William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, The Perils of Assigned Reading, and A Call for Second Chances


Not quite two years ago, I wrote some pretty awful things about William Faulkner on this blog. In a review of his first published novel Sancutary, I argued, quite ineffectually, that, “Faulkner as an American Great is nothing but a scam.” Elsewhere, I proffered this ignorant nugget:

“…it seems that a few critics–notably Malcolm Cowley and Cleanth Brooks–decided either that a. Faulkner is really great and/or b. America needs a new master of literary fiction, and it might as well be Faulkner. It seems amazing to me that these two critics conned a whole generation into believing that someone whose books were so unbelievably poorly written was actually, like, a totally awesome and important writer.”

Ouch. At the time I wrote that rant, I was still in grad school, which is to say I was still being assigned reading by well-intentioned professors. I was also laboring under a cruel miscalculation, the mistaken belief that I had actually read most of Faulkner’s great works–As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom!–in my high school and undergraduate courses–where said books were assigned reading. The truth, I realize now, is that while Faulkner’s strange, dense, elliptical prose might have passed under my eyes, I completely failed to read his books when I was a young man. It wasn’t until last spring, when I read one of Faulkner’s last novels, Go Down, Moses, that I came to understand the genius of his writing, which is to say I came to learn to read his voices in a non-academic, non-studied fashion, intuitively and rhythmically. Go Down, Moses is strange and sad and funny and truly an achievement, a book that works as a sort of time machine, an attempt to undo or recover the racial and familial (in Faulkner, these are the same) divides of the past.

So. Skip ahead a year.

After reading Bolaño’s stunning 2666, I strategically read Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, knowing that I’d need a voice at least equal to Bolaño’s in order to not get totally bummed out and sort of paralyzed with that “What do I read next?” feeling. The strategy worked, but of course I needed a follow up book. So I picked up As I Lay Dying, the story of a poor rural family who labor to return their dead matriarch to her family’s home town for burial. I’d “read” the book in high school; I remembered the plot, but I could not in any way comment on it. This time, with the freedom to choose to read it–and perhaps, older, better equipped–I truly entered the book, entered into each of the character’s heads, their eyes, their voices. I “got” it.


I read As I Lay Dying in essentially three or four long sittings, sustained by Faulkner’s incomparable, engrossing language. I realize now that as a high school student, and then again as an undergrad, I resisted the book, attempted to impose my own consciousness into the narrative in order to “understand” the plot, rather than letting the book happen to me–which I believe is how one must read Faulkner. I was amazed how quickly I read the book once I attuned myself to Faulkner’s rhythm, and I was equally amazed at how conflicted and confused I felt about the story. I can’t recall a novel whose characters I’ve ever felt so hateful and sympathetic toward at the same time. Great, great book.

Anyway. The point of this post is to say, “Hey, I was wrong, mistaken, terribly wrong about Faulkner when I said he wasn’t a Great American Writer.” I suppose I’m also implicitly arguing that the necessary evil of assigned reading can sometimes be less necessary and more evil: How many kids are we turning away from the really great stuff forever by forcing it upon them when they are too young, too unequipped to appreciate it? The other side of this logic, of course, is to point out that often assigned reading can turn us on to great writers forever; this was the case for me, with most of what I read in high school. Still, as an English teacher I do worry that in assigning and then dissecting literature–under the pretense of explaining it and appreciating it and learning from it–we always run the risk of killing it, draining it of the very vitality that was the rationale for reading it in the first place. Of course, there’s a simple, simple antidote to reconciling yourself to all those books you hated in high school, those books you were supposed to love and be moved by and learn important and meaningful lessons from–you can read them again for the first time. The worst that could happen is a confirmation of your own prejudice; far more likely, in assigning your own reading, you’ll find something truly great and meaningful.