Photograph of Joan Williams, Courtesy Lisa C. Hickman
GLEN DAVID GOLD IS A HEARTBREAKER.
The first few paragraphs of this piece [On Not Rolling the Log] hooked me: writers and transactional relationships, written intelligently and quite beautifully. I wanted to learn something deeper of the nature of transaction, where it begins, how to manage it in the murky world of publishing and, pulling back, in the darker corners of life. I read on. I was disappointed.
Gold's piece is an abject lesson in sexism. Without reading a word of Joan Williams's National Book Award-nominated writing, Gold comfortably questions the authenticity of her book blurbs (not even her work, but her blurbs) from lauded male writers Robert Penn Warren and William Styron based on the fact that she had a five-year relationship with William Faulkner. Since she asked Faulkner for a blurb, Gold is emboldened to suggest she must have fucked Warren and Styron for their two cents, too.
Gold kicks the can down the road with seductive writing: a plausible script about poor Faulkner's right to be suspicious and temptress Williams's designs on famous male writers and their, er, blurbs. To read Gold's essay is to come away with the definite impression that Joan Williams was quite the bed-hopper and only a middling writer whose career was most famous for its failed transactions; never mind that she was a woman trying to publish fiction in the fifties, that she earned prizes and nominations and the endorsement of an impressive list of heavy hitters. "By all accounts, she was the real deal," Gold lamely offers; all accounts but his own.
I don't blame readers for loving Gold's essay. It is well-written fiction. Like a hot make-out session, Gold's machinations make the fantasy juicier. Joan Williams's "delta" is on full display, and then serves as a punch line delivered by her own fictional voice: "Can you imagine whatthat conversation needed to sound like? ... Williams: He still thinks fondly of my delta." Does it matter that Gold fabricates the extent of the affair, the feelings of Faulkner, from Faulkner's point of view no less, and picks a side in the "who's evil in this transaction" game he creates for our reading pleasure? Not if all we want is to read creative writing, but certainly if we expect to come away more knowledgeable about Faulkner, Williams, or literary transactions.
Let's address what is termed "transactional" in the story. With "a little knowledge of the internet" (Google and Wikipedia, presumably?), Gold decides that Williams and Faulkner had a steamy transactional affair, that Williams was a little too lucky in the blurb department, that she was one of those not really evil writers who asked her former paramour to support her work, and that her second marriage to her editor was "the ultimate transaction": this woman was a walking ding of the register till. However, Faulkner and Williams were no longer in a relationship when she requested his support, which means that Williams offered nothing for the blurb; she only hoped for an endorsement from a former mentor who should have validated her writing. Ironically, Faulkner is the transactional aggressor of the relationship: would he have denied her a blurb if she were fucking him? The Gold standard of appropriate exchange doesn't address this possibility.
Williams isn't alive and cannot ...