On Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer (Field Notes) (2023), by Stephen Marche

Stephen Marche has written an honest book about the travails of writing. The next time Hollywood puts out the usual romantic idea of The Writer, here are some items, some fom Marche and some from elsewhere, to consider and which show the inevitable risks, failures and other calamities which befall all Scribblers:

-Samuel Johnson’s times of absolute impoverishment

-Hemingway’s comparatively early suicide (which you must believe stemmed from his sense of declining literary powers)

-J. F. Powers’s obscurity and abject poverty following his 1962 National Book Award for his wonderful novel, Morte d’Urban (besting the likes of Nabokov, Updike, et al.), not to forget that his prominent New York publisher botched the first edition of Morte d’Urban issued after the novel was awarded.

-The almost certain chance that most novelists, especially first novelists but hardly limited to them, may receive as many as hundreds of rejection slips from publishers to whom their work has been submitted by the second most heinous species (hyenas are the first), the literary “agent.”

-Dostoevsky’s mock execution–he was blindfolded at the stake and the riflemen positioned and poised to shoot him–when, as scripted, the “generous” and “forgiving” Tsar’s emissary raced onto the scene and halted the killing. (George Kennan credited Dostoevsky as among the Russian writers who made him believe the twentieth century Soviet state would implode from its own internal and above all inhuman conditions.)

-Jane Austen constrained from putting her name on her novels.

-The fact that writers who sell millions of potboilers–Dan Brown, Patricia Cornwell, et al.–can’t get much if any critical assessment (and probably deservedly so), a situation in which sometimes it is claimed by the neglected that the money is all that matters. Often it simply cannot be all that matters: you create a narrative and you hope “those in the know” like that creation. It’s most human. And deservedly or not, neglect brings pain and regret.

-Machiavelli imprisoned and tortured.

-Shakespeare unable to get some plays staged and the Bard ending with a portfolio of writings unseen.

The list could go on and on, as Marche’s book amply shows. Failure is a major theme in writing. The writer’s joy usually comes in the creation of the narratives themselves. But ordinarily people need to buy eggs and paper towels moreso than books, fiction and nonfiction. So eventually (if not sooner) there is the “business” side of writing, as Marche stresses. Therein, as he details painfully, almost all if not ALL, Scribblers would, you might think, probably ponder about advising their sons and daughters or other loved ones to become writers.

In short, as Marche cites from James Baldwin, it’s ultimately a matter of endurance.