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The strange case of the unreadable bestseller


The strange case of the unreadable bestseller

It is 82 years since the publication of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It was an unlikely commercial success.

After James Joyce’s Ulysses, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Furymight be the most famous unread novel in English. American schoolchildren are forced to plough through it (on the assumption that the Great American Novel must be hiding somewhere). But nine times out of ten, when you see a paperback copy on someone’s bookshelf, the spine is beautifully un-creased.

This doesn’t surprise me. If you or I told a publisher that we’d written a modernist novel about nothing happening over an Easter weekend, of which the first half was told in the disjointed ramblings of an idiot… well let’s just say we wouldn’t be troubling the local Ferrari dealership with our advance. It’s a good rule of thumb that in general people buy books they enjoy reading. And The Sound and the Fury is just hard work. Yet Faulkner ended up earning a tidy sum from his writing. The Sound and the Fury is that strange literary creature – the unreadable bestseller.

Faulkner’s publishers certainly never expected to make any money from him. “When Bill Faulkner came to Random House”, wrote Bennett Cerf, co-founder of the New York publishers, “we didn’t think he’d ever be a commercial success, but he would be the greatest possible addition to the Random House list”. In other words, Faulkner meant prestige for Random House, a young company trying to make a name for itself by publishing ‘challenging’ modern literature (they were behind the first American edition of Ulysses after a famous court case). Publishing the work of high-brow writers was a good way of building up Random House’s brand. Jonathan Cape, a British publisher trying to break into America, made the same decision when they published the first edition of The Sound and the Fury. Sure, they might never sell many copies of Faulkner’s books, but some of the intellectual respectability of this difficult author would rub off on their other authors.

Strangely enough, though, Faulkner and Joyce turned out to be good investments in their own right. Random House gave Joyce an advance of $1500 for Ulysses – and ended up selling 160,000 copies. Faulkner’s sales were less spectacular but, contrary to their own expectations, Random House had made several thousand dollars profit out of him by the end of the 1930s.

Today both authors remain steady sellers, and worth a hell of a lot more money to a publisher than an accessible first time novel about, say, the hilarious and moving misadventures of a sassy but emotionally insecure young woman living and loving in North London (interested literary agents – please contact me for an opening chapter).

So who buys their books? The unread copies on bookshelves are a clue. Some people are buying the same prestige for their living rooms that Random House wanted for their catalogue in the 1930s. (You’ve got to impress your dinner-party guests somehow.)  The more important market, though, is probably those English students who trot, reading list in hand, to Waterstone’s at the start of each term.

This was a relatively new type of book buyer when Faulkner and Joyce were writing. English has only really been taught at universities since about 1900, when it was the media-studies of its day. I wouldn’t like to say English is respectable today, but it’s certainly worked hard over the last century to be taken seriously. One way of doing this was to make students read those hard books no-one else did. LikeUlysses and The Sound and the Fury. With thousands of people starting English courses every year at British universities, that’s a large market for difficult modern literature.

The invention of English as an academic subject has had a huge impact on just what sort of writing is commercially successful. Wild generalisations are dangerous but tremendous fun, so I’ll jump right in and say that once upon a time, when Dickens and Thackeray plied their trade, novelists had to be accessible and entertaining to sell. That’s still the best way to earn your keep as a writer, but today there’s an alternative. These days there’s a huge pool of readers who studied English at university and are quite happy with the idea that good literature can be hard work and still worth buying. It’s the existence of readers like this that makes Faulkner a commercially viable publishing prospect. And they buy new books too – helping purveyors of modern ‘Literary Fiction’ to earn their daily artisanal loaf.

Now, is this for better or worse, as far as healthy writing goes? Well, that’s a discussion for another day. But what’s certain is that William Faulkner was one of the first, and remains one of the best, examples of an important literary phenomenon – the difficult bestseller. And what would modern life be without it? Dinner parties just wouldn’t be the same.



Wednesday, 1st June 2011


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