The publicity surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” led thousands of people to her first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book that is still a bestseller well over fifty years after it was published. The characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”—Atticus Finch and his children, Jem and Scout, and their neighbor Boo Radley–have become part of our literary lexicon. But in today’s literary climate it is legitimate to wonder whether Harper Lee would stand a chance at getting an agent to represent her and a publisher to accept what has become an American classic.
It is difficult to imagine Harper Lee being rejected by literary agents. If she had written her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel within the past ten years and sought representation, it is likely she might be in a position similar to the one that thousands of aspiring writers are in now. They are finding it difficult to get literary agents to represent them.
As the numbers of authors seeking agents continues to grow, more of them are attending writers’ conferences that have pitching sessions. They hope they’ll win an agent by describing their unpublished manuscripts face-to-face because the query letters they’ve been sending have failed. Most writers’ conferences require a separate registration for pitching sessions, which are often filled long before the conferences holding them are fully enrolled.
If, in desperation, Harper Lee decided to attend a writers’ conference, she would be told that the first sentence of her novel must have a compelling hook to catch the reader’s attention. The first sentence of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is interesting—When he was thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.—but it’s a stretch to call it compelling. She would also be told that her novel had to get off to fast start, that the first ten pages were crucial. But one of the strengths of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is that it builds slowly, moving in its own unique rhythm.
Instructions would be given to her for the pitching session she would be attending. She would be told that the best pitches are brief and that she should aim for an elevator pitch of 25 words or less. Most important, her pitch, like her first sentence, must be (here is that word again) compelling. How can she make her novel, a story told by an eight-year-old girl about courage and race and bigotry that takes place in a small Southern town in the nineteen thirties sound as compelling as the manuscripts other writers will be pitching that are thrillers or mysteries?
Harper Lee is one of the most reclusive writers in the history of American letters. It is almost impossible to imagine her in a large room where nervous writers stand in long lines anxiously waiting to pitch to the agents of their choice.
If the impossible did occur and Harper Lee actually pitched “To Kill a Mockingbird” to agents, they might ask her a question or two about her characters. Would they be interested in a novel about a lawyer who is a widower, his two young children, and a reclusive neighbor no one really knows? It’s doubtful. At best, they would mentally label it a midlist book.
What is a midlist book? It is a well-written book for which publishing houses have a low expectation. They doubt that it will become a bestseller. At best they hope it will garner good reviews, help build the author’s reputation, and sell enough copies to pay for its publication. Agents aren’t enthusiastic about representing midlist writers. They are looking for the next John Grisham.
So what does Harper Lee’s hypothetical experience at a pitching session mean for us? It means that if she wrote her novel today, chances are that she wouldn’t find an agent to represent her, and her manuscript wouldn’t be published by a traditional publishing house. She would either self-publish her book and it would be lost in a sea of self-published books, or it would be stowed away in a closet. In either case, we would have lost an American treasure.