A few sentences in this review by Meghan O’Rourke of a new Harper Lee biography really bothered LK, and it’s time for a pouncing:
Even so, Mockingbird fails to offer as nuanced a portrait of Lee as one would hope for or to cast much literary insight on To Kill a Mockingbird. In the absence of reliable data from which to forge a coherent narrative, Shields… (gives) short shrift to complicated questions: Is To Kill a Mockingbird a great novel or a sentimental, didactic one? Was Lee really a brilliant writer or an average one who, with great diligence and the support system of a talented editor and agent, was able to shape a highly autobiographical story that hit a cultural nerve in the years leading up to the civil rights movement?
This kind of criticism offers little in the way of discourse and dialogue, and much in the way of staking American literature through the heart. The so-called “complicated questions” she raises are masking her real intent; isn’t what she really asking is if “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of its time? That is patently absurd (for one thing, “TKaM” is much better written, and for another, it did not inflame public sentiment the way “UTC” did) – and takes a short-view of literature, which so many critics (and writers) these days seem to do. The questions O’Rourke raises do not matter! What matters is the work, and what will count is how it stands the test of time. “TKaM” does not, in my view, work only as a commentary on mid-century American race relations; that is so reductive as to be provincial. A hundred years from now, readers will be able to take Scout’s journey and still relate to the grand themes of family and community, and the meaning of connection and honor and integrity. O’Rourke’s asking if the book is great or if Lee is a brilliant writer puts literature squarely into the marketplace as a mere product and authors centrally in the spotlight as sheer personality. (This is a parallel problem we had with Harper Lee contributing an essay to O Magazine recently; for an author who has remained shuttered, this was a brazen bow to the mass market.)
We will say it straight out: American literature is not a commodity.
LK, for one, is sick of critics and publishers alike reducing literature to a bear or bull market, to quarterly earnings and to trend. How much are we missing because editors, publishers and critics fail to see beyond the author’s bio, to read beyond potentially shocking subject matter, or to treat style as the literary equivalent of this season’s hemline length?
There, now, we can retract our claws.