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Whether or not, as her publishers insist, Harper Lee consented to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, reading it still feels like scrolling through a series of highly unfortunate selfies taken from a hacked cellphone.

While being promoted as a second novel from the now 89-year-old author, Go Set a Watchman was in fact submitted for publication in 1957 and is the raw material from which To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was later wrought – or in some instances copied and pasted.

Atticus Finch is a small-town lawyer in Go Set a Watchman, as he is in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise is his daughter, called "Scout" in flashbacks – the name she is known by in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her brother is called Jem in both books.

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In Mockingbird, the two have a fairly convivial relationship, whereas in Go Set a Watchman, the 26-year-old Jean Louise unceremoniously informs us her brother "dropped dead" a few years back. It's an image that demands a Pythonesque Terry Gilliam animation and it foreshadows precisely the amount of empathy Jean Louise demonstrates for most of the book: Go Set a Watchman frequently reads like a misguided attempt at To Kill a Mockingbird fan fiction.

The reaction to Go Set a Watchman has been overwrought and confused. Jean Louise, we're told, "was born colour blind," but still "observes that black people are a "are simple people, most of them," suggesting she's perhaps more colour-short-sighted. The public's dismay stems largely from the fact that this Atticus Finch is a raging racist.

Atticus may be the most idealized character in American fiction. With this book, it's as if the publishers have broken into and ransacked people's childhoods, and many fear the discrepancies between the two novels will forever change the way To Kill a Mockingbird is read.

That, I think, is not a bad thing.

I wish there were more mystery as to why To Kill a Mockingbird, with its confused prose and oddly shifting narrative perspective, was such an immediate and enduring success, but the book, which is not without its charms, was always a comforting fiction.

It's easy to imagine what a balm it must have been to a somewhat morally, and otherwise, panicked America in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that would desegregate the schools, and of the Supreme Court ruling that desegregated Alabama's buses.

To Kill a Mockingbird is, after all, a segregated anti-racist novel.

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Maycomb, Ala., the fictional town in which the novel is set, has a charm so intense it approaches kitsch-level. It's "remained the same size for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cottonfields and timberland."

The mostly halcyon days of Scout's very much remembered youth play out in a place that seems to rest in a kind of snow globe – briefly shaken by a rape trial in which her father defends an innocent black man.

The racism in To Kill a Mockingbird is communicated as an artifact of that distant, indeed almost foreign, childhood.

Removed as these white folks are from most of the book's audience – separated by time, space and colloquial dialogue so distinct it almost amounts to another language – the black people are still further away, barely in the book, pretty much in the Shire.

"Their cabins looked neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside," the reader is assured. Separate but tidy.

Tidiness-measured morality is a big thing in To Kill a Mockingbird. Indeed, Robert Ewell, the only irredeemable racist in the book – according to Atticus, a lynch-mob leader merely has a "blind spot," and the clan was but "a political organization" – comes from a family plagued with "congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings."

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To Atticus, unclean "trash" – likely not the kind of people the reader might know, let alone the reader himself – are the genuine obstacle to better, but not fundamentally changed, living.

"There's nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro's ignorance," he says. "Don't fool yourselves," Atticus continues, "it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it. I hope it's not in your children's time."

The "we" here is clearly white people, and what gross injustice to black people threatens most appears to be white folks' way of life. Certainly to readers of the book, released six months after the Greensboro Four sat down at a segregated lunch counter in North Carolina and peacefully refused to leave – within days, they were joined by 300 more would-be lunchers – it might have felt as if that bill had indeed come due. It sure looked as if a lot of black characters might be about to be written into their lives.

Could this be the reason a book with a resounding theme of racial justice that contains no actual fully realized black people was awarded the Pulitzer Prize after 41 of the many weeks it would spend on the bestseller lists?

To Kill a Mockingbird even has an impassioned-speech-giving, specifically non-violent character who eloquently demands people do right by their fellow man "in the name of God" who is not Martin Luther King Jr.

Separate but equal.

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Arguably, with his astonishing popularity, Atticus Finch is the literary Elvis Presley to Dr. King's Chuck Berry.

However, in To Kill a Mockingbird the prescription for justice is not found in institutional change being demanded and enacted in America at that time. Atticus even digresses in his defence of his client to take a swipe at Washington for weighing in on issues that he feels ought to be a matter of states' rights. I'll bet readers' ears pricked up.

Perhaps it's time they stood down a bit.

"I think for a child's book it does all right," Flannery O'Connor said of To Kill a Mockingbird with reasonable accuracy – none of which explains the novel's trajectory as the seminal text for lessons on race relations still offered to the majority of schoolchildren between Grade 7 and 12 today.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit is an excellent children's book, and yet we don't hold it up as a model for agricultural practice.

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