Politics

The Books Briefing: Margaret Atwood, Harper Lee


In 1999, Gayl Jones published a book that reads the way jazz sounds. Her fourth novel, Mosquito, is an ambitious, experimental riff that blends historical and philosophical beats and finds connections between U.S.-Mexico border tensions and the Underground Railroad. Mosquito displayed the wide-ranging talents of a writer heralded by Toni Morrison and fresh off a National Book Award nomination. It was also the last novel Jones would publish for more than two decades.

What makes a writer wait decades to publish? What does that time do to the stories they eventually tell? When Jones reemerged recently with her fifth novel, Palmares, a six-volume work that focuses on a settlement of Black Brazilians, the mystique of her absence was as compelling as her sprawling historical fable. Her linguistic invention, honed over the course of a patient career, is as impressive now as when Morrison, then an editor at Random House, first encountered her writing in 1974.

Similarly reticent, the late Harper Lee often seemed distrustful of the fame she garnered from To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps that wariness explains why she repeatedly stalled the publication of the follow-up to her iconic 1960 novel. In 2015, while reports of the elderly author’s poor health and frail memory swarmed, the sequel Go Set a Watchman suddenly appeared. Under these dubious circumstances, the question may not be what took so long for the book to come but why it was ever released at all.

Margaret Atwood, by contrast, is no recluse. Still, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale was notably withholding when it came to her most famed dystopian universe. She waited 34 years before finally delivering a sequel to that book. Where Go Set a Watchman’s controversial release risked contradicting the authority of a vulnerable author, in the case of The Testaments, Atwood’s agency is undeniable. She reclaims the story with surprising shifts in narration. By upending readers’ expectations, the saga of the handmaids becomes, once more, Atwood’s singular creation.

Sister Souljah likely relishes the way her novel The Coldest Winter Ever has become not only a mainstay at Black-owned bookstores but also the cherished fodder of middle-school classrooms and cafeterias since its 1999 debut. When she put out the follow-up, Life After Death, 22 years later, she offered the mainstream publishing industry a chance to catch up to what her readers have always known: Her so-called street lit is simply literature, no more, no less.

We may never know why some writers disappear, but their reappearance can be a gift. Joy Williams’s precise new work reads as both urgently summoned and naturally continuous with the literary themes that have appeared in her stories for decades. In the apocalyptic Harrow, her first novel in 21 years, a congregation of ghosts haunts the pages. They point us to unnerving things, like how we live side by side with death. They also point us to what came before: the words that endure in spite of—and long beyond—an author’s silence.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Illustration of Gayl Jones

Johnalynn Holland

The best American novelist whose name you may not know

“All of Jones’s women are on the run, but from book to book they become more likely to have a place to go.”


Copies of the book "Go Set a Watchman," by Harper Lee

Rob Stothard / Getty

The sadness of a sequel

“Why end the silence? And why do it now? Perhaps it really was as simple as a manuscript lost and recovered, serendipitously for all involved … Or perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires.”


Portrait of Margaret Atwood

Rosdiana Ciaravolo / Getty

The challenge of Margaret Atwood

“To publish a sequel after so long is to inevitably suggest that it is her book, and her world, after all.”


Portrait of Sister Souljah

Anthony Barboza / Getty

Literature’s original bad bitch is back

Life After Death presents an opportunity to more thoroughly consider literature of its kind—for those of us who first became acquainted with Winter as teens, and for a publishing industry that still doesn’t quite understand characters like her.”


Images of field and man on bike

Joe Sohm / Universal Images / Getty; Getty; Catherine Falls / Getty; Cedric von Niederhausern / The Atlantic

The prophet of nothingness

“For decades now, Williams has been consumed with this question: What will death be like, and how would we live differently if we knew?”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she’s holding close is All About Love, by bell hooks.

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