If such a thing as a ‘blockbuster’ novel can, or should, exist, Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is about as seismic a cultural event as you will see this summer. Compare the anticipation surrounding Watchman with that of cinematic mega-sequels from the Jurassic Park and Terminator franchises and you see a rare, but substantial, victory for literature over both dinosaurs and robots.
The reaction to the work itself has been, predictably, fraught. Combine the 55-year wait with characters and a story that the reading public have wholeheartedly taken ownership of and any extension of the tale was always going to upset some. Idol topplers, it seems, are rarely greeted warmly.
But I don’t intend to lend my ignorance to that particular debate. Although we both peddle the alphabet, copywriters and novelists are tapping at very different windows. Instead, I’m more fascinated by the unfolding of a unique and compelling marketing strategy.
The ‘forgotten manuscript’ hook is old and well worn. Everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to Tupac Shakur have shared ‘new’ works (real or imagined) long after their death. That Lee is still with us, an enigmatic focal point for public curiosity and affection, makes the discovery of the ‘forgotten’ text all the more enticing.
In marketing terms, the message being so cleverly spun is the ‘rediscovery of a lost masterpiece’, the missing piece in one of modern fiction’s most compelling literary jigsaws. A more cynical reality suggests we are being flogged nothing more remarkable than a failed first draft.
The campaign then granted us a glimpse of the first chapter. That the beginning of the novel immediately revealed startling new information about the original characters (Jem’s death and, shockingly, Atticus Finch’s transformation into a bigot) was especially helpful for generating headlines – if not especially useful if you, your children or your business had been proudly named after the now tainted hero of Mockingbird.
Of course, as well as the deliberate marketing strategy, there is a great deal of naturally occurring stimulus to fluff and froth our sense of expectancy. Lee, with a bibliography of one, is living proof of the transformative power of time and silence. A 55-year pause was sufficient time for all kinds of significance to be attached to Mockingbird and had Lee delivered a string of middling novels between then and now, very few would be queuing at midnight for her latest release. There’s a case here for revaluating the optimal striking temperature of irons I suppose.
Perhaps where this prosperous marriage of literature and marketing begins to strain is when people actually read the book. Reviews have ranged from the distressed to the underwhelmed to the cautiously appreciative. The Guardian’s assessment of it being "less likeable and school-teachable" than Mockingbird probably best sums up the gulf between expectation and the considerably darker reality.
But, with a marketing campaign designed to capture the imagination like no book release has ever done before, does a poor critical and popular reception represent a failure or simply a commercial irrelevance?
A book that months ago topped the Amazon best sellers list with pre-orders, that inspired large crowds to queue from midnight outside independent bookstores and that generated such ubiquitous media coverage is, surely, an unqualified marketing triumph.
The shattered illusions, lost innocence and clay feet are all questions of literature and art. And marketing, as so often is the case, isn’t especially bothered about either.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @Boultini