Faulkner and the Necessity of Change

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What would? It’s one of our favorite questions as a society. What would some dead celebrity, great thinker, or important figure think or do in a contemporary situation? What would George Washington do about moon walks? What would my grandmother think of hybrid cars? Speculation is half the fun, of course, as these types of situations are never ones in which the great figure could possibly have encountered. It’s all conjecture, and no one walks away worse for wear, because the things they’re postulating didn’t happen.

To wit: What would William Faulkner think about Shenandoah going online? Surprisingly, he left evidence on a very similar topic that I think applies here.

During his time as the writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, Faulkner gave a large number of lectures and talks. Many were recorded and now reside online through UVA’s library.  The one linked here is from this series, recorded at Lee Chapel, Washington and Lee University, on May 15, 1958. This session took the format of a reading and discussion, with Faulkner giving a short reading followed by a long question and answer session. His answers, delivered in his slow, rich, Mississippi farmer’s voice, move between everything from hunting in the Blue Ridge Mountains to his opinions on contemporary literature. For the purposes of this entry, the most important section is his rumination on the future of the novel.

http://faulkner.lib.virginia.edu/display/wfaudio31

For those who don’t want to listen, here’s the transcript:

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you think the novel […]?

William Faulkner: I would say it—it would go through phases like any other form of life or motion. It’s got to be in motion. It’s got to change. The only alternative to change is stasis, which is death. And it—it will change, yes. It may go into another medium. The novel may go into something visual, into—to moving pictures. But the novel as a—a—a quality will not change as long as—as people are trying to record man’s victories and defeats, in terms of the recognizable human heart. Let’s say that, as I put it, the highest form of writing is the—the poem. The poet has taken that—that tragic, beautiful moment of man’s struggle within his dilemma and put it into fourteen lines. The second highest is the short story writer, who has been able to do it in ten pages. The novelist is the failure. He’s a failed poet. It took him three hundred pages to isolate that tragic, beautiful, moving dilemma, victory or defeat, of fragile, invincible man in his dilemma. So the novel may change, but its—it will never vanish as a quality in culture.

So, what would Faulkner think of Shenandoah going online? I say he’d approve. Half a century ago, he saw that literature would probably move into another medium. He wrote screenplays in Hollywood for a time, furthering this very same end. Did he foresee his last novel, The Reivers, becoming a Steve McQueen movie in 1969? Maybe not. But he did recognize change as necessary- “it’s got to be in motion.” Culture is a constantly shifting thing. “To record man’s victories and defeats…,” as Faulkner says, literature has to shift too. Faulkner’s literary world was moving toward movies; ours is running headlong toward the internet. By moving into an online format, Shenandoah is keeping pace with culture. The audience is online. Their lives, their victories and defeats, are increasingly online. The best place to contain a record of these victories and defeats, to record the central impetus of writing, is to be where your audience is. The pulse of modernity is electronic, and the best method of keeping the heart of Shenandoah beating in time with it is to become electronic ourselves.

The next question is: what if we didn’t? What if Shenandoah had remained in print? Faulkner says in the clip that, “the only alternative to change is stasis, which is death.” To stay in print, in stasis, would have brought eventual death. The means and ways by which people access the written word have changed, and physical journals are no longer the dominant source in the marketplace. I cannot say stasis would have brought immediate death. As of right now, there are many literary journals still adamantly in print and apparently thriving. Maybe their funding and readership will remain sufficiently stable that they can continue. However, this vehement refusal to acknowledge online readers will kill them in the end. I love the physical feel of a book in hand as much as the next bibliophile. However, from a purely economic standpoint, I can afford more visits to an online journal and e-books than I can copies of the latest print journals.

Change is the evasion of stasis. In this sense, the migration of Shenandoah from the printed page to the world wide web is just the next step in the road. We are where the readers are now. We continue to record man’s victories and defeats, albeit in another format. Faulkner saw the change coming in 1958; we’re just riding the train toward the next destination.

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