Go Set a Watchman, the surprise second novel by Harper Lee, has proven to be a hit with readers. After being available for sale for just six days, it has sold 1.1 million copies. Publisher Harper Collins announced the sales Monday, noting that the tally includes hardcovers, e-books and audiobooks. It’s the fastest-selling title in the publisher’s history.
As impressive as that is, it’s not 2015’s fastest-selling book. That honor goes to “Grey” by E.L. James, which in June sold the same 1.1 million copies in its first four days on sale.
One key difference between the authors is that James actively engages with her avid fan base through social media, while Lee, 89, has long avoided having a public persona. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1961, Lee’s last official media interview was in 1964. She declined to publish a second book for more than five decades, and contact with her is now closely managed by her lawyer.
Another key difference is the subject matter, of course, with James writing erotica and Lee writing about racism in the American South.
But the two books, “Grey” and “Go Set a Watchman,” do have something else in common: They’re a return to beloved characters from a new point of view.
In the case of “Grey,” the already familiar BDSM love story of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele is told from Grey’s perspective. Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” also focused on familiar characters, but 20 years after their appearance in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
With “Go Set a Watchman,” which was written before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the characters are seen through a different lens. Scout is not a child but a 26-year-old woman wrestling with adult issues — whether she should get married, and what to think of the racism of her beloved father and her suitor.
“[T]his is not the Atticus of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,'” L.A. Times book critic David Ulin explains. “In ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ he has turned a treacherous corner, aligning with the citizen’s council and the Ku Klux Klan.”
There’s a real chance that the change in Atticus will slow sales in the coming weeks. Once a beloved character known for his nobility and sense of justice, he’s now shown to have started out as a bigot.
But perhaps readers won’t judge the book by its characters. HarperCollins has announced it has more than 3.3 million copies of the book in print.