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Book Review:
Short book carries towering message for writers

On Writing and Failure

Stephen Marche (2023)

Stephen Marche's latest is a bitter reflection on the writing life, a must read for aspiring writers and a tonic for grandiosity of whatever description. It is a brief book, only 80 pages but it packs a punch. After reviewing the experiences of many famous writers, and some far less 

accomplished, Marche, a Canadian, has two main pieces of advice for writers: "expect to fail" and "No Whining." 


Marche asserts that "Writers want to be judged by what they could have written. The world insists on judging them by the reception of what they've written.  Careers are circumstances. Others treat them as the unfolding of an inner truth. ... The nation of writers is a nation of three- legged dogs. Every seed is a seed that's fallen on hard ground." 


Marche comments that almost every writer lives with rejection, tons of it. He writes: "I kept a scrupulous account of my rejections until I reached the two thousand mark. That was in my late twenties .... Last week I was rejected seven times," which has become possible in our digital era. And "Rejection never ends. Success is no cure. .. Rejection is the river in which we swim." Marche offers a few examples: 


  • When George Orwell submitted Animal Farm for publication in 1943, no big publishing house would touch it because it mocked the leaders of the Soviet Union, a British ally in W.W.II. T.S. Elliot wrote Orwell: "We have no conviction .. that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the present time," but "By the time the book found its way into print, in 1945, the political situation had altered; it became one of the texts of anti-Communist hysteria."

  • "Jack London kept his letters of rejection impaled on a spindle and eventually the pile rose to four feet, around six hundred rejections." 

  • "Marcel Proust and Beatrix Potter had to self publish.... It took Agatha Christie five years to find her way into print. "

  • The Diary of Anne Frank was rejected fifteen times and Gone with the Wind thirty eight times, according to Marche. 

  • "Every serious publisher turned down Nabokov's Lolita, (which Marche believes is the best short novel of the 20th century) .. The only guy who would publish it was an indifferent Parisian pornographer  whose business model was publishing banned books.  "The publisher believed Nabokov was a self justifying pedophile. His masterpiece was published on that basis." 

  • "Jane Austen never lived to see her name in print. Every Jane Austen novel, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, had to be published on commission, with the expenses of publication paid for by the author ..."   


Writers, even famous ones, usually have long histories of failure and humiliation, Marche. states.  In 1912, James Joyce "couldn't get a job as a low level lecturer at a technical college. " Joyce's biography is one failure after another, a combination of bad luck and total ineffectiveness. ... He ended up teaching English as a second language as a private tutor ... Anyone with the desire to make art with words should be aware that James Joyce -- James fucking Joyce -- couldn't make a living at it. Deserving has nothing to do with it." 


Melville worked as customs inspector because his books didn't sell. Billy Budd sat in a breadbox for years after Melville's death, and was published 35 years later after he died.  


Marche advises aspiring writers: "Every time you attempt anything other than a revamped version of a massive success, you can expect the process to be next to impossible. Don't complain. The status games that consume literary careers quickly dissolve into absurdity." Marche gives the example of F. Scott Fitzgerald who considered himself a failure even after publishing best sellers and outstanding novels, while his (supposed) friend Hemingway considered himself a great writer before he published much of anything and later after many years or writing bad novels. Hemingway, a monumental jerk, mocked Fitzgerald's anxieties about the size of his penis to one and all. Hemingway advised Fitzgerald to look at his penis in a mirror from above.  Marche opines: "Here is the perfect allegory of the comparison of literary careers. The size of your dick depends on the angle you hold the mirror." 


Many of the comments Marche makes about famous writers are harsh but accurate (and just) with the exception of his comments re Alan Ginsberg and Ezra Pound, which are mean to the point of vicious. It's unclear why Marche despises Ginsberg whom he describes a " a slob in every sense" and "a grubby little blabbermouth" and worse; insults so uncalled for (even if warranted) that they lead me to question Marche's moral judgment. It's fair to say that Marche is not pretending to be a nice person, but he does attempt to be balanced most of the time, with a few notable exceptions. 


Marche does not endorse common romantic conceptions of writers. "I do not believe suffering exalts. I do not believe that what doesn't kill you make you stronger. I do not believe in the dignity of poverty. It is nonetheless true that some of the greatest works rise out of the worst horrors." He offers the example oh Machiavelli who was "dismissed, deprived and totally removed" from his position as second chancellor of Florence, and was then tortured  through use of the strappado by which (with bound wrists) he was repeatedly hoisted  up and then dropped, which tore tendons and dislocated his joints.  His life was saved only by the Pope's death which led to a release of prisoners. "From the darkest impotence, beset forth his manifesto of effectiveness. ... Maybe you can only know how power works after its strung you up from the ceiling and dropped to break you."


Dostoevsky was subjected to a mock execution in Czarist Russia. Marche states: A disquieting possibility: It may be the best work forms itself in degradation and fear." Anna Akhmatova composed poems in Stalinist Russia when she could not put words on paper and had to recite her poems to friends whom she expected to remember her words with 100% accuracy. Marche echoes a theme found in Buddhist spiritual writing and in Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy: "Bad fortune is more use to a man than good fortune," at least for writers. Nevertheless, Marche insists that "Its stupid to say that writers need to suffer. The biographies of writers do not fit a collective pattern, not even of suffering." In his view ( highly questionable) "Its all bullshit. You have to write. You have to submit. You have to persevere. .. That's it." In effect, Marche claims, a writer is someone with thin skin who invites rejection again and again, hundreds or thousands of times. 


Lest this seem too cheerful and bracing a conclusion, Marche goes on to admit that "Writers do have, it can't be denied, a higher propensity for mental illness than ordinary people. A study of all poets published in the New York Times Book Review between 1960 and 1990 revealed that 18 percent had committed suicide." And "In 2013, a much broader sample, over a million subjects, found good news for creatives generally: "Except for bipolar disorder, individuals with overall creative professions were not more likely to suffer from investigated psychiatric conditions than controls. They had some bad news for writers though: "Being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and suicide." 


Nevertheless, Marche believes writers do their best work in spite of mental health conditions rather than because of them. He states: "How and why creativity connects with mental ill health is a mystery," which it certainly is not after reading On Writing and Failure. When creative writers work in isolation most of the time, with poor social support and little or no recognition, and experience dozens, hundreds or thousands of rejections from publishers, it's no mystery why their mental health suffers. It's a high risk profession.


Marche comments: "As I've proceeded deeper into the writer's life, I understand less and less what success looks like." If success does not depend on selling books, or critics' reviews or even the opinion of other writers one admires, is success as a writer just a cultural chimera? Marche quotes Beckett, "Fail better,"  by which he does not mean "fail until you succeed." Marche opines: ''Writing itself is failure. Even the successes are failure. In the best work, the intention of the authors fall away, leaving an open field for authors to play in... " This theme was developed brilliantly with great comic effect by Nabokov in Pale Fire, one of the best satires ever written on the fate of writers. Marche argues: "Intention never aligns with results. You never know how readers will react." However, I think writers usually know whether their work expresses their best thinking and deepest creative impulses. For many writers, both fiction and non-fiction, a sense of failure accompanies an inability to formulate, clarify and deepen one's best thoughts and intuitions. When  a writer's reach exceeds her/his grasp, there is a sense of not living up to one's potential. However, for those few writers who have briefly attained the transcendent heights of inspiration ( Faulkner in the church scene in the last chapters of The Sound and the Fury, or Hilary Mantel in the dinner party in Every Day Is Mother's Day) coming down to earth may be a rude awakening. Writers who have lost touch with their creative depths may live with an abiding sense of failure, "not a god after all." 

-- Dee Wilson

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