Last week there was a happening in book publishing. It came in the form of a newly published novel from Harper Lee, who has gone these many decades shying away from the limelight, never seeking publication for any work her beyond beloved 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication are extremely shady, but that’s another post altogether.
TKAM happens to be the favorite book of one my fellow Girls Friday, Leslie Miller (Lam as we all call her). She wrote a post for the GFP blog last week about the fervor over Go Set a Watchman and, in particular, what it “reveals” about iconic hero Atticus Finch—a character Lam herself was so affected by that she named her eldest son after him.
As she put it in our conversation about the hullabaloo at the office, you would think someone had discovered damning evidence about a presidential candidate rather than a literary character who—much as he may have been inspired by the author’s actual father, much as he’s become a cultural icon—is not actually, you know, a real person.
But we could be forgiven for thinking he was, couldn’t we? The books I really love, the ones that stay with me for years after I’ve read them, are usually ones that have caused me to suspend disbelief to the point that I do, on some level, feel that the characters and worlds they create are real. Not flesh and blood, but real in some even deeper way, spiritual sense. I still think about Briony from Atonement and Esperanza from The House on Mango Street and wonder what became of them after I left them. Because those books touched something beyond the rational, it’s why I loved them so much.
In a world where the images and impressions of our real life public figures—our politicians and celebrities and sports heroes—are managed and obscured to within an inch of their existence, it makes sense that we’d feel closer to our fictional heroes: the ones who hide nothing from us, who offer their whole selves for our judgement, our education, and our comfort. Maybe they feel real because, on one level, they are.