Ryder McEntyre


Poststructuralism & Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee circa 1962

Nelle Harper Lee circa 1962

Jessa Crispin, a literary critic, just penned an editorial for the New York Times where she pleads with Harper Lee not to publish her second and only other novel, written before her seminal work To Kill a Mockingbird called To Set a Watchman. I am personally ambivalent about whether or not Harper Lee should publish this work, and for a few reasons. Crispin sites internet culture as one of her primary reasons, and I begrudgingly agree with her. We live in a world "where a one-star Goodreads review by a 14-year-old can be as persuasive to some as a book critic’s 1,200-word newspaper essay, has leveled the field." What she's referring to here is the fact that we live in a poststructuralist world, where each opinion and area of meaning is as relevant as the next. 

I've been doing some art theory reading lately and I've come upon a book titled Has Modernism Failed? by Suzi Gablik. She negatively refers to poststructuralism with a term coined by Georg Hegel called the "bad infinite", "which claims to comprehend everything but is, in reality, a false complexity that merely covers up meaning." 

I would argue that back when Lee wrote and had published To Kill a Mockingbird there were, even then, poststructuralist and pluralists who sought to develop a variety of readings of the classic. As a result, literary criticism is in no short supply for TKAM, but what Crispin has just pointed out is that the field of criticism is not easily defined, and the one star review of a 14 year old really does carry more weight than it should when compared to a 1200-word scholarly essay. This is an area where poststructuralism fails thanks to the rise of public forums like review sites and social media. Everyone has an opinion, and because of Gerbner's ideas of a cultivated creation of meaning through media, the context of a screen giving information does do little to show the importance of a 1200-word essay versus a poorly written 1 star review on Goodreads.

Thus, I dread the publishing of this book because people will relentlessly attempt to recreate their first experience with Harper Lee's work because of their teenage connection to TKAM without the awareness that this is the reason for their lack of satisfaction. This percentage of people will spinoff relentlessly, creating a bad infinity of reviews which lack the depth and understanding of a literary critic. And not bad in terms of what their rating is, but bad in terms of those two missing qualities. And yet poststructuralism limps on, rebuking any and all attempts at selecting a canonical group of criticisms and defining some limitations on this bad infinity. 

And here is when I become ambivalent: I also think, in the pursuit of artistic progress, and out of my own connection to the characters within TKAM and Harper Lee's writing style, that the book should be published. And to hell with the 1 star reviewers who are merely attempting to level their lack of understanding and abundance of useless prejudice with the thoughtful words of a critic whose life depends on the words they right. 

I don't know what to think, but I do think poststructuralism needs to go away so that polysemic complexity can start meaning something and I can stop feeling ambivalent about the excitement surrounding new artistic pursuits.