Faulkner’s Reluctant Student

William Faulkner, 1954
William Faulkner, 1954 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, I steered clear of William Faulkner as long as I could, a major feat for a writer born and reared in Mississippi. I guess I read “The Bear”, “A Rose For Emily”, or “Old Man” during high school sophomore English class. Probably “A Rose For Emily”. It seems the most appropriate for that age, and, having discovered Edgar Allen Poe the same year, “A Rose For Emily” would have stuck in my mind for the macabre alone. I know well, though, the book which caused me to run away from William Faulkner  —  As I Lay Dying, soon to be a major motion picture release. Each student in my senior English class had a choice between one of two books as an optional reading requirement; I cannot remember the other option, but, then and now, it seems pedestrian next to the idea of Faulkner’s ode to family, death, and struggle.

The story seemed straight-forward until I reached the infamous chapter in which Vardaman, youngest member of the family, declares only, “My mother is a fish.” That’s it, the whole chapter; no explication, no exegesis. I did not yet have all the critical tools to deal with it, the three things Faulkner himself said every writer needs: experience, observation, and imagination. So, ignoring the fact he also said at times any of one of those things would suffice for the others, I flew my white flag and declared the author obfuscating for the simple expedient of appearing difficult. Besides, I had found another Master, one of complex insights housed in seemingly simple vessels  —  Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s minimalist style proved more accessible to my immature intellect, while the international settings of his novels and stories inspired a young mind seeking an escape from, not deeper into, the humid, kudzu-ridden South of its youth.

In this way, I spent my upperclassmen and undergraduate years devouring The Sun Also Rises, For Whom The Bell Tolls, A Movable Feast, and whatever other Hemingway I ran across. I also wasted a major opportunity to penetrate the works of Faulkner. Noel Polk, one of the foremost Faulkner scholars of his time, taught classes at the university I attended and, though I knew him, I avoided his classes concerning the most famous novelist of my home state, due in some part to my accepted difficulty with Faulkner’s work, and perhaps due, in some part, to my roommate being an ardent Faulkner scholar. We would have vehement arguments  —  my roommate and I, not Professor Polk and myself; that would’ve been ridiculous  —  wild, adolescent, undergraduate debates of “Who’s the Better Writer”, he always defending Faulkner and me Hemingway. His defense consisted of Faulkner’s complexity versus Hemingway’s simplicity, while contending that Hemingway could not write a Woman. I, meanwhile, argued Hemingway wrote symbols, not women, Faulkner’s complexity made his work impenetrable and that, anyway, he could not punctuate his way out of a paper bag. Oh, the hubris of youth.


So, with one of the finest, kindest educators in my experience, not to mention one of the most renowned Faulknerians, at my disposal, I steadfastly refused to engage the author and retreated further and further into Minimalism, mistakenly assuming that it owed some allegiance to Hemingway. Ultimately, though, I had to admit Faulkner intimidated me. The first book of his I read contained this alien and quixotic sentiment, meaning one thing or another, depending to whom you listened, and my undergraduate roommate gave me to understand what I had read in high school represented the easy stuff. There were others  —  The Sound and The Fury, Absalom Absalom, for instance (confession: I still have not read that last one)  —  which to the uninitiated remained as impenetrable as Calculus.

A funny thing happened, though. The year after taking my Master’s, I moved to Oxford, MS. Faulkner fairly floated, like pollen, on the air. Most importantly, I walked his landscape, his terrain. I picked up pieces of him here or there, scraps of his letters, telegrams back and forth between himself and his Hollywood employers, his thoughts on various employments, or lack thereof, on his little “postage stamp of soil.” Then, I picked up The Hamlet, the first of his Snopes trilogy. Here, then, lay a story I could understand, the Have-not on his way to becoming a Have, being generally sneakier, slicker, and downright meaner than anyone standing in his way and, ultimately, losing. Through Flem Snopes, I came to appreciate Faulkner’s themes and language. I’m sure my own critical tools matured in the ensuing years, also, but the Snopes Trilogy gave me a backdoor into Faulkner’s more experimental work. I came to appreciate his legacy and his place in Literature’s Pantheon (as much as I hate the idea of a canon). Though I’ll never use language as dense as Faulkner’s, or as deceptive, I understand the larger point behind the books set in his Yoknapatawpha County, that great themes can be played out on small stages, that there are no new stories, only telling them well, and that what a writer must do more than anything else is care, deeply care, about the characters who embody his or her stories, regardless of their ultimate outcome.

Indie/Trad Publishing

Lake Side Publishing House, by Lovejoy & Foster
Lake Side Publishing House, by Lovejoy & Foster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, Salon published an article in which Rob W. Hart opined on the situation between traditional and independent publishing. No neophyte in this debate, Hart self-published his novella, The Last Safe Place. He also serves as Associate Publisher for Mysterious Press, a digital publisher for classic and out-of-print crime and mystery novels. Given these credentials, and the supposed subject of his article, you would think Hart sits on the same sunny side of the self-publishing street with the likes of J. A. Konrath and Barry Eisler. And you’d be wrong.

For Hart specifies the reasons he self-published his work: a novella is too short to sell in a traditional deal, and, being on the one side of the eBook counter, he wanted the experience offered by the other side. Mostly, though, curiosity appears to have motivated Hart; he did not expect to get rich, find The New York Times Sunday Book Review breaking down his door, or have the world hail him as the Prophet of a New Digital Publishing Age. Instead, many, particularly those in the independent-publishing world (let’s dispense with the connotations of “self-publishing” right about here, okay?), hailed him as a pariah.

Hart can maybe blame himself for some of this keening. Calling anything a cult in the title of the article in which you examine said thing can cause that kind of a reaction. But, those readers going along with this gut reaction blind themselves with their own myopic view, and attempts to vilify him in the Comments section of the article pretty much just prove his point. And, anyway, shouldn’t authors worry about more pressing matters, like making sure the dog gets its flea medicine, or some other important activity, like writing?

Konrath himself is pretty clear about his position; if there’s to be any Prophet of The New Digital Publishing Age, he wants that title (if the proclamation doesn’t already hang from his wall). Weekly, he proclaims the efficacy of indie publishing, quoting his own considerable sales figures, inviting guest posts by indie authors or converts, all of whom have glowing things to say about either leaving the Big Bad Wolves behind in the dark forest of traditional publishing, or about how they found themselves listed among their heroes in the bestseller lists of traditional reporting media. Among his other proselytizing, Konrath makes clear that having success in independent publishing takes a lot of work and self-promotion, all of which he claims his traditional publishing deals left him responsible for in the first place, at least nominally. So, if he does the work, he should get all the dough. A hard position to argue.

Except that publishing houses do offer authors services, besides just selling the paper on which they print them. They either hire artists to create engaging cover art (or contract it out), hire a marketing department to pimp the books (or contract that out, too), and provide editors, sometimes very good, very talented editors, to help authors hone and polish their works into the diamond that each hopes lies at the bottom of the lump of coal with which they started.

However, plenty of people line up on the virtual corners of Main Street Internet and offer their services in precisely these areas. One can easily get into a chicken-and-the-egg argument concerning whether the indie publishing push took off before or after, with or without, the cottage industries of independent publishing support. However, that argument ignores the important point: a lot of people have found a way around the gate-keeper system. Sure, a lot of indie published work should have stayed half-digested in some corner of an author’s mind. But, do we need publishers to decide that for us anymore?

Look to Amanda Hocking, look to E. L. James (okay, maybe not). Most importantly, look to Hugh Howey. Starting as an independent, he parlayed the success of his work in the Kindle Direct Publishing system into print deals with Simon & Schuster, with one caveat, however — he kept his digital rights.

Mostly, that with which authors should concern themselves is control. But, this control entails more than just dreaming up fictions and arranging words on the page. Don’t think for a minute that the best of the best got there because they let everyone else do the work (outside of the real work of writing, of course; one must have a compelling story to tell and tell it well). We must have no doubt that the best understand that publishing is a business, which entails other kinds of responsibility, as well.

But, for now, the gates begin to open, and, ooh, baby, it’s a wide world. Hugh Howey and this concept of a hybrid author (aren’t labels such a joke, by the way? — but thanks to Chuck Wendig anyway) seem to be the real future of publishing, at least if any author worth his or her salt pays any attention to the other considerations, the other responsibilities. The last thing you want is to be the most celebrated novelist of your, or indeed of any time, and have a Sotheby’s auction of your paraphernalia come up relatively empty-handed.

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