Thursday, February 18, 2010

William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: What it’s all about

Robert B. Parker’s recent (and untimely) death has me thinking a lot about his work lately. I keep coming back to his noteworthy output and consistent quality—and to how well he must have known the works and writings of William Faulkner.

Parker’s output (70-odd novels in 37 years) is understandable. It’s been well documented that he wrote five pages a day, five days a week. I’m not going to say every one of his novels was a homerun, but, to me, they’re all pretty close.

However, when discussing the consistent thematic quality of Parker’s novels, there’s something that should be noted. In our ever-increasingly reality-or-bust society, a society featuring shows like CSI (and its numerous offshoots), NYPD BLUE, COPS, and endless hospital shows—all shows that call for procedural detail upon procedural detail—one reads a Spenser novel and knows instantly the book probably required little to no research.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s in this reason, I believe, one finds the answer to what makes Mr. Parker’s series so memorable.

This week, I gave my students William Faulkner’s oft-noted Nobel Prize acceptance speech to read. I asked them to read it and then to write a two- to four-page essay explaining how Parker’s novel DOUBLE DEUCE and Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP succeed or fail, given Faulkner’s criteria. In his speech, Faulkner stated, “…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat….He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust…” (Stockholm, Sweden, Dec. 10, 1950)

Love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, and sacrifice.

Mr. Parker had a Ph.D. in literature. In an interview with Jeff Zaleski in the Oct. 8, 2001 issue of Publishers Weekly, Parker was asked why his books were so popular. His answer: “I guess it has something to do with a story about someone who doesn't fail. And they're about love, they're about courage, they're about honor” (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA170987.html). It is safe to assume given Parker’s academic pedigree that he knew Faulkner’s work well. And if you’ve read the Spenser series, you know that not only did Parker love Faulkner, but he could tell a hell of a story, too; a story full of thematic depth and suspense, one featuring characters you care about, set in situations you know about and experience. In short, Parker’s novels delve deeply in the human condition—which is steeped in love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, and sacrifice.

Faulkner and Parker knew those qualities are backdrop of all good fiction. They’re what we’re all after, as readers and as writers.

13 comments:

Dana King said...

Great post. Parker revered Chandler; he freely admitted his early writing was intended to rip off Chandler. Chandler's books were about honor and, as he put it, a sense of redemption. So are Parker's.

I find it interesting that Chandler was criticized for being behind the times on this topic, as was Parker, yet theirs are stories that will be remembered. Much is this is due to the brilliance of their writing, but I believe some is due to the innate attractiveness of a sense of honor through all time, even when it's unfashionable to display it openly.

John Corrigan said...

Dana,
That's all true. And it should be noted that Parker's Ph.D. was written in the American hero in lit.

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