JANUARY 6, 2012
Photograph: © Paul Bausch onfocus.com
RECENTLY, I SPOKE TO a group of MFA students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I wanted to pass along the best advice I got in my own MFA program 15 years ago. Our professor Wilton Barnhart had said, “cultivate literary friendships.”
It was almost a koan in its three-word simplicity. He meant us to sift through what that verb, that adjective and that noun might mean to us. He did not add a clause that I now wish he had: “and for Christ’s sake, do not let them become transactional.”
The world after publication is — beyond its many joys — an evaporating and ruinous goldfish bowl of thwarted ambition. If you write long enough, you will know editors and agents. You will have dinner with people who give interesting fellowships to weeklong retreats in the south of France. You will teach at good programs and you might know when a publisher’s child is having a birthday and what his favorite Transformer is, and these facts more than the quality of your humanity might be what makes you a chess piece when another writer slaps you on the back and asks you if you might read something he wrote.
It’s hard to explain to writing students that there are pods of very friendly, arguably moral authors who treat each other as if the literary life is led on a firing range. They meet you alertly, brightly drawing from natty holsters their own signs of power, rank and aid, and then requesting that you do the same. They aren’t evil, really, and the impulse behind it is so close to camaraderie it almost smells right. We all need help, and we all want to help each other, which makes the nuances of the transaction murky. Some people never see the problem at all and others treat every request like you’re asking for a toe of which they are particularly fond. In the end, parsing the aspirational nature of literary friendship is as much of a longshot as sexing the yeti.
But I thought I’d give it a shot, and luckily I had help. Because I’m a collector of art and old books, I get email notifications of auctions, and the day I was to lecture my students, an old autographed letter appeared on the Ira & Larry Goldberg auction site. It illustrated the nature of “transactional” so beautifully I read it aloud that night.
It’s a one-page, single-spaced TLS (as they say) from William Faulkner. He is reacting to a request for a blurb in this, 1961, his final full year of life. To summarize the career until then: he’d struggled, his work had gone out of print, he’d almost drunk himself to death in Hollywood, where he was a failure. In 1946, washed up, spit out, he’d had his forgotten work reissued in The Portable Faulkner. This was the lightning and the thunder that changed his life. Seemingly overnight, he made an entire region of America a viable place to pan for talent and story, he won the Nobel Prize, he won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award too, and by January 1961, he’d spent about 15 years taking what comforts he could as a celebrated, revered, and golden writer.
The addressee is named Joan Williams. She is 30 years old, and she’s written the manuscript for a first novel called The Morning and the Evening. I mention this because Faulkner doesn’t begin it with “Dear Miss Williams.” Instead:
This is not you, this is somebody else combing the bushes for plugs for your book. Haydn [Hiram Haydn, her editor] should be ashamed in having forced you to this shabbiness. How about this?
QUOTE: this is a compassionate and hopeful first novel, hopeful in the sense that I don’t believe Miss Williams will be satisfied until she has done a better one.
– William Faulkner
It gets worse. He has already looked over her shoulder for external enemies (editors, and we love them for it, are transactional by job description), and dismissed the possibility it was a self-motivated request. Is this something like rescuing her? Telegraphing that if she were truly compassionate about her friendship with William Faulkner, she would know not to commodify it?
Hard to say, as his snap-of-a-rubber-band-against-the-wrist response is so awful. He has done something only a man who has toiled in Hollywood, turned bitter, and won could do: written a blurb that he must know a smart editor could turn into this: “A compassionate and hopeful first novel” — William Faulkner.
But his genius runs deeper than that. He knows the acceptable blurb is writhing just out of reach, if all Joan Williams needed to do was hand it over, shrinking and humiliated, but also aware that she had landed a big fish.
It wouldn’t work that way, and Faulkner knew why it wouldn’t. As we’ll soon see. His letter continues:
I will be here until about Feb 15th, go back to Va then until about April 1st, when the State Dept is sending me to Venezuela, unless by that time the new administration will have created an actual foreign policy, so that they wont need to make these frantic desperate cries for help to amateurs like me who don’t want to go, to go to places like Iceland and Japan and Venezuela to try to save what scraps we can.
Here he has gone aloft, and is elaborating on the actual matters that take up the time of a novelist who has done things that have merit. Pity him, he says, someone who has no business doing what he’s doing called upon to help his nation, called only because he has won that Nobel Prize. And I do believe it — I believe he had the urge to serve when asked, to do good on the earth when he could. Which is what makes his response more annoying. When asked to do certain kinds of very personal good for a young woman, his sense of duty seems to have gone hunting. In the very next sentence his conscience is trying hard to traverse, in a tortured backroad route, how he is still a good person even if he’s being harsh to Miss Williams:
I’m glad you are working, believe you will work, make a better one each time as you learn more, and how to tell it.
In other words, the plug he has written isn’t meant (entirely) to be cruel, but “go forth and do good work because I have confidence in you.” Faulkner had been a teacher for Williams and I’m guessing that as he scanned the top of the letter he felt bad. Then, having expressed that, he stopped feeling so bad, and he can’t resist slapping her manuscript on the ass once again:
P.S. I cant say it’s honest since no work of fiction is honest since fiction is a synonym for lying, which is why they call it fiction.
Had the letter ended there, my point about transactional relationships might be made, but there’s yet another P.S. that begins with growling again at the unknown industry type — agent, editor, publisher — who suggested Miss Williams contact him. It continues with the admonition that, really, her publication life will be better when she writes another, better book.
When I read aloud the final paragraph, however, the entire group of MFAs made noises like an audience digging their nails into their seats at the end of a horror movie. For here, suddenly, frighteningly, Faulkner changes tone:
I love you dammit, the red hair the violet eyes the taste of your mouth the drop of ambrosia that lives in your navel the rich close patch of your delta with the sweet hole in the center of it.
Now there’s a blurb.
So what we’re seeing is not just an established writer responding to a younger one. Williams had had an affair with Faulkner. It had lasted five years. And that’s how Faulkner answered his ex-lover, with a mélange of anger, condescension, regret at the industry’s giddy desire to exploit human relationships, and an awareness of how different “William Faulkner, Nobel Prize winner” was from “William Faulkner, nude man in bed next to Joan Williams.”
This makes his admonition at the top that the editor had goaded her into it a little suspect. Can you imagine what that conversation needed to sound like?
Haydn: What authors do you know?
Williams: Well, there’s Faulkner.
Haydn: Wow! How well did you know him?
Williams: I slept with him for five years.
Haydn (rubbing chin): Five years, you say? Did it end well?
Williams: He still thinks fondly of my delta.
Haydn: That works!
It’s unlikely. I suspect Faulkner pinned it on Haydn because the alternative, that his lover had asked him on her own volition, was too painful. Him pretending she couldn’t have asked might have been like pretending their relationship had nothing to do with his success. And yet her asking might have been exactly because she worshipped at the temple of work, and thought their friendship had been based on work as well. They each could have been innocent and cynical, horrified and entitled, as they went through every moment of this transaction.
Perhaps you think that he answered “No” because the novel was bad.
This is what I, with a little knowledge of the internet, and a little more about how writers bungle the very human relationships that are the grist for their mills, can tell you. In August 1949, the 20-year-old writing student Joan Williams and the married 51-year-old William Faulkner began an affair. She had just published her first short story in Mademoiselle; he was William Faulkner and might I repeat he was 51 years old. Would she have caressed William Faulkner, pipe fitter? William Faulkner, green grocer? Faulkner himself must have doubted that. I cannot imagine that either one of them was unconscious of the power dynamics here.
In 1950, Faulkner handed Williams notes on a play, Requiem for a Nun, and asked that she collaborate with him. Then he suggested they write a teleplay together based on “The Graduation Dress,” a short story of hers. This might have been a good excuse to see her. Or he did it because she was a gifted playwright. (In each case, he apparently ignored her suggestions and wrote what he wanted; she has no further script credits that I can find.)
As to The Morning and the Evening itself, it was an expansion of a pair of short stories printed (yes, after she met Faulkner) in The Atlantic. Atheneum published the novel in 1961 with plugs by William Styron (“It is a haunting and beautiful tale, richly infused with humor and sharp insights into the human predicament”) and Robert Penn Warren (“To her simple materials, Joan Williams brings the art of the born storyteller”). Let me ask this bluntly: are you wondering how well she knew either of those men? Or are you a better person than that?
The Morning and the Evening was nominated for the National Book Award and won the $10,000 John P. Marquand Award from the Book-of-the-Month Club, a fantastic achievement, one of the top literary honors of the time. Williams wrote five more novels, and a small pile of short stories and essays. By all accounts, she was the real deal. She earned much praise from other writers (in a 1966 book review, Joyce Carol Oates even used Williams’s good novel Old Powder Man to club Nabokov over the head for being lazy with his latest). She married, divorced, married again (married in fact her editor from The Atlantic — the ultimate transaction, by some angles) and died in 2004 at 75.
So: Advantage Williams, then? Not exactly. Faulkner, for all his dickheadedness in not blurbing her, ends that letter with a sentence that bears reading more than once.
I want your book to stand up of itself first, to earn the accolade afterward, to be proud of you as well as lose you.
In other words, he wanted to find the book in a store and know it had gotten its place in the world without him. Which is at first fair enough, and then a lot more than that. It might even be a thought worthy of a Nobel Prize winner. Especially one who apparently had an affair with the widow of the Swedish journalist who is credited for getting him the award. Here is a man who saw transactional behavior up close. He worked in Hollywood, he was the one buying martinis for the wrong people for the wrong reasons and then seeing it pay off.
I think he wanted to give Williams a gift by his refusal. I think he respected and loved her and did not want people to question her work as churlishly as I have to admit I did at first.
But then there’s that very strange final phrase, the desire to feel pride “as well as lose you.” It’s the bittersweet kiss a parent touches to his daughter’s head on her wedding day, or so he hopes. Might he know she is lost to the world if she stays bound to him, and the only way she can be free is to stand far enough away where his name can no longer hurt her? How lonely to be an author near William Faulkner. How more lonely, still, to be Faulkner.
He was a romantic, it turns out. Because the distance didn’t really work out for Joan Williams. When an author ascends to a certain level of fame, he becomes the best material many normal writers will ever have. Williams wrote about Faulkner in memoir, in fiction, and she gave lectures about what Faulkner told her and what it was like to walk through the woods with him. These were either as good as her other works or not, but when you look up articles that appeared in Joan Williams’ lifetime, the stories have titles like “Faulkner Protégé’s Memoir Gets a Second Life in Print.” When she turned 60, the Memphis papers said “Young Protégée of Faulkner Still Writing” and when she died in 2004, her hometown obituary was titled “Faulkner Protégé Joan Williams Will Be Missed.”
What is the lesson from this? Had they just been friends rather than lovers it would have been, possibly, much the same for her. Had she never asked him for anything, perhaps she would never have gotten the advice or the friendship. But when presenting your value to another writer and asking that writer for something in exchange, just be aware that the price you pay might well outlast the moment of the transaction.
The auction house values this particular letter at $12,000 to $15,000. Her estate apparently has hundreds, yes hundreds, more.
When I finished my presentation to the graduate students in Vancouver, I wasn’t sure if my point came across. I was talking to a roomful of people just launching their careers, and alongside the writing styles that were just stirring into shape were all the moral decisions they hadn’t yet had a chance to make. Maybe they would be friends with Nobel Prize winners. Certainly, at some point, they would have favors to claim or bestow themselves.
A day after the reading, I knew that something at least had registered. A student tweeted the final word of the evening.
Okay: true. It’s a good lesson but incomplete. Because there’s the flipside, the less imaginable one: waking up to all the favors and acclaim in the world, but also still bothered with the human need to connect with what drove you to write in the first place. How confusing it is to entangle acclaim and love. How much of a balancing act to determine your real value to another person. When you cultivate a literary friendship, it’s good to remember — and hard to prove — that it’s the work which is a commodity, not you.