Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Gold Standard

Posted By on Sat, Jan 7, 2012 at 4:09 PM

A topic on the website of the Los Angeles Review of Books this past November was literary friendships of the "transactional" variety. As in: one author asking another author for a book blurb, with something promised in return. The lesson, according to Glen David Gold in a piece titled "On Not Rolling the Log (Transactions along the Mississippi Delta)": be careful what you ask for. You might indeed get that blurb for the jacket of your book. But it could come in the form of what William Faulkner wrote for Memphis-born novelist and short-story writer Joan Williams.

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Faulkner was 51 and Williams was 20 when their affair (sexually motivated on his part; more a mentoring arrangement on hers) began in 1949. Five years later, it was over. And in 1954, Williams married a writer for Sports Illustrated.

But it wasn't over. Faulkner's blurb for Williams' 1961 debut novel The Morning and the Evening read as follows:

"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."

Go to Gold to see that quote parsed to pieces and for an examination of Faulkner's (in Gold's term) "dickheadedness."

Go to an MFA student, who learned from Gold's lesson (in a tweet): "so the moral is don't fuck William Faulkner."

And go to E.C. McCarthy, a writer and associate editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, who begins her response to Gold's essay by labeling it "an abject lesson in sexism," continues by describing it as "well-written fiction" based on "insipid chauvinist logic," but concludes on a positive note: "If anything redemptive comes of the Gold transactional literary clusterfuck, it's that Joan Williams will be more widely read."

For the fuller facts of the matter, however, go to Memphian Lisa C. Hickman, who knew Williams well. She authored William Faulkner and Joan Williams: The Romance of Two Writers (from McFarland and scheduled for reprint) in 2006, and she joined McCarthy in response to Gold's essay with some biographical background and clarification.

Leave it, though, to Joan Williams, who died in 2004, to have the last word. As Hickman recalls, Williams reacted to Faulkner's book blurb reasonably enough: "It was obviously a very petulant kind of thing. Why couldn't he have just given me a nice quotation?"

Why indeed. Because as Hickman also notes: "[Williams] often absorbed a difficult, shocking, or upsetting situation and summarized it with three words — 'People are horrible.'"

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