Mockingbird Blues

Harper Lee book jackets

Harper Lee book jackets

What’s the responsibility of the audience to an artist?

The apparent answer is, “None at all.” For years, we’ve seen people bootleg music, video and books every which way – copying cassettes, CDs, then digital versions on a massive scale. A churchgoer I knew once bragged about his thousands of Christian songs he’d never paid a penny for. Concertgoers have long recorded bootleg copies of their favorite bands and sold them. Friends have bragged about how they don’t have to go to the cinema to see first run movies (including ones that aren’t officially available digitally.) This is our consumer culture at work: “What I want, when I want it, how I want it.” (And screw you if you don’t like it.)

It’s a strange attitude from people who claim to love the artists they’re stealing from. Bruce Springsteen long resisted offering live versions of his work; recently, he’s given in and has started releasing archive concerts. His rationale: “The shows are already out there, and we can do better.” I’m happy to buy the Springsteen archives, although some fans are less happy – they want shows they don’t already own on bootleg. Sigh.

When it was announced that Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman would be published, I was dubious. Lee has long resisted publishing anything after To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is that Watchman is the first draft of Mockingbird, edited and re-shaped to become the book we love. Lee hasn’t been in good health, and her sister, who’d long looked after Lee’s legal affairs, died last year. The timing is suspect. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker that Watchman assumes the reader’s prior knowledge of the characters – it doesn’t read like any first draft, or first novel, that he’s ever encountered. As they say in the art world, the provenance is suspect.

If Lee didn’t want to publish this novel, and is now in a state where she can’t object, does the audience have a right to it (even if they pay for it)? Most artists don’t release everything they create. What they choose to issue is part of what they have to say as artists. Their curation of their own work is important. What I’ve published on Moss Island has been carefully chosen – I don’t want someone to raid my files if I become incapacitated, and publish willy nilly.

Now you know my opinion. What’s yours?