SING, O Muse, of the alcoholic wastrels!
You could be forgiven for experiencing, as I did, a little jolt of discomfort, opening the Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (BDLF) to a random entry:
She fell into black depressions, her alcohol consumption rose dramatically. Ever short of money, she tried to call in favours but her once-ardent admirers had now either vanished or claimed to have no memory of this stinking, shrivelled woman. By 1961, she was living on the street, sleeping under the Pont Neuf, her letters, their violet perfume long departed, keeping her warm through the cold nights. In 1967, she was knifed to death by a fellow vagrant who mistook the sheaves of paper for bank notes.
The book bills itself as “a monumental accomplishment”: “The definitive appreciation of history’s least accomplished writers.” Here author C.D. Rose presents “a who’s who of the talented and deluded,” writers who have lost their manuscripts, lost their nerve, or drunk themselves into the grave. The book is, Rose writes, “in short, a treasure.”
If the violence of these stories is often shocking, their logic is predictable. A would-be novelist experiences catastrophe. His work either goes missing or never comes to completion. Entries describe the loss as “incalculable,” approached “sadly” and with “perplexity.” The lost work is usually compared to one of a limited number of classics. The Aeneid is a popular choice. Also Mrs. Dalloway.
The book amounts to a collection of queasy little fables for writers. Certainly some of the more successful entries, in their unforgiving simplicity, can seem like allegories. Take the entry on would-be minimalist Wendy Wenning, who “removed every adjective from her book. Once that task was completed, she turned back to the beginning and started again. Relative clauses went next, then the passive voice. Metaphor, simile, symbol. All felt the knife. None were spared. It was for their own good, she knew.” At last, “she looked at her masterpiece. A perfectly blank sheet of paper.”
A fairy-tale logic is at work here, familiar from any Victorian morality tale: you are responsible for your own injuries, every misfortune is comeuppance, and your fate is a logical extension of your vices. When the stakes are low enough, and the etiologies clearly presented, this logic works, as in Wenning’s case. But for much of the book, it isn’t at all clear that these writerly failures are actually self-inflicted.
For every Wenning, there are three or four cases of asymmetrical force. We meet literary casualties like Eric Quayne, who, in penance for attempting to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is “found dead lying in a gutter in Rome, his head stove in with a blunt instrument”; substance abuser Wellon Freund, who ends up “incontinent, broke and needing dialysis (when he can remember his appointment time)”; Thomas Bodham, whose only literary misdemeanor seems to be that he attempted to leave home. In his travels he meets a merchant, who shivs him between the ribs, strips him of his belt buckles, and feeds the manuscript to his pigs. “Bodham’s story is an epic writ small,” Rose declaims, “but no less epic for that.”
Ironic celebrations of literary failure are nothing new. Call it mooning over the misbegotten. Mark O’Connell’s 2013 Epic Fail revived Amanda McKittrick Ros, putatively “the worst novelist in history.” (“Ros” is a pseudonym, cunningly reconfigured from “Ross.”) Ros was famous for her tendency to corkscrew around the need to say anything outright. Teary eyes, for example, are “globes of glare.” A pair of slacks becomes “the southern necessity.” Her Victorian fans were rabid, widespread, and entirely insincere. Mark Twain, for one, loved her. O’Connell, accounting for Ros’s incredible rise, writes, “The standard reactions to her artistic defectiveness were masochistic joy and a perverse desire to share the spectacularly failed artwork with others.”
As it was then, so it is today; Ros’s popularity sounds, to modern ears, suspiciously viral. “Were he alive today,” Rose suggests, “Thomas Bodham may have chosen to recount his experiences as a blog or a trail of Facebook updates.” Perhaps. But what Bodham thought of his life’s whole touching disaster seems beside the point. More important is the writer who looks on him and gloats.
In his introduction to the BDLF, Andrew Gallix suspects “that there is indeed a touch of Schadenfreude about the pleasure derived from reading these anecdotes of writerly woe.” There’s a name for this pleasure, and this narrative tradition: It’s snark. But while the practice was once led by newspaper satirists like Twain and G.K. Chesteron, it is now best exemplified by Internet culture. Rose’s tongue-in-cheek storytelling will be familiar to many readers of the Darwin Awards, a late-’90s Usenet group honoring individuals who “eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.” Snark, too, has survived and undergone a kind of evolution, diversifying its gene pool. Thomas Bodham, alive today, is a blog and a trail of Facebook updates. And with YouTube and Vine, snark has become a pungent force. Anyone with the bandwidth and the inclination can watch video compilations of slip-ups and stupidity, endlessly looped.
For all its familiarity, Rose’s book arrives at a moment when our culture seems to be renegotiating its treatment of failure. On one end of the spectrum, we have the online culture of snark: loser-edits, trollery, and countless other ways to mock the hapless. But on the other end, failure itself seems to be having its day as a loveable underdog. Failure is now a positive, and distinctly profitable, force. We’ve seen TED talks on opening ourselves to defeat (Larry Smith wants you to know “Why you will fail to have a great career”), a New York Times Magazine feature on great failed inventions (Oh, the rosy-eyed rise and adorable decline of the personal helicopter, the Dvorak keyboard, the mineralized bowling ball!), and nauseous MBA speak, encouraged by start-up culture. One of the most delightful developments to spring out of all this, for certain masochistic elements of the literary set, has been watching Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” resurrected as a Hang In There!-style motivational poster. As Ned Beauman has written, “Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up mid-level executives is like watching a neighbour clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is in fact a human shinbone.”
Still, the fail-acceptance movement is, secretly, not an acceptance but a denial. While seeming to discuss failure, we often talk around it. See, for example, how we have begun to call failure the mother of invention. (Specifically, Silly Putty, plastic, and stainless steel.) Note that these inventions are never, actually, failures: You start out wanting to succeed one way, and — poor you! — end up succeeding in another.
When business culture embraces failure, the bear hug is equally disingenuous. Start-ups, as Beckett’s new popularity suggests, aren’t invested in failure, but in trying again. Failure is insignificant, business self-help says, because actual periods of failure are short, obliterated by the glowing contrails of your inevitable successes. It’s like those tracts from Stoic philosophy trying to convince you that death will be okay, because, after all, you might die quickly.
You start to think that there must be a third way between success and failure. And if there is, literature might offer it.
Literature has always had a soft spot for artistic ne’er-do-wells and no-good-niks, as characters but also as authors. It’s the last refuge of sad-sacks and glue-sniffers, the un-deoderized and downtrodden, Our Ladies of Perpetual Self-Sabotage. For proof, sit down with any masterpiece of the Southern Gothic school. (Or, if you’re pressed for time, consult the titles of a few Harry Crews novels: Scar Lover, Blood and Grits, All We Need of Hell.) From Steinbeck’s stringy pioneers to Donald Antrim’s blustering neurotics, from Don Quixote to Job, literature tells stories more often painful than heroic. We feel along with characters who have fallen on hard times.
Rose’s snark seems, at first, of a piece with this long literary tradition, in its willingness to depict suffering and low-grade bad luck. And yet the “literariness” of a failure seems to be tangential to Rose’s purpose. The BDLF isn’t a book about charmingly inept novels, or short stories pinned to real-life misadventures. Nor is Rose interested in the finer details of the craft. We don’t get the nuts and bolts of an author’s syntax and floppy plotting, or prose that purples to the brink of asphyxiation. What we get, mainly, is entire lives framed as failures. Rose prefers to end an entry by dispatching his writer protagonist — by suicide, stabbing, trampling, venereal disease. Here’s how the entry on Hugh Rafferty (vice: alcoholism) finishes:
When the guardians of the St Giles Workhouse (the institute for the destitute where Rafferty inevitably ended up) found hundreds of pages of hastily scribbled verse scattered around his lifeless, wormwood-addled body, they could do little but be baffled, but at least used them to fuel the fire around which they sat drinking port and brandy on the cold evening of the winter day on which Hugh Rafferty’s corpse was dumped into an unmarked grave.
The palpable glee that Rose gets from all this recalls Calvin’s vision of God. Calvinism and snark are, in fact, excellent bedfellows. As Calvin wrote in Institutes of the Christian Religion, “[A]ll things being at God’s disposal, and the decision of salvation or death belonging to him, he orders all things by his counsel or decree in such a manner, that some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death, that his name may be glorified in their destruction.” Like predestination, snark begins with the answer it likes and then writes the question, arranging the story in order to create maximal narrative inexorability, The overall effect is less plot than a sense of happened-to-ness.
Rose sets up a pitiless pathology: failed literature is the natural result of failed lives. It’s a rubric few people, even great successful novelists, would be able to meet. It’s also an assumption easily struck down. The history of literature is filled with unhappy people whose trashed lives might be redeemed, if only a little, through their fiction.
On the far end of the continuum we have writers like John Kennedy Toole, who didn’t meet with success during his lifetime. Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was published only after his early death at the age of thirty-one. If his mother hadn’t persisted in sending his manuscript out to publishers, and if the novel hadn't turned out to be a success, you could easily imagine a C.D. Rose mock-up of his life:
Men like John Kennedy Toole are far and few between. Drafted into the Army, he quickly began drinking himself to death on his base in Puerto Rico, where he was nearly discharged for negligence. When he returned home his parents were bottoming out financially and his father sinking into dementia. Rather than take up a steady job, Toole decided to enroll in a graduate program at Dominican College, knowing that he could save his family and his reputation once his masterpiece was published. The manuscript — a work greater in its psychological complexity than Mrs. Dalloway, more daring than Ulysses — was rejected by no less a literary eminence than Robert Gottlieb, who regarded the book as essentially pointless.
After this, Toole spiraled into deeper depression and alcoholism, packing on so many pounds that his salary went not to his destitute mother, but to the purchase of a more amply-sized wardrobe. He became convinced that his car was being followed, his fellow students were whispering when his back was turned, and a Simon & Schuster employee was trying to steal his book and publish it under her husband’s name. By Christmas of 1968, he was looking for “electronic mind-reading devices” under the tree. Depressed, raving, and morbidly obese, Toole drove off on a pilgrimage to Flannery O’Connor’s house, but it was not open to the public; the disappointment was so great that he gassed himself to death in his car. The only people who attended his funeral were his parents and former nursemaid. Because Dominican College was Catholic, no one ever mentioned his suicide. We wonder, with genuine bafflement, why he never attained the greatness he was born to.
You can imagine similar biographical hijinks with other writers. If you cut off the first half of Ralph Ellison’s life, you start with the fire that burned down his house and the manuscript inside, which the poor man spent the rest of his days trying, tentatively, to finish. Or if you only look at Penelope Fitzgerald’s life before the age of 58, as biographer Hermione Lee has written, you “might describe her as a middle-aged teacher, recovering from a traumatic period of homelessness and deprivation, living in a dreary council estate in south London with a disgraced alcoholic husband in a dismal low-paid job, her children coming and going from school and university, her early ambitions to be a writer catastrophically thwarted, her life obscure.”
Other authors, while published and often praised during their lifetimes, fall by the wayside for years, not least among them Melville and that other Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Even if we limit ourselves to writers who enjoyed success during their lives and still enjoy it now, any “successful” author’s life surely includes his unfinished work. Look at Coleridge, interrupted mid-opium reverie; what we have left of “Kublai Khan” doesn’t suffer from diminished dazzle.
Reading enough of these examples, you enter into a ghostly zone where success and failure are nearly identical. You can, as shown above, make a mock-up of any hard-drinking writer’s life that presents him as a BDLF candidate: Toole, Cheever, and certainly Malcolm Lowry. But what’s a little stranger, and more interesting, is that you can use the same script to make any successful author into a failure.
In fact, writers do this all by themselves, all the time. The history of marvelous novels is littered with marvelous novelists denouncing their work as so much crapola. Iris Murdoch called a novel “the wreck of a perfect idea”; Karl Ove Knausgaard defines writing as “failing with total dedication.” Reading the BDLF, I started to see triumphant visions of these artists standing over a kind of Berlin Wall between the poor failed masses and the successful. Ich bin ein sadsack, a spokesperson would say, while hacking up his kidneys. Maybe Proust.
Success in literature is, instead, mainly a matter of timing and posthumous rearrangement — 90 percent showing up, 10 percent having the right people trailing after you, making sense of your lovely wreckage. Henri Lefebvre’s recently translated “The Missing Pieces,” offers a hint of what the BDLF could have been, by approaching lost, missing, and unfinished work almost with the reverence of a pilgrim toward saint’s relics: The man died by fire, but my God, those extant tibia!
The entries in the BDLF do read, in an alarming way, like saints’ biographies, minus the miracles. What Rose’s failed writers need isn’t Rose’s snark. It’s a Mrs. Toole or a Hermione Lee, a patron saint.
Or what they need, I guess, is a novel.
In Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.” As readers, we also share our lives, to a remarkable extent, with the lives of people who have failed to be. Gatsby’s about the guy who doesn’t get his girl, Moby-Dick about the man who never gets his whale. These characters occupy our imagination because their struggles are consistently involving. John Williams’s Stoner is about an English professor defeated by department politics and his wife’s unreasoning hatred. In the copy I borrowed from my university library, someone had written, on the title page, Oddly comforting.
So if failed lives don’t always make for failed literature, why make the claim? Security, perhaps. No one has exclusive power of arbitration over what literature is and isn’t, what it can and can’t do, but it feels correct to say that one of the functions fiction can perform best is the cultivation of empathy. When great novels relate suffering, we feel something too — perhaps not the same emotions that each character experiences, but presumably not pleasure. For some readers, this is the fundamental literary quality: the cultivation of sympathy for people who are, finally, made up. What makes these stories so affecting is the ease with which we take on the emotions of those around us.
Rose’s entries seem more like talismans against the possibility of shared experience. Gallix’s introduction suggests that in writing the BDLF, Rose “may have been exorcising some demons of his own.” By assuming the identities of the failed, Rose seems, at first, to be empathizing with them. In fact — in the predestined structure of his stories, in his unwillingness to grant his characters an interior life, in the self-denigrating whimsy of his tone — Rose is warding them off. That’s not just a failure of empathy; it’s a failure of the imagination.
Rose’s view would be inconsequential, if it didn’t touch on the bones of something deeply embedded in our culture: a sense that failure is contagious. This is what snark suggests, as it mocks from some safe distance, or business culture, as it denies us even a moment of grief for failed projects. We are terrified. Our terror recalls the medieval understanding of leprosy. Afraid of contagion, we set clear lines between sick and well, establishing quarantine; uncomfortable with failure’s fuzziness, we propose that success is black and white, and total. When Rose’s characters fail, he insists that their failure be absolute, polished off by suicide or a knife in the back. He isn’t killing them so much as he is killing off their ambiguity.
The goal of the BDLF may have been to comfort Rose, and those like him, with the stupendous unlikelihood of ever encountering failure on such a scale. But the overall impression left behind is that Rose sends his proxies into battle to risk what he wouldn’t. Not just the drug abuse and the blighted domestic arrangements, but the large unmanageable projects that make literature noble and worthwhile — both those undertaken by the author, and those undertaken by his characters. As Gore Vidal wrote of F. Scott Fitzgerald, back in 1953, “[His] chief attraction is that he exploded before he could be great, providing a grim lesson in failure that, in its completeness, must be awfully heartening when contemplated on the safe green campus of some secluded school.”
Here Gore pinpoints snark’s essential cowardice, its corseted desire for a larger life and its willingness to snip at those who try and fail to live largely. Because Rose, and those like him, are not Wellon Freund or Thomas Bodham. He won’t let himself imagine what that might feel like.
And that — Hugh Rafferty and Eric Quayne aside — is the real tragedy of the BDLF. Fiction has patience enough, and depth enough, to represent us as full persons, made up of our failures and successes, tasks left undone and tasks still left to accomplish. As the great failed Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
It’s no small test, but great writers often pass. If failure is an epidemic, if feeling is dangerous, writers like O’Connor and Crews, Toole and Williams, emerge as modern saints: the baffling, foolish heroes who dare approach the lepers. But Rose, whether from disdain or hypochondria, never gets close.
Gallix places Rose’s work alongside any number of famous literary silences in the face of imperfection: “Rimbaud’s renunciation of poetry …, the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein’s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich or Rauschenberg, Yves Klein’s vacant exhibitions, as well (of course) as John Cage’s mute music piece.” Gallix describes the appeal of “absolute whiteness,” untrammeled potential.
This is true enough, in its way; any artist has coped with those moments of paralyzing uncertainty, when silence or irony seem better than wreckage. But Gallix’s misreading of Cage is, I think, telling. Cage intended the vacancy of the work to supply a stage for the ambient environment. His point wasn’t that art is incapable of speech, or that the artist has, finally, nothing to say. His intention was to draw a circle around a small section of public life and say, All that is inside this circle is art. It’s a circle of reception, an announcement that he is willing to listen. When Gallix calls Cage’s piece “mute,” he fails to understand that it is a stage for the people, and the experiences, we don’t usually choose to hear.
In “The Secret Miracle” Borges observes of his playwright protagonist, “Like every writer, he measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned to do someday.” When captured by the Gestapo and sentenced to execution, Hladik prays to God for a year’s worth of time to complete his unfinished masterpiece — the play, as he describes it, “which may serve to justify me.” The titular miracle occurs when the playwright, about to be destroyed by firing squad, receives the time he has asked for. The world pauses and his year happens in complete silence, as he stands frozen before the soldiers, arranging and revising his final play in his head. When time starts up again, he has died as a failure in the eyes of the world, a success in his own mind. It’s not that Hladik’s failure didn’t matter. But Borges, willing to lean close and step inside, stays for the whole experience.
Failure, silence, tasks left undone — talk about your white whales. In literature these empty spaces are very much alive. And by allowing these gaps to exist, literature captures some of the force and poignancy of the lives we never quite manage to live. The opposite of accomplishment is failure, but it is also, crucially, possibility.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator. Her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and The New York Times Book Review.