Sugar and Sweat

Like any writer, I seek to improve my skills. Most days I’ll return to the imaginarium to watch how other authors have whetted the nib, so I can improve the down strokes on my keyboard, but some days I’ll read a how-to book to get some insight, another perspective on Process.

In James Scott Bell’s Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure, I came across this nifty, but simplistic schematic that distinguishes the differences between Commercial and Literary plots. I call it Sugar and Sweat. See the paradox? See the inverse relationship?


The Commercial plot is a lot of work, with its forward and backward, its ups and downs, its emphasis on Action, yet it is the successful one in terms of that elusive goal: readership and sales. Sweat in terms of Plot, but sugar for success. Its counterpart, Literary is deceptively easier, strong on Character, far more linear, and splits off into two destinations like a subway train. Action is less hectic, more serious and introspective. In a word, sugar for Structure and sweat for success: the results (read sales and shelf space) TBD, to be determined. As Commercial implies popular, the bestseller and quick fix at the airport, Literary is elitist and intellectual. The question that looms like an ominous shadow over the book cover is: Does the Literary book ‘feel’ difficult for the sake of being difficult, or is it worth the effort?

Whatever your opinion is of his style, his themes, or his treatment in his works of race and women, you can’t help but notice that William Faulkner dabbled with both plots. Who else could have created Benjy Compson, whose ‘Here caddie’ indicates that his idiot creation understood neither past nor present or his sister’s permanent absence? Who else could have conjured up Caddy Compson, Lena Grove, or Rosa Coldfield? Yet Faulkner reached for sugar; he tried the Commercial plot. In his Introduction to the Modern Library Edition of Sanctuary, Faulkner confessed that he wrote Sanctuary in three weeks, worried about poor sales, while two of his novels, The Sound and the Fury and Flags in the Dust (the latter mysteriously and inexplicably renamed Sartorius) languished. While working the late-shift shoveling coal at a power plant, he wrote As I Lay Dying, using the back of a wheelbarrow for a desk. After its publication in 1930, Faulkner would receive the galleys for Sanctuary and substantially revise it for publication in 1931.

The Sound and the Fury (1929) would achieve iconic status as a difficult book, challenging generations of readers with its four-part narrative structure, its Literary plot, its long stream-of-consciousness passages such that those new to Faulkner are advised to read As I Lay Dying or his short stories first. Faulkner himself directed readers to Sartorius, the book he thought would establish his literary reputation. Sanctuary, the most commercial of his output, does not figure into the majority of recommendations; it was the book that Faulkner called his ‘cheap idea’ and a ‘horrific tale.’

Unknown-2Sanctuary is a hard-boiled potboiler, about a southern belle named Temple Drake. It would seem that with this book, which he had written so early in his career, Faulkner had sold out; he had gone Commercial. The irony is that the novels after The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying: his Light in August (1932) and Absalom! Absalom! (1936), would put Faulkner squarely on the path to the Nobel Prize (1950). Yet, he was out of print by 1944, his health deteriorated throughout the 50s, and he died in 1962. The resuscitation of Faulkner’s career came from the unlikeliest of sources: the scholar and his translator Maurice Coindreau at Princeton. He was the first to champion Faulkner. Coindreau’s translations would inspire Sartre to write an essay on The Sound and the Fury in 1947 and André Malraux, a preface to Sanctuary in 1952.

In the aforementioned Introduction, Faulkner was aware of his own artistic compromise. He wrote The Sound and the Fury for ‘pleasure’; money mattered little (his father had been supporting him at the time) because he was ‘young and hard-bellied,’ but then he got ‘a little soft’ and, seeing no money from sales, thought of himself as ‘a printed object.’ Temple Drake, the Ole Miss debutante and daughter of a prestigious judge, is no astute Scarlett O’Hara who had tried to get Ashley Wilkes to declare his love for her. Miss Drake’s behavior and methods would make Lindsay Lohan’s escapades appear tame. Temple demands sex. She drinks. She ridicules Popeye’s impotence and for that he’ll rape her with a corncob and imprison her in a whorehouse where she prostitutes herself. She’ll demand sex from Red in a back room, have intercourse with him while Popeye watches them. She flouts convention, but in the lurid end several lives are destroyed. Whether Temple Drake is a femme fatale or an anti-heroine is a matter of semantics.

william_tales_02In 1933, Paramount Pictures released The Story of Temple Drake, with Miriam Hopkins in the lead role. The film escaped the strictest of Joseph Breen’s censors and instigated the Hays Code, the precursor to our current movie-ratings guidelines. The Story of Temple Drake is considered Southern Gothic and an antecedent to film noir. Film noir itself is difficult to define, but if Otto Penzler is correct in that it and noir fiction are about ‘losers,’ their bad decisions and the ‘downward spiral from which they cannot escape,’ then Temple Drake fits the bill almost to a T. She did escape, unscathed and unpunished.

Raymond Chandler, because he wrote genre, bemoaned the fact that he was never considered a real writer: ‘the mystery writer is looked down on as sub-literary merely because he is a mystery writer.’ Isn’t all fiction some form of genre? Faulkner dodged that writer’s curse with his admission into the literary canon. Faulkner, however, paid his bills for twenty-two years in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He worked on numerous films, but his two most famous credits were adaptations for Howard Hawks: Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1944) and Chandler’s Big Sleep (1946).

That’s a lot more sugar than sweat.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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