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What do Dr. Seuss and Harper Lee have in common?

Award-winning author and professor of literature Robert McGill on the lure of the long-lost manuscript

In the last few weeks the literary world has grabbed headlines around the world with the publication of long-lost works of fiction.  

First up was Go Set a Watchmen, a novel written more than 50 years ago by Harper Lee,  author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Next to hit bookstores – on July 28, with considerably less fanfare and no reports of lineups around the block – What Pet Should I Get? by the late Dr. Seuss. 

Writer Ashifa Rajwani spoke with author and associate professor Robert McGill of the University of Toronto’s department of English about why lost or unpublished manuscripts capture our imaginations – or don’t. 

There has been a lot of interest surrounding Harper Lee’s ‘lost manuscript’ and less interest with Dr. Seuss’s unpublished book.  Why do you think that is? 

Before Go Set a Watchman was released, the controversy was largely about whether Harper Lee had somehow been duped into letting the manuscript be published. The concern was that she was vulnerable to manipulation due to her age and health. The question became not just ‘Should the manuscript be published?’ It became ‘When it comes to older people, how do we deal with matters of autonomy and vulnerability?’ Publication of the book gained a strong symbolic value. 

Similarly, the fact that Go Set a Watchman is a novel that Lee previously decided not to publish raises all sorts of questions about literary value – questions without clear answers. What makes a novel deserving or undeserving of publication? Who should get to decide? These are questions that the situation with this novel has encouraged people to debate. 

Another thing is that Lee’s literary reputation is based entirely on To Kill a Mockingbird. When first-time novelists hit it out of the park, their second novels are often seen as let-downs. When Lee quit publishing novels after To Kill a Mockingbird, people wondered whether she would’ve been able to produce another novel that was similarly powerful and successful. And that wondering raises other, important questions. How much of success is based on luck – on writing, doing, saying the right thing at the right time? What elements of success are replicable or non-replicable? The publication of Go Set a Watchman is giving us fuel for talking about these things.

The Dr Seuss book hasn't received as much coverage as Go Set A Watchman in no small part because there hasn't been any real scandal. If some evidence were to emerge that Theodor Geisel suppressed the manuscript for a controversial reason -- say, because he decided that he didn't want to publish a book encouraging children to own pets – then there'd be a lot more media attention in a hurry.

Has anything like this happened in the past?

A similar case from the past couple of decades involved another American writer, Ralph Ellison. He made a big splash with his first novel, Invisible Man, which was also about race in the US. After it won the National Book Award in 1953, Ellison kept telling people that he was working on a new novel, but he died in 1994 without publishing it. He left behind a huge, sprawling manuscript. Finally, his literary executor published parts of it as a novel in 1999. But Invisible Man never had the popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird.  

How does authenticity come into play when looking at ‘long lost manuscripts’?

For centuries, it’s been a popular device in novels to present a made-up story as a true report by claiming in a preface that the story was discovered in manuscript-form somewhere. Canadian literature has a well-known example in a nineteenth-century novel called A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. The sort of prefatory claim I’m describing became such a familiar thing over the years that nowadays, even real-life claims by people to have discovered such manuscripts are bound to be treated with suspicion. But that’s part of the appeal of these discoveries: they activate the ‘detective’ element in us. 
There was keen interest in Watchman on social media both before and after its release. How important is social media today in the publishing world?

Social media are important to publishing in a lot of ways. For one thing, they’re an extension of word of mouth. Through Facebook and Twitter, or on sites like Goodreads, people tell each other what books they’ve read and what books they’ve liked. Word of mouth is important in terms of selling books; it always has been. What’s unprecedented are the ways in which social media are connecting authors to readers. Plenty of writers are attempting to create relationships to readers by tweeting, visiting book clubs on Skype, things like that. It’s not clear that these things significantly boost book sales for everybody, but they help some authors to make a splash, and online promotion is becoming seen as a new requirement for authors – especially because publishers are putting less money into traditional advertising. The result is that authors – new, lesser known authors, in particular – are liable to feel that they have to pick up the slack by promoting themselves on social media. 

When my first novel [The Mysteries] came out, Facebook and Twitter hadn’t been invented. The focus of promoting the book was on TV, radio, and periodical interviews and reviews, along with readings at bookstores and festivals. By the time I published Once We Had a Country, a lot of the ‘old’ media venues had scaled back on their book coverage, and a lot of the bookstores had closed. It was disheartening, to say the least. The upside is that social media have helped me to communicate directly with readers and hear their responses to my work. And it is readers, in the end, for whom I’m writing, so getting feedback from them is pretty wonderful.