Now, to the unrelated--but also awesome--Faulkner.
Thanks to the University of Virginia, we now have access to hours of Faulkner reading his own work and (even better) answering any questions asked of him. These are from his time as Writer-in-Residence, and they are delightful.
A few choice excerpts:
"I'm not really interested enough in ideas to take even my own too seriously."
"It's much more fun to write about women because I think women are marvelous. They're wonderful, and I know very little about them."
He talks about everything from his bootlegging days when he started writing novels to how he ended up paying $270 to publish a book he was ashamed to have even written. He's obviously very funny, but there is also a lot of great insight. Here is one interesting thought:
Well I would say that in our culture there's really no place for the artist. In Europe, the old cultures, there's a definite place, the artist quite often—because he is a good artist, he suddenly find himself a power in politics. Which never happens in this country because he is a good artist, a good writer, or a good painter, or a good philosopher. He—he becomes a power in politics in our culture, so far, because he's been successful. It doesn't matter what he's successful in. That's because we still haven't quite exhausted the natural resources where we have got to use the best in people. When we reach the point where we have exhausted natural resources and all we have left will be people, then the artist, I think, will find a—a place for himself in the—the fabric of the culture. So far he hasn't. ... I would say that—that we will—we will reach a point where we will say that America was the greatest country in the world, but we couldn't keep on affording it, that we will have to change and then the natural resource which we will have to fall back on, which may be our salvation, will be the—the will of the few that have insisted on being individuals against all the pressure. They will come to the top then. That—that will to be individual was there. It—it won't need to develop. It'll—suddenly it will come to the top where we will need that. As a—as a nation we will need that.
I'm not sure I could really add anything to that, but it is an intriguing idea, and I don't think I've heard any like it before. The emphasis in America on economic success is obvious, of course, and rooted in our abundant natural resources, but I hadn't really thought about how that affects our culture's views toward artists. In another discussion, he talks about how all the rural Mississippians couldn't forgive him for getting paid thirty thousands dollars to write. They couldn't understand it. To them, even though Faulkner was a farmer, in this instance he wasn't getting paid to work: he was getting money for sitting on his ass. So it seemed unfair, incomprehensible, and they didn't like it.
I'm sure this is something that has shifted since the years Faulkner discussed it (this was '57) simply because now there are so many people getting paid to sit on their asses in front of computers all day, but I think the mentality is still there. There is still this assumed dichotomy between useless art and productive work. Even within the realm of art, worth is often seen through the light of economic success. ("Love her or hate her, you have to admit that Stephanie Meyer has made a lot of money.") Obviously this isn't true within the more literary or scholarly circles, but in the general population it is.
As deeply rooted as this is in American history/culture, I have to wonder how long it will be with us. Over the years, as the rest of the world catches up to us economically, and China or India or whoever it will be leaves us whimpering in our wounded pride, will our general sense of economic inferiority lead us to find consolation within the arts? And if so, will it on the whole provide a greater benefit to our society?
Or are we artists just lazy and bitter, and America will just be poor as well as indifferent?
(Or am I reading far too much into Faulkner's comments?)