The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying. Intricate, internal monologues woven through boundary-pushing modernist novel structures; characters so complex and layered they are thisclose to materializing on the couch while you’re reading; trailblazing treatments of racism in American literature; one of the longest sentences in all of literary history (just shy of 1,300 words) found in Absalom! Absalom! and he won the Pulitzer for Literature in 1949 so okay, fine. William Faulkner knows about writing.
But I picked up Volume II of the Paris Review Interviews the other day and I have decided that though Faulkner deserves his spot at the table of Best Ever Writers, he was not nice and I don’t like him. Does Faulkner need to be nice? No. Does he need me to like him? Certainly not, for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that he is dead. But while I agree with some of his rallying cry stuff about how an artist has to be painfully dedicated and driven and in competition with herself, I read some of his answers and became deeply depressed. Because the kinds of things he said directly contribute to countless writers — young and otherwise — who think it’s okay to develop into myopic jerks, okay to maybe nurture an alcohol problem, and definitely okay to not make rent, all because Faulkner was feeling passionate and grumpy the day he said this kind of thing on record:
“The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something.”
I see. So a person should never apply for a scholarship? Never apply to a foundation so she can write her book? That’s cool. I’ll just keep working nine jobs and try to squeeze in my Sound and the Fury while I’m on the interstate. Did they even have health insurance in 1929? Then there was this, when asked if writing movie scripts could hurt a person’s writing:
“Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much.”
Mr. Faulkner, how do you feel about success?
“Good [writers] don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.”
These words strike me as not just harsh but barbarous and he must’ve meant it, because who cares about words more than William Faulkner? He cares about words so much that he says barbarous things to keep them safe, I guess, from people who abuse them, don’t understand them correctly, rub them together in ugly ways while he’s around to have to smell it. Look, I understand there are a whole lot of people in the world who would be better off being an actuaries, for example, than writers, but you know what? They/we will probably figure that out. And if they don’t but are blissfully happy writing their romance novels or whatnot, who cares, Bill? You’re a real piece of work!
I’m probably missing the entire point. Some Faulkner society will get a google alert that this blog post exists and they will laugh and highbrow-high-five each other at reading group. They can go ahead because I’m on Team Orwell and Orwell wasn’t nice but he wasn’t fancy, either.
*I wrote about the Paris Review books another time.