The famous aphorism often credited to Gore Vidal has been variously attributed to Somerset Maugham, Iris Murdoch, La Rochefoucauld, and Genghis Khan, but it certainly sounds Vidalian; if he didn’t say it, he should have. Plainly, Vidal was a person who enjoyed great success and, just as plainly, enjoyed the lack of it in others. “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little” is another celebrated Vidalian apothegm. If you see the world as a binary opposition between those who succeed and those who fail, then Vidal belonged — spectacularly — to the first group. From that same perspective, I and most of the rest of the world belong just as firmly to the second group. There are reasons to believe that the world is not a binary opposition between success and failure — unless you’re a writer. In that case, it’s rather easier to believe in the myth of your own failure.
Failure is infinite and takes infinite forms. I might say, for instance, that Vidal’s inability to love another human being (on the evidence of his 1995 memoir Palimpsest) constituted a rather larger failing than any literary ambition come to naught. In that memoir, he claimed, not quite plausibly, that the death of an early beloved during World War II extinguished all romantic feeling in him. Love dies, but romance, eros, and experience itself are rarely so cut and dried. Success and failure of every stripe are so jumbled up in our daily lives that it’s often difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. I’m inclined to believe that simply getting through the day without causing excessive damage to oneself or to others constitutes a smashing success. But I’m a writer working in an arena where relatively clear-cut distinctions between success and failure unmistakably obtain. And in that arena, I play the role assigned to my cohort by Vidal: I am one of the many who must fail so that the few (like Vidal) might succeed.
I like to think that my writing achieves a significance beyond that of fulfilling Vidal’s lethal aperçu, that it “succeeds” — to use that terrible word — in engaging readers emotionally and intellectually, in communicating a range of ideas through expressive language, in providing, if nothing else, a modicum of pleasure and wit. And it’s no use posting a snarky comment to the effect that my literary failure is richly deserved; no one and nothing will ever persuade me that I’m not a good writer — which is the necessary minimum for anyone who aspires to write.
So, who are my readers? Friends and relatives, a few dozen strangers here and there, some freshman comp students required to read my first book. Almost the entirety of my “oeuvre,” a word I wish I could use seriously, has appeared in a handful of small online journals and even smaller presses. No advertising, no marketing, no bookstore readings, no literary agents. The whole ecosystem of the publishing industry might as well be taking place on another planet; I’ll never go there. As far as that industry is concerned, I don’t exist. To the extent that unknown writers like me do exist, some functionaries of the publishing world ardently desire that we would just go away, or die. We clog their inboxes; we encumber them. More than one agency website I’ve encountered politely but firmly advises aspiring writers that, after 20 or so rejections, they really ought, for the benefit of all concerned, to call it quits.
I’m a small-press person, by temperament and by experience. If success, as defined by literary agencies, means designing my “platform” to maximize my “brand” (or is it designing my brand to maximize my platform?), I’ll gladly take failure, which I’m stuck with anyway. I did in fact have a literary agent once, for about 20 minutes. He was a nice guy, but it was hopeless. We simply didn’t speak the same language. And really, what do I have to complain about? I’ve had some slight success, if that means anything, in the small-press world, where a few editors and readers occasionally express admiration and no one asks about my “platform.”
And yet complain I will, for two reasons, one unimpeachably good, the other shamefully bad. The bad reason is that some nagging part of me wants not so much success as its trappings: invitations to speak, bookstore signings, name recognition, even a little bit of money. (Among other things, writing has been a losing financial proposition for me; I’ve expended more on mailings, supplies, and various writer’s fees than I’ve ever earned back in royalties.) These ignoble and, for the most part, assiduously resisted fantasies hardly represent my better self; they’re just me on a bad day. But if I’m a writer, I’m also an American. There’s no use pretending that all of us aren’t affected to one degree or another by the winner-take-all dynamic of our national life or by the corrosive dispensation of incommensurate rewards to the chosen few. While writers have plotted and schemed in all times and places, the machinery that keeps the literary industry running does seem slightly more oppressive than it needs to be. Virginia Woolf didn’t have to worry about her brand.
And so I tell myself various consoling truisms, most of which I actually believe: that serious writers generally despise the bookstore signings and the blurb requests and all that other frou-frou; that even the best ones sound fatuous when required to submit to some “human interest” interview about their favorite bedside reading and that sort of thing; that literary reputation, as depicted by novelists from Honoré de Balzac to Dawn Powell, is, to a large if not wholly incontestable degree, a mug’s game; and that I like being an outsider, that my anti-institutional tendencies afford a certain independence of thought and freedom of action.
It may be that the whole success-versus-failure paradigm has diminishing purchase with younger writers. Social media, do-it-yourself distribution, and other technological innovations allow independent types to make their own rules. One of the incidental pleasures of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, his great sprawling roman à clef of 1998, is its representation of literary activity taking place entirely outside the mainstream. Scarcely any of Bolaño’s young, poetry-besotted, sex-obsessed Mexican autodidacts have any desire to “succeed” through the established protocols of literary officialdom. A passionate literary tertulia in a favored café isn’t a distraction from the main business of writing; it’s what they’re writing for. Indeed, talking about literature, for them, is at least as important as writing it, and certainly more important than getting published in a journal edited by or associated with Octavio Paz. In fact, one of the best jokes in the book is the contempt that Bolaño’s insurgents uniformly share for the older poet and Nobel laureate. It’s not that they object to Paz’s work itself; rather, his crime consists in being Octavio Paz — successful, esteemed, rewarded, a literary institution.
For all his skepticism about official literary success, Bolaño seemed to enjoy it when it came his way, if only for the pleasure it afforded him of being reliably arrogant in television interviews. (Also, he needed the money to provide for his family after the premature death that he knew was coming for him.) Hence the inescapable irony of considering the subject of literary failure at all: any examples from primary texts can only come from the work of nominally and, more often than not, extremely successful writers; otherwise, we wouldn’t have the examples. Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) is another case in point. As the elderly Krapp surveys the wreckage of his life by means of an annual rumination into a reel-to-reel tape recorder, he reflects sarcastically on the fate of his “opus magnum”: “Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known.” Krapp’s literary failure, as it happens, plays only a small part in the greater ruin of his life. The larger failure, to which he returns repeatedly — between surreptitious gulps of whiskey, the habitual consumption of bananas, and irritable fussing with the tape machine — is his flight from the one meaningful relationship of his life: “I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes.”
Well, that seems to me about right. What’s mere literary failure in the face of love willfully thrown away? Like much of Beckett’s work, Krapp’s Last Tape dwells on the uncomfortable idea that all of these failures — the erotic, the romantic, the literary, the ethical — bleed together into one seamless “muckball,” as Krapp puts it. And indeed, the literary failure that I’ve been discussing differs very little from its equivalents in other endeavors. What goes for writers also goes for musicians, scientists, entrepreneurs, and volleyball players. Nevertheless, there is a separation to be made between failures of careerist ambition and failures of mere personhood — namely, that everyone fails at the latter, whereas only some people risk (and usually attain) failure and futility by going public with their audience-dependent dreams. It’s the failures of personhood that, fittingly, nag the most at poor dying Krapp. His creator had his share of those too, but Beckett also had the not inconsiderable consolation, whatever his personal austerity and modesty, of seeing his work published, performed, and acclaimed. It must have felt pretty nice to be in a position to refuse the Nobel Prize.
So, yes, in my worst moments I have fantasized about rewards and remuneration — or, rather, my lofty refusal of such base considerations. (“I want to be / famous / so I can be / humble / about being / famous,” as the poet David Budbill put it.) Of all the bad reasons for wanting literary success, it doesn’t get much worse than that. Even in my most self-abnegating moods, however, I can’t find fault with the one good reason that remains for lamenting my literary obscurity: I want readers.
Yes, but do readers want me? I believe they do, or would, or could, or might, if my existence could only be known to them. Unfortunately, given the near invisibility of the niche I occupy in the underworld of the literary marketplace, that’s not likely to happen. And I want those readers for the same reason I want to discover authors new to me: for the sake of the pleasure and disturbance and revelation that literature ideally affords and that I might be able to afford to others. Here at last I leave vanity and bad faith behind. Writing is a conversation. I write to converse with readers in the way that my favorite writers converse with me. There’s plenty of stuff I do just for myself: birdwatching, hiking, practicing scales on the piano. But writing is different. I do it only in the hope, however slender, of having that conversation with readers, some of whom might even regard my work — so much the better if they profit therefrom — with very mixed feelings indeed.
So, how many readers am I talking about? I don’t know — a few hundred? A couple of thousand? More? A dozen or so of my essays have appeared on the aggregator website Arts & Letters Daily, where, in truth, I did at last reach a considerable number of readers. Apart from some very fleeting gratification, that experience too proved to be something of a vanity. It was nice to know that people were reading me, but the needle didn’t move an inch. I was and remain, by standards foreign to everything I believe in (or want to believe in), a failure.
Years ago, I belonged, peripherally, to an informal network of visual artists in Brooklyn. Not being one myself, I merely cheered them on as a spectator and fellow traveler. What struck me about those painters and sculptors and conceptual artists was not that none of them were particularly successful but that they seemed genuinely not to give a damn. They submitted their slides and collected their rejections with the same good grace they evinced when receiving a much rarer acceptance. All of them were pretty talented, and at least one was exceptional, but neither the exceptional one nor any of her friends viewed themselves as competing against each other. They were mostly women; I hate to think what higher levels of testosterone might have done to their spirit of unending collegiality and supportiveness. And so it went on, year after year, with the artist friends continually visiting each other’s studios, sharing techniques and supplies, passing on tips about potentially welcoming galleries, attending openings where their work may or may not have been represented. They loved making art, and they loved (or liked) each other’s work. In spite of all the obstacles and the rejections and the day jobs each of them had, they lived the lives of artists. That’s not failure.
Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs Raccoon Love and College and of a collection of essays, Culture Fever. His essays have appeared in The New Republic, The Smart Set, The Millions, and elsewhere.
Featured image: Robert D. Turnbull. Untitled, from the portfolio American Abstract Artists, 1937. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia and Phillip Frost. CC0. Accessed November 11, 2022.