Harper Lee, “Second Novel Syndrome,” and Situational Perfectionism

Harper Lee, author of the immortal To Kill a Mockingbird, died last week at 89. She never published another book except for Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015 in what many consider to be dubious circumstances.

Lee may have suffered from second-novel syndrome, a form of procrastination in which an author becomes self-conscious due to the public attention she receives for her first book, and is consequently inhibited from publishing her second. I don’t know whether she wanted to keep publishing or not, but she did tell one interviewer:

“I was hoping for a quick and merciful death [of Mockingbird] at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement….I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

If she did suffer from second-novel syndrome, she wasn’t alone. Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) and J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) also struggled with their celebrity after their initial publication successes, and never completed second novels.

Even the prolific J.K. Rowling struggled after the success of the first Harry Potter book: “’For the first time ever in my life, I got writer’s block,’ she once commented. ‘The stakes seemed to have gone up a lot, and I attracted a lot of publicity in Britain for which I was utterly unprepared.’”

“Second novel syndrome” is an example of what I call “situational perfectionism.” Here’s an excerpt from a short piece I wrote on that:

Situational perfectionism is when something happens that causes your perfectionism to spike. Examples include:

*You’ve invested in your writing or other dream – say, by taking a class or buying a piece of equipment – and think, “Now, I’d better make that pay off.”

*You’ve just finished a workshop or class, and are feeling all, “Now, I’d better do something fabulous.”

*You’ve committed to your dream by taking time off from your job, moving to part-time work, or hiring a babysitter, and are thinking, “Now I’d better make the most of this precious time.”

*You’ve had a professional success, and are telling yourself, “Now I’d better do even better. Everyone’s watching me.” (Second-Novel Syndrome is thus an example of situational perfectionism.) And,

*You’ve had an early success, and are now feeling extra pressure to perform. (Same “everyone is watching” imperative, plus you’ve probably never even had the practice at coping with failure that the rest of us stragglers have had!)

Note all those “now’s”: perfectionism is usually short-sighted, whereas compassionate objectivity always takes the long or broad view. Wisdom can be summarized as perspective and proportion.

All this is just to remind you that you have to approach each project utterly prepared to fail. I can understand why this would be harder after a very visible success, but it’s doable if you categorically reject perfectionism.

I always feel sad when people can’t enjoy their successes. However, I hope it was some solace for Lee, through all those decades, to know that To Kill a Mockingbird occupied a unique place in world literature, and that it helped change lives and societies for the better.

Related: Humorist Dave Barry on a surefire method for avoiding Post-Pulitzer Prize situational perfectionism.


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