The Atlantic Asks “What to Do About William Faulkner”
I once wrote a piece on Medium about how Chinua Achebe took offense to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (How Conrad and Achebe Battled over Africa). Achebe felt Conrad’s story frames colonialism as a white man’s struggle and reduces Africans to props. In the second decade of the 21st Century, people want to have similar conversations about William Faulkner, the Coffee Boss, himself.
What to do about William Faulkner? asks the Atlantic. I’m not going to do anything about William Faulkner. Not tonight. I have a sink full of dishes.
A Matter of Interpretation
People should always consider and critique a story’s narrative viewpoint — whether it’s that of “the aggressor,” or “the privileged” and whether it perpetuates cultural hegemony. In the second decade of the 21st century, doing so (and posting about it on Twitter) is practically de rigueur. Part of basic literary interpretation is understanding when something was written, and by whom, what life was like for them at the time of writing, and the impact the story has had since.
Yet to me, it feels a touch ridiculous to get worked up because Absalom, Absalom centers the struggles of white Southerners from the early 20th Century. Faulkner was, after all, a white Southerner living in the early 20th Century. One reads Faulkner specifically for such a perspective. I don’t expect a cautious display of multiculturalism as I might from a Marvel movie.
What bothers me is not the critique as much as the idea that we must form a popular consensus and do something. Because, really — what is there to do? There are two solutions.
- Critical interpretation is what most of us should be doing as active readers.
- There are also binary solutions — stop teaching, stop reading, stop praising and ultimately stop liking and perpetuating “harmful media.” Sometimes, our culture agrees to this, as well (think Mein Kampf, Pollard’s The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation).
Calls to do something usually equate to moving things from column a to column b in response to cultural movements and popular anger. I’m not a big fan of column b, especially for authors like Faulkner who — unlike Pollard or Hitler — have literary merit. If a person feels Faulkner is prima facie perpetuation of cultural hegemony, that’s their bailiwick. It’s not a hill I’ll die on.
From the Atlantic:
A great deal is at stake in Gorra’s effort. we are in a time when authors’ reputations are overturned, their works removed from reading lists, their achievements devalued because of their blindness on questions we now see with different eyes. Today, Gorra believes, Faulkner “stands to us as Conrad does,” in need of reexamination and an updated understanding that confronts his racist shortcomings.