Newswise — The news earlier this month of the discovery of a previously unpublished manuscript from Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, set the American culture machine into such a twittering it seemed, for a moment, as if Lee had been pumping out highly-anticipated biannual potboilers rather than settling into a five-and-a-half-decade publishing silence.

Suddenly, Lee and this new novelistic offering, Go Set a Watchman, were everywhere. But rather than a simple, deserved feting, this felt like one more occasion for the 24/7 news cycle and the pervasive social media to inculcate another artistic scion of an earlier era in how fame works now.

Brent Spencer, a professor of creative writing at Creighton University and author of several books including a novel, s short story collection and a memoir, said Lee’s early success with a book that almost immediately entered the rarefied canon of The Great American Novel may have set her up for a difficult second act.

“Early success can haunt a writer,” said Spencer, whose first interaction with To Kill a Mockingbird was through the faithful re-envisioning of it by filmmaker Robert Mulligan in the 1962 movie that earned Gregory Peck his first Oscar. “I don’t know if that’s true in this case, but there’s an element of it, of being overwhelmed by all of the attention that she got and that’s built over the years. She has recoiled from that. Whether she’s been haunted by the book’s success, if that’s the reason, nobody can likely say. But the fact there has been the silence is possibly an indication.”

Famously media shy, Lee has taken an unprecedented step in releasing a statement on Go Set a Watchman, due for publication in July.

“I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman,” Lee said in a statement through her lawyer on Feb. 4. She rarely talked about her first book, which wended its way into American hearts following its 1960 publication and subsequent adaptation into that Academy Award-winning film.

Go Set a Watchman, long believed lost and now understood to pre-date Mockingbird, has some novelists, including Spencer, thinking about the perils of publication and the well-documented difficulties most writers face in presenting a fresh piece of work for the ever-voracious American consumer. Not that the average consumer of literature resembles, say, the aficionado of technological gadgets or even popular film, but the recent media placement of Lee has opened some questions about what it means to write, what it means to produce books and, moreover, what it means to do either with long gaps of a blank page between public offerings.

America has seemingly always preferred productivity to profundity. Writers like Lee, Ralph Ellison, Grace Paley and John Kennedy O’Toole, whose collective lifetime literary yield runs to just a few works of brilliant quality, sometimes get lost among the statuary of John Updike, Philip Roth, or even Ernest Hemingway, writers who experienced only the rare lacuna in their careers, faithfully churning out novels at a brisk clip.

“It’s a country where we think of success in terms of output,” Spencer said. “Grace Paley was a wonderful writer. She put together only a few books of fiction in her lifetime, but each one is devastatingly good. The question might be, ‘Why would she have to write another one after that?’ We, as readers, have to be happy with what we get. On the other side, there’s Hemingway, who had a few unfinished novels at the time of his death. Someone went in and spruced those up and put them out for publication and they really didn’t contribute much to his reputation. You have to think that might not have been the best way to serve the writer.”

Spencer said in Lee’s present case, there’s possibly an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between a writer and an editor. To Kill a Mockingbird apparently arose out of Lee’s editor’s desire to see the characters in Go Set a Watchman in their youths. Lee returned to the writing table and produced what was, in effect, a prequel.When the editor had Mockingbird in hand, it was agreed to be the stronger novel and the world instantly fell in love with an Alabama tomboy, her courageous father and a man named Boo.

“Editors can affect an outcome in just that way,” Spencer said. “They’re in the heart of this business, and it is a business. They’ve got an eye for what people will read. Writers, we’re trying to do another part of the business.”

Intimations Go Set a Watchman has been unscrupulously coaxed out of Lee, 88, have further fueled the literary conversation taking place in academia and informal reading clubs alike. The possibility of looking in on Scout, Jem, Atticus and Boo, a few years removed from the action of Mockingbird, has proven too compelling for fans of Lee’s work, of which there are new ones minted everyday as Mockingbird is still found on high school reading lists. Go Set a Watchman is the new book America wants to read.

Spencer said given the weight of Lee’s first book and its attention to such issues as race and justice, the new novel will be an important literary event and he looks forward to its appearance this summer.

“I fully intend to give it a read,” he said. “Mostly out of my experience with To Kill a Mockingbird. She’s a wonderful writer and her first novel was all about growing up, fathers, children, race relations, the fears and magic of childhood. Those are big, important ideas. I imagine we’ll get something similar in this new one.”

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