A writer doesn’t need economic freedom - William Faulkner | Sunday Observer

A writer doesn’t need economic freedom - William Faulkner

9 January, 2022

William Cuthbert Faulkner is one of three pillars in American literature – other two are Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. He was born on September 25, 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, where his father, Maud Butler Falkner, was then working as a conductor on the railroad built by his great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner (without the “u”). In fact, his great-grandfather was a popular novelist and his romantic novel titled ‘The White Rose of Memphis’ became very popular.

Faulkner was the eldest of the four sons in the family, and was a reluctant student. So he left high school without graduating. After that, he devoted himself to “undirected reading”, first in isolation and later under the guidance of his family friend Phil Stone. Stone combined study and practice of the law with lively literary interests and was a constant source of current books and magazines.

Faulkner’s first novel, ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ (1926), was an impressive achievement. He was encouraged by Sherwood Anderson to write that novel and it is considered stylistically ambitious and strongly evocative of the sense of alienation experienced by soldiers returning from World War I to a civilian world of which they seemed no longer a part. The second novel ‘Mosquitoes’ appeared in 1927, launched a satirical attack on the New Orleans literary scene, including identifiable individuals, and can perhaps best be read as a declaration of artistic independence.

Though he wrote quite a number of short stories initially, he couldn’t find publishers for them. His next novel titled ‘Flags in the Dust’ was a long, leisurely novel, drawing extensively on local observation and his own family history, but that also left without publishers.

This especially shook him. It is one of his books, which was published posthumously, in 1973. So, as his third novel, ‘Sartoris’ came about in 1929. Since then, another three novels appeared year after year which were ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (1929), ‘As I Lay Dying’ (1930) and ‘Sanctuary’ (1931). The latter was his first widely read book, and was written for money as he mentioned, because his previous books had failed to earn enough royalties to support a family.

At this time he was established as a novelist, and began to publish a steady succession of novels, most of them related to what has come to be called the Yoknapatawpha saga: ‘Light in August’ (1932), ‘Pylon’ (1935), ‘Absalom’, ‘Absalom!’ (1936), ‘The Unvanquished’ (1938), ‘The Wild Palms’ (1939), ‘The Hamlet’ (1940), and ‘Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories’ (1941). Since World War II his principal works have been ‘Intruder in the Dust’ (1948), ‘A Fable’ (1954), and ‘The Town’ (1957).

His Collected Stories received the National Book Award in 1951, as did ‘A Fable’ in 1955. In 1949 Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and died on July 6, 1962, Byhalia, Mississippi at the age of 65.

Faulkner’s thoughts on writing are very radical. In early 1956, he was interviewed by Jean Stein for Paris Review magazine. The conversation took place in New York City, and it is considered to be among the most radical interviews in literary history, full of insights on art of fiction. The following are excerpts from that interview:

Formula for a good novelist

(What is the possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?) Ninety-nine percent talent... ninety-nine percent discipline... ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

A writer has no peace until he writes down

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

Art has no concern with peace and contentment

(Could the lack of security, happiness, honor, be an important factor in the artist’s creativity?) No. They are important only to his peace and contentment, and art has no concern with peace and contentment.

No concerned with environment

(What would be the best environment for a writer?) Art is not concerned with the environment either; it doesn’t care where it is. If you mean me, the best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police.

The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored; it gives him a certain standing in his society; he has nothing to do because the madam keeps the books; all the inmates of the house are females and would defer to him and call him “sir.” All the bootleggers in the neighborhood would call him “sir.” And he could call the police by their first names.

So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.

Nothing can destroy good writer

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.

If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom. Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy a good writer.

The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones 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.

(Can working for the movies hurt your own 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 that can help it much. The problem does not apply if he is not first-rate because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.