I recently read a piece in the New York Times Book Section that had me shaking my head. The subject of Bookends was “Is the Writer’s Only Responsibility to His Art?” The direction of this inquiry seemed obviously focused on the artist’s approach to his or her art (in this case literature) but the responses to the question clearly misinterpreted it to refer to the other responsibilities the artist might have, to his kids or to some moral code imposed by society or religion.
The quotation is from that drunken rascal William Faulkner (watch the film Barton Fink for a fun fictional representation of a Faulkner clone).
Perhaps here is an opportunity to recall Parker’s Myths of Literature:
- The author has a contract with the reader.
- Authors are always open and honest about their works.
- Authors are the ones that know the most about what they have written.
- Authors that write highly poetic and evocative prose are better writers.
- Authors that write difficult, complex novels are only writing to impress college professors.
- Authors that write difficult, complex prose or highly allusive prose are not being considerate of their readers.
- Authors that leave out punctuation or paragraph breaks or fail to attribute every piece of dialogue are purposely making it hard for the reader.
- Authors with Creative Writing School credentials are the best writers.
The author probably used your Aunt Martha as the model for his character in the novel.
- The author wants you to think about Aunt Martha and not waste time thinking about the character in the novel that reminded you of your Aunt.
- A novel that has at least one character that reminds you of one of your relatives or friends is a superior novel.
- A novel must have at least one likable character to identify with.
- Characters in a novel must be believable.
- A setting, if important to the novel, can be considered a character.
- The quality of the book’s cover is an accurate gauge of the quality of the book.
- The price of the book is an accurate gauge of the quality of the book.
- The bigger and fatter and heavier a book is, the better it is.
- Your liking a novel is what makes it good.
- If the publisher says a novel is an “instant classic” you can count on it being excellent.
- The value and popularity of a novel is defined solely within the text of the novel and is not affected by movie deals, talk show endorsements, or Three-for-Two sales at Barnes and Noble.
If I might offer an interpretation of Faulkner’s thought combined with a shortened version of Parker’s Myths of Literature, I would contend that an artist should be focused on his or her creation—the art—and not concerned about how the piece is received by its audience. A writer is not responsible for creating a work, like a novel, that is familiar to the reader or even one that the reader likes.
When I was High School they made us read a number of excellent books: Silas Marner, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Return of the Native, Crime and Punishment, The Sound and the Fury, etc. While these novels are universally revered, they were generally loathed by the students. Why? Let’s conclude that it wasn’t because the authors all wrote terrible books but rather because the students were forced to read them.
I even remember a student declaring that the schools taught too much Shakespeare with Mickey Spillane being egregiously overlooked on the syllabus.
Of course most writers also strive for secondary rewards with their art, chiefly money, but often some form of recognition if not eternal fame. Do these interfere with the art? I would say so. If I am writing to please a publisher or to consciously pander to the gods of the canon, I am diluting my responsibility to the art and ultimately will probably fail on all accounts.
I’m with Faulkner: