(Harper Lee) In the Media: 8th February 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

You would have had to be living somewhere with no media access since Tuesday not to know that after 55 years, Harper Lee has a ‘new’ novel coming out. Go Set a Watchman is the prequel/sequel/first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, discovered in a bank deposit box and set to be published on both sides of the Atlantic in July. There’s probably already been as many words written about the book as there are in it. Harper Lee’s/Go Set a Watchman‘s week in the media went something like this:

On Tuesday, The Bookseller broke the news, then ‘About that new Harper Lee novel…‘ was published on the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog. Vulture published, ‘Read Harper Lee’s 5 Amazing Nonfiction Pieces‘ with links to them all before Jezebel ran ‘Be Suspicious of the New Harper Lee Novel‘ and The Guardian ended the day with ‘Harper Lee to publish new novel, 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird‘.

Wednesday began with Vulture publishing an interview with Lee’s editor which Mallory Ortberg responded to in The Toast with ‘Questions I Have About the Harper Lee Editor Interview‘. Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her dream date with Atticus Finch on the 4th Estate website. The Atlantic published, ‘Harper Lee: The Sadness of a Sequel‘ while The Guardian said, ‘Harper Lee is excited about new book, says agent after sceptics raise doubts‘. Electric Literature came in with ‘Should We Hold the Horses on the Harper Lee Celebration?‘; Buzzfeed gave us ‘12 Beautifully Profound Quotes From “To Kill A Mockingbird”‘, while The Huffington Post ended the day with ‘12 Women On What Harper Lee’s Work Has Meant To Them‘.

By Thursday morning, Hadley Freeman in The Guardian was telling us ‘Let’s not assume Harper Lee is being exploited. Atticus Finch wouldn’t‘ and then a new statement arrived and was reported in The Bookseller, ‘Harper Lee ‘happy as hell’ with book reaction‘. The Guardian reacted to the statement with, ‘Harper Lee’s ‘lost’ novel was intended to complete a trilogy, says agent‘. Then Lincoln Michel came in with ‘Harper Lee And Exploitation In The Name Of Literature‘ on Buzzfeed, while The Telegraph asked ‘Could there be a third Harper Lee novel?‘; the Times Literary Supplement ran a piece titled ‘Harper Lee: happy as hell‘ and cartoonist Emily Flake drew ‘What Harper Lee’s Really Been Up To All These Years‘ for The New Yorker

The Huffington Post began Friday by asking ‘Is The New Harper Lee Novel A Mistake?: Author Idolatry And “Go Set a Watchman”‘, followed by Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian telling us ‘Why To Kill a Mockingbird Is Overrated. The Guardian also ran, ‘Harper Lee book news leaves home town surprised, bemused and sceptical‘ before Slate stated, ‘Don’t Publish Harper Lee’s New Novel, HarperCollins‘. Flavorwire went for ‘Harper Lee’s New Book: The Case for Optimism‘ and Salon started speculating on the content of the novel, ‘“Scout is a lesbian”: Some modest theories on what Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” follow-up will hold‘. The Guardian finished the day with, ‘Harper Lee and the vexed question of who owns an author’s work‘; Yahoo interviewed one of Lee’s friends, ‘Harper Lee was fine the day before sequel announced‘ and the Wall Street Journal wrapped it up with ‘Harper Lee Bombshell: How News of Book Unfolded‘.

The only news since then came on Saturday when the cover of Go Set a Watchman was revealed. Here’s Bookriot on it.

The other person to have a bit of a week in the limelight is Kelly Link whose latest short story collection Get in Trouble was published in America this week (it’s out in the UK next month). She’s interviewed on Electric Literature, Publishers Weekly and NPR Books. You can read ‘The Summer People‘ from Get in Trouble via Random House orStone Animalsfrom Magic for Beginners on Electric Literature

Elsewhere, there’s been a reoccurring theme of friendship (thanks to Longreads for pointing this out): Anne Helen Peterson wrote ‘The Genius of Taylor Swift’s Girlfriend Collection‘ on Buzzfeed; Claire Comstock-Gay wrote the story ‘I Knew I Loved You‘ published in Midnight Breakfast; Jennifer Weiner wrote ‘Mean Girls in the Retirement Home‘ in The New York Times; Meghan O’Connell wrote ‘Trying to Make Mom Friends Is the Worst‘ in The Cut; Nicole Soojung Callaghan wrote ‘Friendship and Race and Knowing Your Place‘ in The Toast; Freddie Moore wrote, ‘Is Every Unhappy Friendship Unhappy In Its Own Way? On Emily Gould’s Friendship and Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls‘ on Electric Literature

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The new edition of The Letters Page was published this week including letters (fiction and non-fiction) from Rosa Campbell, Naomi Alderman, Kim Sherwood, Haisu Huang, Emma Chapman, Evelyn Conlon, Melissa Harrison and Karen McLeod.

The lists:

The Liars’ Gospel – Naomi Alderman

There seems to have been a fair few retellings of the gospel stories of late – Lazarus is Dead – Richard Beard; The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – Philip Pullman; The Childhood of Jesus – J.M. Coetzee  – and now Granta Young British Novelist, Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel.

Alderman’s take on the tales is to look at the New Testament through the lens of storytelling:

Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie. Every story could be told in at least four different ways, or forty or four thousand. Every emphasis or omission is a kind of a lie, shaping a moment to make a point…Do not imagine that a storyteller is unaware of the effect of every word they choose. Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.

The four storytellers that Alderman chooses to tell the tale of ‘…Yehoshuah, whose name the Romans changed to Jesus…’ are certainly not impartial: Miryam, Yehoshuah’s mother; Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot); Caiaphas, high priest at the temple and the man behind the plot to kill Jesus; Bar-Avo (Barabas). Each character taking a substantial chapter each, covering their association with/relation to the story of Yehoshuah and moving the story forwards covering the period from his childhood to his death and rumours of his resurrection.

But The Liars’ Gospel is not simply the story of Jesus. It is also the story of those affected by him. Alderman writes convincingly about motherhood, grief, betrayal, marriage and the brutality of life under the Roman occupation.

There is no doubt from the opening pages of the book that this is going to be a bloody and often savage story:

Hold yourself steady. Whisper the sacred words. Grasp the knife as you have practiced. Plunge the blade into the neck swiftly, just below the jaw. There must be no pausing. The knife must be sharp enough that almost no pressure is needed. Move it down evenly and quickly, severing the tendons and nerves as the blood begins to flow and the lamb’s muscles spasm. Withdraw. The entire motion should take less than the time of one in-breath.

This is a story told in precise, hard-hitting, intense prose. That is not to say it is monotone or lacks pace – quite the opposite – but that it’s the work of a writer who’s reached maturity. A writer who is aware of the effect of every word she has chosen; a writer who asks for an investment in their work; a writer to whom a devotion of time and intellect provides a hefty reward indeed.



Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.