A Holy Calling

Opinion by Jim Denney

“Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?”
— Alice Walker

Can a bad person write good fiction? That’s a tricky question. No one is perfect. We’re all flawed human beings.


William Faulkner, 1954, photo by Carl Van Vechten, from the Library of Congress (public domain).

It’s sometimes said, “Love the art, not the artist.” I admire the work of many writers whose political views, religious views, and moral views are opposed to mine. I even admire the work of some writers whose words and actions are, on some level, offensive to me. I have a high tolerance for differing points of view.

But I do draw a line. I have no use for the writings of, say, a racist, a pedophile (or defender of pedophiles), a murderer, a traitor, or an out-and-out hypocrite.

William Faulkner once set a very high standard for writers, saying, “No man can write who is not first a humanitarian.” I’m inclined to agree with that statement. Faulkner is talking about writing as an artistic endeavor. To be a writer and artist, one ought to be idealistic about life, sympathetic and empathetic to other human beings, and generous and compassionate in spirit.

Faulkner, however, contradicted himself. In a 1956 interview for The Paris Review, he brushed aside humanitarian concerns and claimed that the artist should be completely without morality:

FAULKNER: “An artist is a creature driven by demons. He [doesn’t] know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.”

INTERVIEWER: “Do you mean the writer should be completely ruthless?”

FAULKNER: “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.”

[Jean Stein, “William Faulkner, The Art of Fiction No. 12,” The Paris Review, Spring 1956]

Those are not the words of a humanitarian. Faulkner was driven by numerous inner demons, including alcoholism, narcissism, and a strange compulsion to fictionalize his own life. (For example, after failing to enlist in the military for service in World War I, he returned home to Mississippi wearing a pilot’s insignia he hadn’t earned. He affected a limp and told people it was an injury from a “plane crash” that never happened.)

Faulkner referred to his frequent drinking binges as his “collapses” (as if they were accidents that just happened to him). In 1929, after he completed the revisions on The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner drank himself into a coma— one of the many times his drinking put him in the hospital. Faulkner’s editor, Saxe Commins, grimly observed, “It is the complete disintegration of a man.”

Faulkner’s daughter Jill often cleaned up after him or helped him back into bed when he was drunk. Once, when Jill was twelve, Faulkner drank himself into a stupor and she pleaded with him, “Please, Daddy, don’t drink anymore. Think of me.”

Pouring another drink, he cruelly replied, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

No one’s humanitarianism is unflawed. We all do and say things we later regret. But it’s hard to respect the “humanitarian” claims of a writer who would belittle his own daughter or rob his own mother to write the next “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

“I find Faulkner intolerably bad,” novelist Evelyn Waugh once told an interviewer. I don’t know that I agree with Waugh’s harsh assessment, but I do know I’ve never been attracted to Faulkner’s work, and have only read him when assigned to do so in school. Is it because I’ve never detected in his works the attraction of a humanitarian vision?

I believe writers should approach their work as a holy calling. Camus spoke of “the nobility of our calling,” Annie Dillard called writing “a high holy art.” Harlan Ellison said, “writing is a holy chore.” That’s why I pray over the words I write. That’s why I pray for the people who will read my words. To approach the work with anything less than awe, humility, and absolute integrity is to demean my calling.

We ought to live worthily of our calling. We can never arrive at perfection, but we can always strive for the unattainable. Like an early draft of a novel, we are all works-in-progress. Our lives undergo continual rewrites and revisions until, by God’s grace, we finally graduate from this mortal life and receive the gift of immortality.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
— Colossians 3:23-24 NIV




Note: Battle Before Time, the first book in my newly revised and updated Timebenders series for young readers, has just been released in paperback. Click this link to learn more.

And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.


Jim Denney also blogs at Writing in Overdrive and Walt’s Disneyland

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