remains the strongest incentive to bond in pairs. Children are a lot of work, and a huge commitment, and having two people dedicated to the task makes it much easier. Because men are often not equal partners, many women have learned that being single moms is possible. Any women who grow up not wanting children and has the ability to financially provide for herself has little reason to marry.

Because most women go through a series of love affairs they quickly learn that passion does not last, and servicing men’s incessant unromantic desires puts the kibosh on wanting them around full-time. Many modern women prefer to have a series of romantic relationships; ditching the man when he becomes too troublesome. Some women have gone from casual sex to anonymous sex to maintain maximum free time and reduce  distracting obligations from her growing ambitions.

For us men, we need to ask:  Why do women need us? Because culture continues to sell the storybook concept of perfect love for life, many women remain disciples of Miss Austen, and we can still hope to play Mr. Darcy to our fantasy dream girl even if that’s not her fantasy. But that segment of the population is in decline. Because religion teaches that family and children are the highest purpose in life, many believers, both male and female, keep marriage and family thriving. Luckily, biology compels a large percentage of the population to raise the next generation of humans. So being a potentially great Dad will always be in demand.

What about friendship and companionship? I think society is changing here too. Many women love male friends as long as they don’t have to sexual service them. Modern women are learning to separate chemistry from friendship. Of course that means hot guys get lots of sex and average guys get to be just friends.

The experiences and decisions Bolick makes in Spinster are the same ones that millions of young women are making today. Just look at this chart of the percentage of women getting married over the last 50 years.

percent married by decade

The end of the 1960s was when the women’s movement started, but also when more women started working. Bolick’s story is a personal one that back these statistics. I know many women who chose not to marry, and not to have children. I have to ask though: Was this huge social change because of the freedom to pursue careers or the freedom not be be chained to men?

Some demographers claim those who marry today are from the economically better off segments of society because marriage preserves wealth. If you want to be rich, successful and have beautiful kids, it really helps to combine two incomes, and have the support of successful grandparents as mentors. In other words, the future of marriage might be those who are well-to-do. For woman, that might mean finding mates that are 50-50 partners. In other words, marriage might go from being a male dominated kingdom to a egalitarian corporation. Which is kind of pre-romantic love retro if you think about it.

JWH

The Creation of Atticus Finch

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015

Readers who love To Kill A Mockingbird with the passion of a true believer should not read Go Set A Watchman. However, if you want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, how books used to be edited, and how a decent literary novel evolved into one of the greatest novels of all time, then you’ll probably need to read Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most beloved, admired and respected character in all of literature. How was such a character created? Before this year most readers assumed Harper Lee based Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a real-life lawyer, using her mother, Frances Finch, family’s name. Superficially, it appears we have many clues to suggest the story was autobiographical. This month, Go Set A Watchman was published, an earlier draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch in Watchman is a much different man than the literary saint he became in the final version?

Atticus Finch

I am troubled by the implication of many reviewers of the Go Set A Watchman that the 1930s Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird has matured into the 1950s Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman. 1950s Atticus was created first even though his story appears second in print and second in time. 1930s Atticus evolved from 1950s Atticus.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper’s Lee ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” by Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times gives us some clues. Harper Lee was lucky to find Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott for her editor. Hohoff was the old fashioned kind of editor that worked extensively with a writer to shape their novels. Hohoff convinced Lee not to go with the novel she submitted.  I assume that submission is close to what we’re reading now as Go Set A Watchman. Lee and Hohoff worked two years editing the book that became To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Mahler also brings up one other valuable clue—Hohoff wrote A Ministry to Man, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott during this time that was published in 1959. There might be a good bit of Lovejoy in Atticus since the two woman worked so closely together, and the editor may have convinced Lee to create a more humanistic hero for her story.

My guess is Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman was probably closer to Amasa Coleman Lee, and the Atticus in Mockingbird is closer to John Lovejoy Elliott. But I also assume that Atticus is mostly the creation of Nelle Harper Lee. We can never know the actual scientific details of the evolution of Atticus Finch. It’s not too wild of a speculation that Hohoff convinced Lee that she needed a likable hero which Atticus Watchman was not. How much Hohoff actually contributed to the creation of Atticus is unknown.

We love Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her story would not have made the novel one of the perfect novels of all time. The success of Mockingbird tells me a great novel needs a great character that will be widely loved. How did Harper Lee learn this? From Hohoff? What about from her real father? We don’t know what Amasa Lee was like, but if he was closer to the Atticus Finch in Watchman, he could have taught Nelle Lee she needed a saint and not a real person like himself to create an immortal character. This is just speculation, but the ending of Go Set A Watchman makes me wonder if Nelle was inspired by her father to become a prophet for her cause. (By the way, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who shapes the future. Harper Lee is a true prophet.)

Readers want Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird to be real. Like all great people in history, their legend overshadows their reality. Atticus Finch stands with Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as being saintly inspirations to the masses, but they all were probably less than perfect to their friends and family. Harper Lee’s writing shows she was an incredibly sharp observer of people, culture and history. I can easily imagine Lee and Hohoff sitting around speculating on possibilities and throwing out, “What if Atticus Finch became a saint to his readers?” It was at that point that the Atticus of Watchman evolves into the Atticus of Mockingbird. It took Lee a couple of years to transform her protagonist. Whereas the early fathers of Christianity spent two hundred years transforming their god. If Lee had spent any more time on Atticus I’m afraid Lee would have given Atticus psychic powers and let him walk on water.

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It’s fascinating that Harper Lee rewrote the novel and set it twenty years earlier. This was a savvy move because it let her create Scout, Jem and Dill as immortal characters rather than anecdotes of memory. But it also positioned Atticus back into time letting him stand out as a guiding light amongst his peers. It’s actually very hard to imagine 1930s Atticus dealing with the 1950s issues. Reducing everything to one court case simplified the major plot and left room for the second plot of Boo Radley. The trial doesn’t begin until the middle of the novel, but everything that comes before sets up the second half of the story. Somehow Hohoff convinced Lee to take sketches of her past and put them into a holistic unity. That also helped shape the character Atticus.

If you’ve read Go Set A Watchman you know it’s filled with long verbose passages dealing with intellectual arguments over race, often about desegregation, a concept 1930s people couldn’t imagine. This makes the 1950s Atticus a mouthpiece for racist rationalization. Throwing the story back twenty years, and letting Atticus speak far less, gives him wisdom and compassion, allowing him to be ahead of his times with modern humanistic insight. 1930s Atticus anticipating the 1950s makes for a much better Atticus. Writing a contemporary novel with a character who thinks with future insight is probably impossible. No wonder most great novels are about events that have gestated in a writer’s mind for decades. It’s also why successful prophets of history were discovered long after the fact.

The Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is made a hero for Jean Louise in a roundabout way. I’m extremely glad to have read Go Set A Watchman, but that’s because it gives me a lot of evidence about how Harper Lee became a great writer. Comparing the two makes it all too obvious why Lee never published anything more. It would have seem silly to create another best-selling saint, and foolish to compete with her own success. Lee could have done something like J. K. Rowling and explored another genre. I assume she didn’t stop writing, but probably kept it to herself like J. D. Salinger did all those years. Wouldn’t it be weird to see an early draft of Catcher in the Rye?

If Harper Lee had only written about Scout, Jem and Dill, she could have continued to crank out novels her whole life like Louisa May Alcott did after Little Women. Or if Lippincott had published Go Set A Watchman, which would have had modest success, she could have shown improvement. But to create something so perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I can understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the world of fame.

JWH