White parents ;are crestfallen. High school English teachers befuddled. American literature buffs horrified. The publication of Harper Lee’s long-lost Go Set a Watchman, with its grown-up Scout and bigoted Atticus, has set the country on its ear. Watchman, the first draft Harper Lee submitted of the novel that was ultimately published as To Kill a Mockingbird, ;isn’t the first incomplete or draft novel of a famous author brought to light for our judgmental gaze, but the significant differences between the ultimate product, To Kill a ;Mockingbird, and this draft, as well as Lee’s reported blessing for the publication, has led many to view it as a legitimate sequel rather than an artifact of literary history. By…

White parents ;are crestfallen. High school English teachers befuddled. American literature buffs horrified. The publication of Harper Lee’s long-lost Go Set a Watchman, with its grown-up Scout and bigoted Atticus, has set the country on its ear.

Watchman, the first draft Harper Lee submitted of the novel that was ultimately published as To Kill a Mockingbird, ;isn’t the first incomplete or draft novel of a famous author brought to light for our judgmental gaze, but the significant differences between the ultimate product, To Kill a ;Mockingbird, and this draft, as well as Lee’s reported blessing for the publication, has led many to view it as a legitimate sequel rather than an artifact of literary history.

By this standard, it fails. It’s an ungainly, stylistic hodgepodge of a book; the narrative lacks urgency, and the romantic scenes feel awkward and tacked on even aside from the thought of little hellion Scout being a lady on a date. Lee swings from fairly straightforward realism, shot through with confusingly large helpings of free indirect discourse, to a more avant-garde stream-of-consciousness style. By the end, the narrative has devolved into Ayn Randian ideological tirades disguised as meaningful conversations. Reading Watchman, at least one reason why Lee was pushed to do a full rewrite becomes clear: It’s just not very good.

To readers who grew up on tomboy Scout, an under-10 goddess of female empowerment in overalls, Go Set a Watchman presents another challenge. That is, not a chapter has elapsed in the rediscovered novel before a very much Scout Jean Louise Finch has fallen into the arms of a sometime lover, who kisses her with abandon at the train station. “Hush girl,” says Henry Clinton to the 26-year-old formerly known as Scout. “I’ll kiss you on the courthouse steps if I want to.”

There’s something vaguely unsettling about seeing a long-cherished child narrator all grown up and getting “kissed… hard on the mouth” by a strange character described as “her lifelong friend, her brother’s comrade, and if he kept kissing her like that, her husband.” Some reacted with bemusement:

I was unsettled myself, and that unsettlement felt familiar. A beloved child character, transformed into an adult, sexual being in a new work of fiction — though one, perhaps, less polished than the original — where had I seen that before? Oh, of course:

It’s not fair to simply compare Lee’s own rough first draft of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird to the vast archives of fan fiction cached all over the web. These stories — some mild bits of fluff about the characters as we know them, others wild and salacious romps (even venturing into realms such as male pregnancy and pedophilia) — typically contain disclaimers: “This is J.K. Rowling’s world. I just play in it.” “These are Stephenie Meyer’s characters, not mine!!” Some are involved and ambitious, others are horrendously spelled, punctuated and written. And, on a basic level, they simply are not “canon” — they don’t belong to the body of work about the characters created by the actual author. Go Set a Watchman, of course, does.

Like it or not, however, in 2015, we’ve all become used to reading new fiction about familiar characters, behaving in more adult and unfamiliar ways, and we know it as fan fiction. To wit:

From adult Scout’s blossoming into romantic desirability to her ability to both rock a pretty dress and stubbornly don her old overalls when she so chooses, from her sudden handsome suitor to her independent life in the big city, Jean Louise’s story — expressed in the unpolished prose of a pre-Mockingbird Lee — seems like a bit of self-conscious Mary-Sue-ism. Meanwhile, Atticus’ darker edge calls to mind the weirder, grittier fanfics — the ones where Edward Cullen becomes a violent dominant with a tortured past, for example. He’s been abruptly jerked to fit into a new character mold, with some conflicted authorial consciousness of his old one.

Go Set a Watchman has more to offer than typical fanfic, at least in one particular way: It’s asking (particularly white) readers to confront the idea that their white savior idols aren’t worth putting on altars. That they’re flawed and sometimes hateful and will disappoint you. Coming from Harper Lee herself, Atticus’ darker side carries more weight to force these realizations. Mockingbird taught America a gentle lesson when the country needed it, but it’s clear Lee had a more jaded view of white America than she let on in the final novel. She was right to be jaded.

Now, perhaps, there’s something new to be jaded about. Only 55 years after the original publication of Mockingbird, the literary landscape looks a lot different. Fans clamor for more, more, more material on their favorite characters, then gripe that it isn’t up to snuff. In a darkly humorous example of the snake eating its own tail, published fanfic author E.L. James finally succumbed to fan pleas for a follow-up to Fifty Shades of Grey from Christian Grey’s perspective. By the time Grey arrived this summer, disgruntled fans had found fan fiction renditions they liked far better than the one James finally delivered. “I know Grey’s going to be a letdown for me,” one reader told The New York Times. “I’ve already read it through [fanfic author Emine Fougner]’s eyes, and I honestly don’t think E. L. James can touch her version of Christian.” ;

It’s not radical to suggest that books belong to the readers just as much as the authors, that the characters are theirs to project upon, imagine with, and idolize. The sudden power of fan fiction has further skewed this dynamic, however. Now, the characters don’t even seem to belong to the books, and they certainly don’t belong to the authors, copyright technicalities aside. We’re so used to this casual rewriting of Twilight, Harry Potter, “The X-Files” and the lives of One Direction that Harper Lee’s own discarded, alternate version reads like just one more shoddy bit of blasphemy against our childhoods.

Readers don’t want to read about Scout awkwardly making out with some guy, or Atticus attending anti-integration meetings. This was someone else’s dream for our childhood favorite, not ours. If we look carefully at what we’re really reading, though, past the shoddy writing and estranged characters, we might see a piece of literary — and American — history worth far more than the innocence we’re losing.

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‘Go Set A Watchman’ Feels Like A Fanfic You Never Expected To Read