Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Southern Hard(ly) Boiled: Knight's Gambit, the Big Sleep, and Faulkner's Construction of the Popular Masculine Subject

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Southern Hard(ly) Boiled: Knight's Gambit, the Big Sleep, and Faulkner's Construction of the Popular Masculine Subject

Article excerpt

Introduction

FAULKNER SCHOLARS WHO WORK WITH HIS FORAYS INTO POPULAR culture frequently feel a desire to explain the Nobel Laureate's long-lasting involvement with screenwriting and genre fiction. As tempting as it is to view Faulkner as a creator solely of high literary materials, in truth, "taken as a whole, his work has never fit comfortably on one side or the other of the cultural divide" (Breu 117). While some critics turn a blind eye to this issue, all but ignoring Faulkner's time in Hollywood, and others treat both his screenplays and his genre fiction as mere potboilers, the duration and volume of Faulkner's efforts as a producer of popular culture simply cannot be brushed aside. (1) It is more interesting to ask not why Faulkner bothered to write popular fiction at all but rather what the medium of popular culture afforded him that high literary culture did not and, further, what relationship the two bodies of work have to one another in the context of the Faulkner corpus. Ironically, Faulkner wrote the material that critics try to explain away as not literary enough for precisely that reason--the popular medium provided him a platform for making an argument about high literature that he could not make from within it.

Faulkner's engagement with detective fiction makes an appropriate test case. While arguments have been made for reading many of his major novels as implicit detective stories, (2) Faulkner produced two major pieces of work that deal directly with the detective figure: his short story collection Knight's Gambit and the screenplay adaptation of Raymond Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep. I argue that Faulkner uses these two texts to solidify a definition of hardboiled masculinity while appropriating Lacanian subject positions in order to map this reinforced masculinity onto the figure of the intellectual. In so doing, Faulkner represents erudition as a key masculine trait in his high fiction, thus genre switching serves as the alibi for the kind of critique literary fiction cannot perform on itself.

A Failed Gambit?: The Extremely Critical Reception of Faulkner's Detective Stories

In a sense, it is easier to view Faulkner's Hollywood career as secondary because he himself so vehemently expressed his own dislike for the people there with whom he worked and the place itself. Clearly, also, he did need the money. Harder to explain is the seemingly visceral reaction most critics have had to Knight's Gambit when they bother to look at it at all. In fact, the scant critical attention Knight's Gambit has received has been almost overwhelmingly negative. (3) While critics are quick to point out the collection's shortcomings, they move equally rapidly to exonerate Faulkner for those faults, frequently arguing instead that he was a victim of the genre's boundaries. W. E. Schlepper, engaging what he considers Dorothy Sayers's "restrictive conception of the detective story as presenting primarily a puzzle that wants solving," believes that Knight's Gambit shows that "Where Faulkner goes beyond these limits ... he violates the rules of the genre and so writes bad detective stories" (374). For Schlepper, the vehicle--not Faulkner--fails. In a variation on this argument, Jerome F. Klinkowitz contends that the prize-winning "An Error in Chemistry" rises above the genre because "To view it as a detective story ... does little justice to its thematic materials: the outlander and the community" (92). (4) Faulkner's efforts in Knight's Gambit cannot succeed when presented as detective fiction qua detective fiction: either they fail by overstepping the genre's conventions or they succeed but outstrip the genre. John T. Irwin works to redeem Faulkner's efforts by linking them to the American generic tradition begun by another Southerner, Edgar Allan Poe. Irwin also claims, though, "that as a writer of detective fiction Faulkner is most successful when he takes the conventions of the genre and shapes them to his own materials, his own obsessive concerns" because "the detective story is a form that essentially favors plot and has a low tolerance for highly developed characterization or highly evocative language" (103). …

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