The Sound and the Fury

In 1928, a budding writer named William Faulkner began work on his fourth novel.

November 1, 2016
Steve Johnson of Copresco 54faf2499161d

In 1928, a budding writer named William Faulkner began work on his fourth novel. His previous novel had been rejected by publishers until his agent made extensive edits to the manuscript to make it more conventional.

Devastated by the rejection, Faulkner set out to write as his heart prompted him, with utter disregard for publishing norms. If publishers were going to reject his work, by gum, there was no sense in trying to please them.

The result was The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929. Considered by critics in hindsight to be both dazzlingly brilliant and notoriously hard to follow, the book tells the story of a declining southern family from four family members’ viewpoints.

The difficulty with the book is best demonstrated in the first section, narrated in the first person by Benjy, an “idiot” as Faulkner calls him, with a young child’s mind in a grown man’s body. Benjy mind wanders freely, resulting in a disjointed manuscript that jumps back and forth across a time span of thirty years. Sometimes these jumps occur in mid-sentence.

Conventional grammar and punctuation are also disregarded at times, especially in the second section narrated by Quentin, to symbolize the disintegration of his mental state.

What to do to help make this novel comprehensible? Faulkner’s literary agent Ben Wasson wanted to “clean up” this novel (as he had Faulkner’s previous book) by repunctuating and adding extra spacing, but Faulkner would have none of it.

Instead, Faulkner fleetingly floated a radical idea, or so the legend goes. Perhaps, he mused, the different time periods would best be designated by the use of different colored text. Faulkner immediately dropped the idea, noting that publishing technology wasn’t advanced enough to accommodate this idea.

In the end Faulkner settled for using italics to indicate jumps between time periods. It helps a little, but certainly doesn’t alleviate the confusion.

I note that two decades after the publication of The Sound and the Fury Faulkner was a world famous bestselling author with a Nobel prize for literature under his belt. He could have easily demanded a reprinting using that color coding scheme, but he never did. Instead he added an appendix to the novel fleshing out some of the fictional family’s background history to help put his original prose in context.

Since Faulkner jumped around in time, let’s do some jumping ourselves, forward into 2012. With two Faulkner scholars as editors, highbrow publisher The Folio Society releases a new version of The Sound and the Fury with colored text.

Literary agent Ben Wasson discerned four different time strata in the book, Faulkner himself said there were at least eight. That wasn’t enough for the Folio Society, whose editors insisted on no less than fourteen colors of text, while retaining the italics.

There is absolutely no indication that this is what Faulkner intended, but since he tossed out the idea on a whim, why not give it a try? Especially if you can garner a few shekels from the effort.

Modern color imaging should make this idea affordable… but it didn’t. The Folio Society limited edition was priced at $345. You’ll now spend several thousand bucks to buy a used copy. That ought to keep those of us in the plebian classes from soiling such fine literature.

I think it is important to clarify that in 1928 printing technology was perfectly capable of printing multiple colors of text on a page. It would of course have added cost, more cost than any publisher would be willing to risk on a little-known author with an anemic track record of book sales.

In my humble opinion one or two colors might be manageable for the typical reader, but the use of fourteen colors has as much potential to confuse as to illuminate, and even more so since the color breaks weren’t designated by the author, who is long deceased.

So, if modern digital printing doesn’t reduce the cost, and all that color doesn’t make for a better read, why reprint at all?

Let’s do the math. Limited edition + classic novel + unique gimmick = high profits for the publisher. That, my friends, is as noble a reason as any. Happy printing!