Recently, Glynnis MacNicol asked this question in The Guardian, claiming only women like Harper Lee are accused of perpetrating such lies while simultaneously contradicting herself by admitting that President Obama has been on the receiving end of similar accusations.
As commenters were quick to point out, MacNicol forgot that the President isn’t the only male victim of such attacks. For example, one person (anavidreader) said:
“Point taken obviously. It is profoundly idiotic and speaks to an anxiety about women with authority…That said, *cough* Shakespeare *cough*”
Setting this omission aside, though, MacNicol raises an important issue. Women’s contributions are undervalued in many fields.
- Women are often overlooked for scientific prizes;
- Women may fare better with literary prizes, but only if they’re writing about men or from a male perspective;
- Scientific articles with women listed as the primary author receive fewer citations in comparison to studies with men in that spot; and
- Women hold fewer leadership positions, whether in business or in politics, and are still paid less for equal work.**
We have a pervasive cultural norm that sees women as lacking the intelligence, motivation, and ability to compete with men successfully.
So, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if female authors are more likely than male authors to be the recipients of criticisms surrounding the authenticity of their work.
In Harper Lee’s case, rumors have swirled for years that others, like Truman Capote, were actually behind her book.
I have never thought someone else was the principal author of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, what I’ve read about the difference between the earlier draft, Go Set a Watchman, and the final product has made me think more about the extent to which heavy editing impacts the authorship of a novel. (See here for a profile of Lee’s editor, Therese von Hohoff Torrey).***
As I wrote in “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch and Harper Lee:
If Watchman is Lee’s original version of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m left asking the same question Michiko Kakutani raised in the New York Times review: “How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father?”
To what extent is Mockingbird the product of New York City rather than Monroeville, Alabama?
I’ve always known that Mockingbird was a heavily revised manuscript, but I’ve never known how much of Lee and her hometown remained in the final result. Now, I don’t want to find out.
Remember those people in college who submitted drafts of their papers to their teaching assistant enough times that, after the TA’s comments were incorporated, the TA had effectively written the paper by the end of the process?****
Well, as annoying as I thought those classmates were, I’d still consider them the primary authors of those papers. Their role was instrumental in producing the final product, and I believe the same is true of Harper Lee, even if we assume that New York City editors had a heavy influence on the town in Alabama we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. What masterpiece doesn’t go through many rounds of revision? What masterpiece is really the result of only one influence?
The same would be true of books by men, especially those published at a time when agents and editors didn’t simply throw promising, but imperfect, manuscripts into the trash.
New “stylometric” research seems to support Harper Lee’s claim to authorship. Without getting into the math, two professors in Poland used statistics to compare the 100-650 most frequently used words in Watchman and Mockingbird with each other and with works from several Southern authors, including Capote, Faulkner, and Welty.
The most basic form of that analysis showed that Watchman and Mockingbird were more closely related to each other than to any of the other books compared. The more interesting part to me, however, is the second analysis performed by the professors that still showed Watchman and Mockingbird to be related, but showed a rather large difference between their styles — a much larger difference than that seen between, say, any of Eudora Welty’s books included in the analysis, or any of Faulkner’s books after 1930.
The professors themselves recognized “a more heterogeneous pattern” for Mockingbird than Watchman, in that the latter shared similarities largely with Capote (with a modest similarity to Faulkner), whereas the former had more balanced similarities to Capote, Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor. To me, that transformation indicates the work of a skilled and learned editor.
Maybe we never needed research to tell us Lee is the author of both Watchman and Mockingbird. That’s what MacNicol seems to be saying when she labels questions about Lee’s authorship as “sexist.”
Lee’s gender likely plays a role in these beliefs, but so do the mysteries surrounding her, from her reclusive behavior and dearth of additional publications to the differences between Watchman and the classic coming-of-age story it became. For these reasons, questions about Mockingbird might be more reasonable than they otherwise appear.
*The image: My copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s one of my favorite novels.
**Of course, examples of the discrepancy between the treatment of women and men are too numerous to recount here (but please feel free to leave additional examples in the comments!).
***Thank you to Vickie Lester of Beguiling Hollywood for sending me the article about Lee’s editor!
****That wasn’t you in college, right? 😉