"Failure is what writers do."
April 9, 2015 5:17 AM   Subscribe

Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure is a collection of seven short essays on failure by writers Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Anne Enright, Howard Jacobson, Will Self and Lionel Shriver. These range from the meditative to the funny. Essays reflecting on literary failure are legion, but let me point you towards a couple more, the brief Failure Is Our Muse by Stephen Marche and the longer Fail Better by Zadie Smith.
posted by Kattullus (15 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Good essays but the premise is a little hard to take. People who have experienced exceptional, international-grade recognition describe failure to the rest of us? Failure I've seen, schmucks; if it's explaining we're doing lemme see if I can acquaint you with self-awareness.
posted by Segundus at 7:10 AM on April 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

People who have experienced exceptional, international-grade recognition describe failure to the rest of us?

The point is that the feeling known as "failure" is separate from actual failing.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:53 AM on April 9, 2015

Everybody fails, whether you're a world-class celebrity or not. Failure is part of being a living human being. Saying that one isn't entitled to express one's own failures because he or she's defined externally as a success at certain things, like accumulating money or celebrity, is kind of pointless. Assuredly, these writers aren't talking in a public way about their deepest, darkest failures, but who would want to abase themselves like that? And writers, whether they've achieved international recognition or not, know the grip of failure pretty damn intimately. As Mark Twain, a connoisseur of failure, wrote: "All my life I have stumbled upon lucky chances of large size, and whenever they were wasted it was because of my own stupidity and carelessness. Now I need to teach myself to endure a way of life which I was familiar with during the first half of my life but whose sordidness and hatefulness and humiliation long ago faded out of my memory and feeling."
posted by blucevalo at 8:20 AM on April 9, 2015

Looking forward to reading TFA. Anne Enright is my absolute favourite commentator about the process of writing and how it works:

There is so much guff talked about creativity, and the more of this guff you talk, the more you are in danger of becoming blocked. "Block" is like a panic attack - the minute you describe it, you have it: the word and the experience are the same thing. It is the true and exact opposite of making fiction, where to name something is to conjure it into being, but in a positive way.
So I don't do "inspiration" or "blocks". I just do "work" and hope for the best. Some days the geese stay geese, but often enough I get a bit of swan action; a still reflection, a glimpse of white. The trick is to keep yourself open to the moment. The trick is to keep yourself vulnerable and true, and this can be tiring, after a while. It can hurt - quite literally. So there will be times when you have to retire a little, and shut down.
But there is no need to panic. It does come back. One day it comes back. The tide turns. The words mean something again, and they manage to stick to the page. The right shell is on the beach, the light is beautiful and just for you. As you turn into the wind and head for home, the swan itself shits on your coat. And there, standing by the car, is another human being.

That quote's from a series of five, I think, that she wrote for the Guardian, which included her writing about her Masters in creative writing where it seemed as though she was doing nothing but sleep and hang about, and how grateful she is to the people teaching (all professional writers) for somehow making her know something was happening that was worthwhile. I'm pretty sure what she has to say will be well worth reading. (And maybe it will be culled from the Guardian essays I mentioned above? I'm off to find out now.)
posted by glasseyes at 8:26 AM on April 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Survivor bias stories are problematic from the perspective of rigorous understanding of the causes and cures of failing but it is still interesting to read the stories that good storytellers tell about themselves.
posted by srboisvert at 8:29 AM on April 9, 2015

It is not failure, but feedback!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:00 AM on April 9, 2015

I really dislike it when (especially successful) people present failure as something valuable. There is no lesson to be learned in failure. It has no worth. It does not inspire; it degrades. It does not build up; it wears down. Failure destroys you and robs you of your own humanity bit by bit, gradually shrinking the possibilities of your life. Failure is not a good thing. Safety nets and allowing room for growth and learning and occasional stumbles are good things. Never confuse that for failure.

Charlie Kaufman is the only one to break my rule here so far: "Failure is a badge of honour; it means you risked failure." I can get behind that.

Now that my knee-jerk crankiness is out of the way, I'll bother reading these. I do like Atwood!
posted by byanyothername at 9:06 AM on April 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lovely post - great collection of links. Thanks, Kattullus.

I'd say there's a very thoughtful exploration of what failure means and can mean, and whether it should mean that. The writers in the Guardian all have pretty different takes on it - with Howard Jacobson being reliably contrarian - but what there absolutely isn't, is any sense of failure ever being indicative of some sort of personal deficiency, or lack of effort, or avoidable wrongness. Or even anything much more than random and probably inevitable.
posted by glasseyes at 9:15 AM on April 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, except maybe in the Zadie Smith, now I've started reading it. Yes, so far, for her, failure, however it's defined does seem more of a moral matter.
posted by glasseyes at 9:19 AM on April 9, 2015

Wall Street Journal did their little interview with luminaries and failure last week. Smaller chunks, wider range of experience.
posted by BWA at 10:08 AM on April 9, 2015

It's a mixed bag, but I really liked some of these, especially Diana Athill's essay and Anne Enright's.
posted by nangar at 10:39 AM on April 9, 2015

Maybe what's under discussion isn't career/macro capital-F Failure where you throw the lifetime of a mortgage down the drain (which is certainly demoralizing and even corrosive), but little-f failure, the kind Ira Glass invokes when he talks about the gap between the tastes/aspirations and the skill of promising beginners.

You want your work to be higher quality, it isn't yet, so you're trying to figure out how to get there, you find you're producing more things no one likes (not even you) than quality stuff that people thank you for. You might just give up unless you realize that even for career successes this is part of the process.

You might give up anyway once you realize that even people who've done better work than you have aren't career successes. Or you might discover you'd do it anyway even if you're never a career success. Hard to say.
posted by weston at 10:51 AM on April 9, 2015

I really dislike it when (especially successful) people present failure as something valuable. There is no lesson to be learned in failure. It has no worth. It does not inspire; it degrades.

Not true. Failure really is the only way to learn any deep lessons that effects who you are and how you see things at the base level (IMO). In fact, there's reason to suspect some degree of pain may play a crucial role in learning, and in my experience, few things hurt worse than failing. Especially when it's failing people you love.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:16 PM on April 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

(Of course, that doesn't mean anyone should aspire to fail. If you mean to do it, it's probably not the kind of failure that hurts deeply enough to change you. I'm going through a pretty epic failure right now so this is all pretty fresh for me.)
posted by saulgoodman at 1:18 PM on April 9, 2015

Margaret Atwood is always too perfect to really fail hard.

Will Self, often infuriating and uneven, does a nice poetic turn here.
posted by ovvl at 3:51 PM on April 9, 2015

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