Ta-Nehisi Coates recently featured an interview with William Faulkner that naturally had an incredible array of quotable material, but which focused in part on the responsibility an author has to their art.
The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.
Faulkner comes from the kill, maim, dismember school of artistry, where the work is paramount and the lives that are affected are of secondary concern.
Easy to say. Not so much to do.
Many writers I know, especially memoirists or those who pull material from their real lives, grapple with the morality of affecting personal relationships in order to put forth their writing. When I heard him speak a few weeks back, Jonathan Franzen recounted how he hesitated using a thinly veiled version of his brother in The Corrections.
How should a writer navigate this tricky path? Does the work of art ultimately reign supreme over the feelings of the people who may be hurt in the process of creating a book? What should an author be prepared to sacrifice? What do writers owe the other people in their lives?
Photograph of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten. Please see the Wikimedia Commons page for information on the Vechten estate’s requests for reproducing his photographs.