William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Book Deal

I agree with the Oxford American panel that declared William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to be the greatest work in the history of Southern literature. Aside from the brilliance of the story, some of Faulkner’s sentences are so unique and evocative that it can be said that the world of Southern literature would have a gaping hole had he never written. Some of my favorites:

  • “She accepted that, not reconciled, accepted. As though there is a breathing point in outrage when you can accept it almost with gratitude since you can say to yourself, ‘Thank God, this is all. At least I now know all of it.”
  • “Surely there is something even in the demoniac, which Satan flees, aghast at his own handiwork, and which God looks on in pity…”
  • “If happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.”
  • “When you have hated somebody for forty-three years you will know them awfully well.”
  • “Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool…”

When Faulkner wrote Absalom, he was already critically acclaimed and successful due to the success of his 1929 work The Sound and The Fury.

The difference in bargaining power between when he wrote “Flags in the Dust” (also in 1929, but prior to the Sound and the Fury) and “Absalom” is extraordinary.

When Faulkner published Absalom, he had full editorial control, a team of copy editors that only made “suggested changes”, and negotiated the very lucrative 38% royalty on whatever sale price the publishing house demanded in distribution. If you pay $20 for a new copy of Absalom, and the retail outlet paid $15 for it, you are going to put $5.70 into the pockets of the estate of William Faulkner (and the estate now exists as a trust).

Contrast that to Flags in the Dust. At the time of writing, Faulkner was relatively unaccomplished as a 29 year-old with only some marginal success with his short stories. The publishers certainly possessed the upper hand, and they wielded the muscle. Faulkner’s work was rejected by eleven different publishers, and Faulkner considered giving up writing altogether because he was actually earning a negative return on his labor (the costs of postage to mail out manuscripts, the typewriter, and the ink meant that Faulkner’s labor rate was about negative fifty cents per hour).

Eventually, Harcourt, Brace & Company agreed to publish the work, but only if they could rename “Flags in the Dust” as Sartoris, heavily edit and remove almost 100 pages of text without giving Faulkner veto power, and most importantly, the publisher Harcourt, Brace, & Company demanded that Faulkner accept the below-market royalty rate of only 8.25%. You read something as brilliant as Flags in the Dust, and over 90% of the profits go to Random Home Publishing.

The time and effort that Faulkner expended writing Flags in the Dust was actually greater than what he spent writing Absalom. But yet, the amount of negotiating power that he possessed and chose to wield meant that the William Cuthbert Faulkner Trust receives 4x the amount of income from each sale of Absalom, Absalom! compared to Flags in the Dust.

It is yet another lesson about the importance of not only hard work, but in harnessing your efforts so that you can receive the maximum upside from them. When Faulkner “Mosquitoes”, he only got $500. And that was it—money received, then spent and gone on rent, utilities, and food.  Meanwhile, his later efforts still enrich the treasury of the trusts that bear his name to this day.