When I was in high school, my 12th grade English teacher Mrs. Guy looked at me with her massive eyes in the middle of class and said loudly, “You know, a lot of songwriters are English majors.”
“Really?” I meekly offered.
People around my high school knew that I was something of an aspiring songwriter, but at that point in your life there are a few problems with getting that sort of thing to happen; like shitty lyrics.
There was a lot of steering in high school and as a result I guess there was a lot of patronizing bullshit too, but I’m grateful for it. I spent the night after Ms. Guy’s English class like many other nights, surfing 4chan and Wikipedia while playing some Call of Duty with a whole bunch of white kids.
It probably wasn’t that night, but I bet it was some night after that when I ran across that old Faulkner quote on some weird corner of the web. You know the one. “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”
I wasn’t really interested in the “good shit,” you know? Or at least what we learned was the good shit in high school. Books written by long-dead men about people making out in castles that were untrue and all that other gobbledygook.
What I thought was living, breathing modern literature didn’t really draw me in either, with its whole “white dudes that are currently alive having a brooding arms war in glossy paperback” aesthetic. At least, that was the vibe of modern literature you got from your average display in your Alabama Barnes & Noble circa 2009.
When you’re young and you think of writers, you think of a guy in a dingy white shirt smoking tons of cigarettes over a typewriter. That’s what I thought a writer was.
Faulkner was one of those guys for sure, a long-dead white writer that they teach you in high school, back when you half-read assigned works and try to get by.
He was a little different though. I mean his work was distinctly of the South, but it took what was boring and garbage to me in high school and turned it into something worthy of distinction.
I went to a private Catholic school and spent my nights 35 minutes away from the big city: Birmingham, Alabama. My whole exposure to “cosmopolitan” culture came from movies and the Internet. I went to parties out in the woods with people I’d later come to call the “Future Frat Bros of America.”
So, to inject what I perceived as culture into my life, I did what I heard that people in the big cities did in the 2000s. I bought a fedora or two (terrible choice), I read comic books (great choice), and I went to the thrift store a lot (best choice). I was trying to make myself into someone whose voice was worth hearing by copping symbols through a game of telephone.
Much later, when I got to college, I learned from an African-American Studies professor that one of his field’s biggest obstacles is first convincing people it’s worth studying, and I feel like in many ways you run into a similar problem when looking for complex representations of the South.
Seeing as I was raised as, and will always be, a Southern African American, positive and nuanced portrayals of both of my most inescapable identifiers were few and far between. Television looks relatively similar now as it did back then with a few notable exceptions like Black-ish or Atlanta. These shows have heavy African-American involvement in the writer’s room, which helps them make an effort to centralize, and legitimize, the everyday problems of black people.
What I thought was living, breathing modern literature didn’t really draw me in either, with its whole ‘white dudes that are currently alive having a brooding arms war in glossy paperback’ aesthetic.
When it comes to the South, the same can be said for Faulkner’s work in the tradition of the Southern Gothic, bringing the critically praised tropes of dark family secrets and the supernatural to what was, in my imagination, an under-explored frontier.
The everyday struggle of families in a society that (rightfully) saw a downturn in its fortunes after billions of dollars of free labour (thankfully) disappeared overnight became the subject of books read the world over. Jealousy, anger, dark pasts, and the husk of a once-bustling Southern aristocracy became part of the canon and eventually the fabric of America itself. Empires like True Blood and The Walking Dead are still feeding off the tarnished silver platter set out by Faulkner so long ago.
Sure, when I was in high school I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the guy and the time when we had to read As I Lay Dying had already come and gone, but that quote of his made me think critically for the first time about all the art I was consuming.
I could create my own curriculum every night and as long as I found balance it would make me into a better budding artist. I applied the pressure to myself in a few different corners. I wanted to become an artist.
I downloaded Taxi Driver, Night of the Hunter, and Raging Bull. I fervently studied Wikipedia articles, online forums, and watched documentaries of my musical heroes: Kurt Cobain, Trent Reznor, Public Enemy, and more. I read all of Spawn (do not recommend).
Because I was in charge of seeking out my own media, studying it and coming to grips with it, I felt like I learned a lot more about the subjectivity of art and how to stop being too hard on myself. If something was bad, subjectively or objectively, it was still a lesson.
It’s like that maybe-apocryphal Thomas Edison quote about the light bulb, “I didn’t fail, I just learned 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb.”
The same principle applied. A plot hole here, a clumsy turn of phrase there, or a confusing sentence structure over yonder became coal for my engine of progress. I was shovelling pretty hard.
I think about the days of choose-your-own-adventure-style learning I put myself through in high school and I wonder about people who have walked a similar path. They formed their tastes through the “unimpeachable threads in the fabric of the American canon,” and by Keeping Up with the Kardashians or listening to the three country bands in town.
What I learned over time is that there are no real rules about what art is supposed to be. Also, the value and quality of art is inherently subjective because most everything means something different to someone else. I found an author in Faulkner when I was in high school who gave me a reason to be proud of my much-maligned region of the country and who helped me realize that my voice was important, regardless of where I was coming from geographically.
A boost to a young person’s sense of confidence in their art or the value of their opinion about what they like is something that adds value to the world.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Fifty Shades of Grey is one of those novels that hit the mainstream like a ton of bricks. It’s got its fair share of problems, but if you ask me you definitely shouldn’t count its popularity among them.
Seeing as I was raised as, and will always be, a Southern African American, positive and nuanced portrayals of both of my most inescapable identifiers were few and far between.
My friend teaches middle school in a lower-income “URBAN” (all caps) area where, to many kids, it is uncool to take a shine to the written word for a variety of reasons. One day, one of her students asked her to get them the second book in the Fifty Shades of Grey series because that student had blown through the first book and they were hoping to see how it all ended.
A kid was insatiable about seeing how a series of books ended. They were willing to face social scrutiny for a novel. Despite the nasty facets of the series (its bad writing, bad representation of consent, and just general lack of quality), that’s got to count for something, right? Let the parents roll their sleeves up later on and scrub up the collateral damage, that’s what they’re here for.
For that kid, finding something on their own that they liked could lead to something that they appreciated even more, which may be more valuable to their personal development. And that’s great.
I envy that kid because the joy that I got from becoming invested in my own choices and “education” made me the person I am today. I envy them because they have a whole range of choices ahead of them that will shape them over the next decade or so. They get to learn that they are special, that their opinions are worth considering, and that wherever they are right now doesn’t matter because they can make their lives into what they want.
Self-determination arises from asserting one’s own identity, creating one’s own universe out of lived experience, late night television, yellowed thrift store books, and beers out in the woods.
It’s a hell of a time.
Brandon Varner is a musician, journalist, and writer who grew up in Hoover, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. Under the name Black Plastique, he’s releasing lots of music soon which will be available on Soundcloud. He is committed to the American creed of “Liberty and Justice for All.”