WILLIAM FAULKNER'S ass was chapped. Thirty-one and with four novels out in the world, he had yet to receive any acclaim for his work; he was also chronically broke. Tired of bullshit poverty, Faulkner decided to write "the most horrific tale [he] could imagine," a roman noir contaminated by moral degeneration, sexual depravity and murder. The signature event is the rape of an upper-class Southern co-ed by an impotent gangster wielding a corncob; this at a time when the word 'rape' wasn't printed in newspapers. It was a deliberate stab at sensationalism, was Faulkner's Sanctuary.
Faulkner wasn't alone in pimping the muse. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes stories for money, and spent 35 years trying to rid himself of his exasperatingly popular detective. Doyle finally bumped off Holmes, only to be offered $5,000 per story to revivify him. And what of the historical novels that were Doyle's passion? Raise a hand if you've read Micah Clarke.
Before Little Women, Louisa May Alcott wrote scads of thrillers, "blood and thunder" tales of drug addiction, revenge and murder, which she sold for $25 to $100 apiece. She had low regard for this sensation fiction, or rather, the rags where these stories appeared, and so published anonymously or under a pseudonym. Henry Miller wrote hardcore pornography for $1 per page. Some of his seamy offerings would posthumously congeal into the collection Opus Pistorum, a.k.a. Under the Roofs of Paris. Oddly enough for him, Miller publicly denied his porn-for-hire arrangement. When he'd tired of the literary skin trade, Miller turned Anaîs Nin onto his action. Forty years later, her erotic collections Delta of Venus and Little Birds placed Nin on the N.Y. Times bestseller list--finally. She remained there six months. She'd been writing 60 years. Nin refused to publish these collections during her lifetime, fearing she'd compromise her artistic integrity.
Writing for dollars can make a reputation in ways unforeseen and potentially undesired; the most egregious is that the knock-off becomes the author's most popular and enduring work. The author views it like a prostitute who gets knocked up by a john: with embarrassment, consternation, denial, rejection. In the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Sanctuary, Faulkner repudiated his hard-boiled detective story as a "cheap idea" contrived in three weeks for money. General consensus holds this confession to be bogus, that Faulkner was only covering his ass against critics' accusations of shoddy workmanship. Indeed, he wrote Sanctuary in five months and arduously reworked the galley proofs another two, but these are mere details. Faulkner disowned Sanctuary because it was premeditated, the creative spark snuffed out by the cold respirations of craft. "There was something missing," he wrote; that something was faith, a transgression more apostolically disturbing than any moment of pecuniary desire.
Whatever. Sanctuary essentially bombed as a commercial venture. Faulkner's cut would've been more than $4,000 (at a time when the average Depression-era Mississippian made $177 a year), but his publishing house folded, and all its assets--including Faulkner's royalties--went bye-bye. Sanctuary won Faulkner recognition among publishers and movie people, yet most of his books were out of print within 15 years, and entrée to Hollywood, where he'd write screenplays off and on for 22 years, was more rip-off than opportunity. While the reading public and other artists responded enthusiastically to the book, the hometown folks were scandalized; in Oxford, you bought Sanctuary in a plain brown wrapper. When a relative asked if he'd been drunk when he wrote the thing, Faulkner replied, "Not always." And there was that final backhand of getting canned as the local Scoutmaster, the powers-that-be thinking he was, well a pervert.
In terms of merit, Sanctuary is a painstakingly crafted, sophisticated work, unremitting in its visceral power and depiction of evil. Perhaps too lurid to rank as masterpiece, Sanctuary nonetheless stands on its own, unique and necessary to the Faulkner canon. But 30 years after its publication, Faulkner still dissed the book: "[T]he artist had better not bother about moneyto think of [the work] in terms of moneydebase[s] his art, his craft, and he deserves the worst that can happen to him."
All "serious writers" (male or female or Miller) are confronted by the dilemma of preserving art and heart, of maintaining vision and integrity in the drive for recognition and commercial success. The draw can be irresistible enough for the author to forego art, just once. But in the end, no matter if the work is well made, popular or lucrative, it still feels hollow, illegitimate, a bastard child of that hard-fucked muse conceived out of an impetus less virtuous or fulfilling than the joyous ecstasy of love.