Creating Mockingbirds: The Importance of an Authorial Online Presence
CCL photo by Dendroica cerulea on Flickr.
"For Harper Lee, [To Kill a Mockingbird] rolled out beautifully, it sold beautifully, it took on a life of its own, and its success had very little to do with the fact that she had to be out selling it. The book stood for itself. It would be nice to have that kind of a culture today, but we don't anymore." - Adriana Trigiani in Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird
“Keep in touch!” Those three words had a prominent presence in my yearbook and bounced up and down the halls on my last day of high school. I was surprised one of my best friends said instead, “You have got to get a blog. I’m never going to know what’s happening in your life if you don’t keep a blog updated.” My family was beginning to enter the blogging craze as well: mom, sister, aunts, cousins, second cousins, and cousins once removed (you think I’m kidding). So a couple of weeks after the graduation parties died down, I created myself online with a picture, a short bio, and an introductory blog post. Posting the link on Facebook legitimized it: From that day forward I was a blogger with a publicly available online presence, despite my amateurism.
Pressure to conform is increasing in intensity for those who are not making themselves known through the internet. Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs and other sites are becoming requirements for keeping in touch and both receiving and sending information quickly. The stakes multiply for modern authors with desires to be a part of both popular and high culture. Authors who fail to enter with a strong presence into the digital age leave the door ajar for active members of the public to push in and create their presence for them.
An aspiration to make an epic discovery for my class project started me on the search for contact information of Harper Lee, author of classic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Some snooping produced this: Harper Lee has not granted an interview since 1964 (a mere four years after publication) nor published anything since Mockingbird in 1960 (“About the Author”). I was stunned and disappointed, then curious. Lee composed a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on her first try, a beloved novel that spent 88 consecutive weeks on bestseller lists, then abruptly dropped out of public view (“About the Author”). Why? My further search garnered intriguing results. In her final public interview, Lee admitted that the attention was unexpected and overwhelming, almost “frightening” (Madden 162). Alice and friend Reverend Thomas Lane Butts explained that exploitation of her words and work, specifically misrepresented interviews and autographed books, was disheartening (Murphy 71, 128). More intriguing, however, were accusations that Mockingbird was in fact the work of renowned author and Lee’s longtime childhood friend and colleague, Truman Capote.
Harper Lee closed herself off without giving the public a reason. Naturally, critics and readers alike ventured to understand the disappearance of the bestselling author. Lee, however, refused to give in. Most reader and critic explanations were positive and based on fact. One, however, had its beginnings in fact but was skeptical: Was Truman Capote an unappreciated ghost-writer of To Kill a Mockingbird? Lee and Capote had been friends since kindergarten, wrote side-by-side in New York, and then helped to edit and do research for each other’s novels (“About the Author”). And, of course, this was Lee’s first novel while Capote was already nationally-acclaimed. Speculation circulated that after so much fame and publicity Lee felt too guilty of hurting Capote’s career to continue in the limelight. Of course Alice, Lee’s close friends, and the majority of Mockingbird scholars and readers pled and still plead disparately (Block, Windham 5). But because neither Lee nor Capote has explicitly said otherwise, a few diehard Capote fans still believe. In 2003, Ben Windham crossed paths with Archulus Persons, Capote’s father, who continued to claim that “almost all” of Mockingbird was written by Capote (5). Though today greatly outnumbered, these loyal followers have portrayed Lee in a negative light, posting opinions of both her and Mockingbird on blogs and forums across the internet.
To Kill a Mockingbird’s popularity may not have suffered from the rumor that Truman Capote authored the piece, but the reading culture of the 1960’s South is hardly comparable to the blooming digital age in which we now live. I echo bestselling author Adriana Trigiani in the belief that publishing and reading culture has changed since To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication; no longer can authors release a book and go into hiding as Harper Lee did (Murphy 184). Readers are beginning to turn to the internet to find out more about a book or author; they generally either Google or guess the most obvious domain name, usually the author’s name or the book title (Krozser 16, 18). Type harperlee.com into the address bar and a fan-based website with this disclaimer appears: “Please note that harperlee.com is a private website, unaffiliated with Harper Lee or her representatives.” Instead of what Lee herself wants readers to know, an unknown entity includes what they consider to be worthwhile. Innocent readers can be deceived if they fail to read the small print.
Mysteriousness, absence, and incomplete stories generate rumors; and few have told this tale more clearly than Lee herself. Through the narration of Scout, a young tom-boy, To Kill a Mockingbird depicts the small town of Maycomb and the adventures of Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill while commenting on racism and assumptions in Southern communities. Arthur Radley, known to Jem, Scout, and Dill as Boo, was often talked about but had not been sighted since Scout could remember. Much of the children’s entertainment came from “the idea of making Boo Radley come out” (Lee 43, 9), but they were too afraid to actually go up to the door to say hello, instead sticking a friendly note on the end of a fishing pole and unsuccessfully trying to dislodge it on a side windowsill (Lee 53). Readers and critics alike have been holding out the figurative fishing pole to Harper Lee and distant authors like her for years, but attempts have fallen short and we are once again left subject to any information but the author’s.
Very little time or creativity is needed to twist a story or description into a slightly less factual one, and it takes even less time to proliferate through a well-connected community. Never having heard anything different, Scout believed Jem characterized Boo “reasonably”: “[He] was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that's why his hands were blood-stained. . . . There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time” (Lee 14). The children knew only enough of the stories and descriptions which Miss Maudie believed to be “three-fourths colored folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford,” the town gossip, to create their own once-fact-based version of Boo (Lee 51). Jem, Scout, and Dill took for truth what they had heard, regardless of the source. They did not know what Boo Radley actually did or looked like, but because of “facts” circulating around their little town by those who were actively engaged in continuous conversation with their neighbors, the children did not know where to get the real facts, likely did not recognize that their perceptions were skewed.
The same can be said for literature readers on the internet today. Just as Boo Radley’s history, appearance, and even personality were formulated in the minds of many by rapidly-spreading gossip in a tight-knit town like Maycomb and Harper Lee was accused of taking undue credit for To Kill a Mockingbird, authors leave their readers to pseudo online presences on the internet, where information spreads even more rapidly than Maycomb. The Internet is an impressive, medium that is evolving daily, and as a result authors must also evolve. Without using the resources available to explicitly form a legitimate online presence, authors lose control over how they are recreated and then perceived by the online literature community.
Block, Melissa. “Letter Puts End to Persistent ‘Mockingbird’ Rumor.” NPR. NPR’s All Things Considered, 3 Mar. 2006. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5244492>.
“Contact Us.” Harperlee.com. n.p., n.d. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://harperlee.com/contact.htm>.
Hyatt, Michael. “7 Ways to Build your Author Brand Online.” MichaelHyatt.com. Michael Hyatt, 10 Nov. 2008. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://michaelhyatt.com/seven-ways-to-build-your-author-brand-online.html>.
-- . “Why Every Author Needs a Powerful Online Presence.” MichaelHyatt.com. Michael Hyatt, 9 Nov. 2008. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://michaelhyatt.com/why-every-author-needs-a-powerful-online-presence.html>.
Krozser, Kassia and Kirk Biglione. “Building Author Web Presence.” Slideshare.net. n.p., 2009. Web. 2 June 2011. <http://www.slideshare.net/kbiglione/building-author-web-presence>.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
Madden, Kerry. Harper Lee: A Twentieth-Century Life. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.
Murphy, Mary McDonagh. Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of to Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper, 2010. Print.
“To Kill a Mockingbird: About the Author.” The Big Read. National Endowment for the Arts, n.d. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://www.neabigread.org/books/mockingbird/mockingbird04.php>.
Windham, Ben. “Southern Lights: An Encounter with Harper Lee.” Tuscaloosanews.com. The Tuscaloosa News, 24 Aug. 2003. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://tldev.ny.atl.publicus.com/article/20030824/NEWS/308240365?Title=SOUTHERN-LIGHTS-An-encounter-with-Harper-Lee>.
Alyssa Rutter is a Brigham Young University sophomore studying English and editing. She is a musician, a learner, a reader, and a family enthusiast.