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Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Better than yourself"

I had forgotten this wonderful Paris Review interview until Brenda Bowen quoted a line from it on Facebook. I just found and reread it. So brilliant, so fascinating. Read the whole thing; it's full of wonderful, often unexpected responses that still are full of meaning for readers and writers and just plain old human beings.

When I was a teen and in my early twenties, I was passionate about and read virtually all of Faulkner. I was mad about Spotted Horses and The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom and more. I am sure plenty of what I read was not properly digested, and certainly time has wiped much of what I read from memory. But the books were a fine diet for a dreaming, aspiring Southerner.

My father, who rose from being a Depression-era Georgia sharecropper's child to a professor of analytical chemistry, disapproved of and resented Faulkner's depiction of poor Southerners. I always remember him when I think of Faulkner.

Some clips to entice

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.


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.


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 the 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.


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 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.


His obligation is to get the work done the best he can do it; whatever obligation he has left over after that he can spend any way he likes. I myself am too busy to care about the public. I have no time to wonder who is reading me. I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on my or anyone else’s work. Mine is the standard which has to be met, which is when the work makes me feel the way I do when I read [Flaubert's] La Tentation de Saint Antoine, or the Old Testament. They make me feel good. So does watching a bird make me feel good.


The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.


The quality an artist must have is objectivity in judging his work, plus the honesty and courage not to kid himself about it. Since none of my work has met my own standards, I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish, as the mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest.

INTERVIEWER Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them? FAULKNER Read it four times.
It's all worth reading. Read it! Or, as in my case, reread it and find it just as good and intriguing as before.


  1. Wow! I too love Faulkner, though I am not a southerner, just a sojourner for a while in the south.
    I admire his scorn, his heedless words, his passion! He sounds like Orson Welles' character in The Third Man!

    1. Hah, hah! That's an interesting link.

      Yes, I love it that he thinks his own thoughts and utters them with force and conviction.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.