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book review
  • Title: On Writing and Failure
  • Author: Stephen Marche
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
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Failure, once the epitome of everlasting shame, is being re-invented as a positive – but does that hold true for writing?Handout

Failure is as old as Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Whose fault was it? Eve’s, of course, for wanting something more and believing the wily serpent’s false promises. Let blame lie for the moment, and consider how failure, once the epitome of everlasting shame, is being re-invented as a positive – a symbol of not giving up, of knowing when to abandon a marriage or a product and begin again with a fresh (and possibly younger) lover, a more audience-friendly gizmo or app.

Doubt what I say, if you wish, but Scott Sandage, a historian at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has built a career out of failure. The author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, he believes that “failure is not the dark side of the American dream: it is the foundation of it,” or so he claimed on a CBC Ideas broadcast in December, 2021. Sandage didn’t get an argument from fellow guest Samuel West, an organizational psychologist and the curator of the Museum of Failure, a travelling exhibition of more than 170 dud innovations, including the Ford Edsel, the car that couldn’t appeal to an automobile obsessed public in 1957. “Our society values novelty, innovation, progress,” he told Ideas, ”but then we frown upon and stigmatize failure, which is a necessary step” to success. That’s why his museum is such a hit, West opined. Visitors find it “liberating,” to see how multinational companies, with their massive resources, can also make a mess of innovation.

But does failure as a precursor to success apply to the most public and personal consequence of defeat: writing. No, argues Stephen Marche, a scribbler many of us would consider a success. The internet loves the arc of failure then success, he writes in On Writing and Failure, but in his view that’s rubbish, although he used a bovine expletive to make his point. In fact, Marche says, “the more celebrated the author, the more fraught the struggle.” Using Jonathan Franzen as an example, he quotes a 2010 interview in which Franzen, by then the author of the prize-winning megabestseller The Corrections, said about his new novel, Freedom, that “I thought I’d written a book that I might, worst case, have to handsell.”

In other words, books aren’t just an updated version of your old iPhone. They are fragile unique entities, like babies. Still, Franzen’s fears, which may have been based on false modesty or a marketing ploy, came to naught: Freedom sold 1.15 million copies.

Timing is key to a book’s success, according to Marche, who points out that George Orwell wrote Animal Farm, his brilliant allegory about Stalinist repression, in 1943, but nobody would publish it in the middle of the Second World War because the Allies needed the totalitarian U.S.S.R. onside. The book had to wait to find its audience in the postwar “anti-Communist hysteria.” And then there is neglect. The manuscript of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Billy Budd languished in a breadbox until it was discovered 35 years after the author’s death.

Marche claims he too is a victim of bad timing. Some might disagree after a glance at his Wikipedia entry. At 46, he writes in several genres – novels, historical non-fiction, essays, opinion pieces. After earning a doctorate in early modern English literature from the University of Toronto, he was hired on a tenure track position at an American university, until he quit to become a full-time writer. No circuit riding sessional teaching gigs for him, since he has that most valuable of assets, a partner with a full-time job with benefits. I hasten to add that I am in a similarly privileged position, as the spouse of an academic.

But that is not the way Marche sees his writing career in this absorbing, anecdote-stuffed essay about a writer’s lonely daily grind to fill the empty screen with words that don’t make you want to vomit. He complains that he is caught between the decline of print and the rise of digital, “scanning the horizon constantly for threat or prey, and jumping from ice floe to ice flow on a river in spring flood. Every few years there’s some new great hope – right now it’s Substack. Substack will die or peter out, just like the rest.” He’s probably correct about that one.

So why do it, especially since a writer as successful as the late Philip Roth admitted that his “skin” for tolerating criticism grew thinner with every book he published. “In the end,” Roth said, “they can hold you up to the light and see right through you.”

And why is that? Because writing is a solitary activity until it is married with reading. Writers need readers. That’s what Roth feared: nobody wanting to read his books. The writer is condemned like Sisyphus to slog up the mountain with a burden on her back. The task never gets easier because the more you know about the process, the harder you are on yourself, and the more easily you can see though your own charades. And the more readers you have, the more they consume your books, the more astute they become as critics. While writing starts with one person, an empty page and an urge to say something, it ends with another person reading your words, digesting them and making a judgment. In the process the reader owns your words and makes something of them, an insight, a pleasure, or – and this is the fate every writer fears – the realization that this book is a sham, which should be thrown aside. That’s why I’m keeping On Writing and Failure on my desk – for encouragement – which I am guessing is Marche’s true purpose in writing the book.

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