Writing is a hard way to make a living, which is why a whole ecosystem exists to help you feel like you’re succeeding at it. Hashtags like #amwriting provide steady pep talks for people wading through the muck of a first draft. Dubious-seeming ads on Facebook peddle frictionless methods for selling thousands of copies of your book, practically without your even writing it. Perhaps less dubious but certainly more expensive, writing retreats offer chances to workshop your novel with professional guidance beneath the Tuscan sun or some equivalent. You can do it!
Except sometimes — often — most of the time? — you can’t. And when you fail, the ecosystem generally prefers you keep that to yourself. Social media thrives on self-deprecating riffs about rejection, but writers tend to reserve their most despairing fits of self-pity for their diaries. One of my favorite examples of the form is by Bernard Malamud, who, upon learning that his contemporary Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976, sourly jotted: “Bellow gets Nobel Prize. I win $24.25 in poker.”
To confess failure messes with the narrative that writers have collectively built around success. That narrative fittingly resembles Freytag’s Pyramid, a classic shape for dramatic structure: rising action with some complications along the way, building to a triumphant climax and gently returning back to earth. For a writer, that means long solitary hours toiling away, then collecting rejections, until that magic moment when you can share your Publishers Lunch deal announcement on Twitter. (At which point you might safely joke about those past rejections.)
But like everything else in life, literary trajectories aren’t usually so straightforward and triumphant. Writers’ moods certainly don’t work that way; after all, Malamud wrote at least a half-dozen deathless short stories and a couple of classic novels … and still felt sunk. The literary life is less like Freytag’s Pyramid and more like a sine wave — peaks and valleys, small victories alternating with strings of failures. If you’re lucky.
As the Canadian author Stephen Marche puts it, gloomily, in a slender new book titled “On Writing and Failure”: “There is no promised land. There is only exile.”
In this regard, if nothing else, Malamud and I (and Marche) have a little in common. For much of 2021 and 2022, I labored on a nonfiction book proposal I was confident would score me a deal-blurb tweet of my own. After years of struggling to find a book-length subject that would be worth the time and energy of both me and a publisher, I was confident I’d finally sorted it out. It was a book about a cultural figure whose name you’d almost certainly recognize, with an (I thought) interesting angle that hadn’t yet been written about at length. I had an enthusiastic agent with a track record, access to the relevant archives, a proposal honed to a blinding gleam. I’ve written three books — a photo history, a ghostwritten humor book and a brief work of literary criticism. But now, finally, I’d be able to scale the pyramid and write what in my head I called my big-boy book. All that was left to do was ship out the queries and wait for a yes. I imagined a chiming, resonant ping.
Instead, I spent a good chunk of 2022 collecting rejections and getting reacquainted with the words “narrow” and “broad.” The pings were replaced with tuba blats: My project offered “too narrow a slice” of the subject’s life, one editor said; the “audience for a book with this framing and argument could be on the narrow side,” another said. “I didn’t feel as if the writing opened this up for a broader audience,” said one more. There were market concerns: “I worry we may face headwinds with it in our market”; the project had only “a comparatively modest market.” Kind words were tempered: “Well done, but I am afraid it’s just too small.”
Forget peaks and valleys. I had arrived in a deep underwater trench, one of those otherworldly ones where the fish are creepily bioluminescent and snaggletoothed.
It’s not a rare story. But it’s worth occasionally throwing some cold water on the heroic narrative of the author who fields dozens of rejections and eventually triumphs. Sometimes ideas aren’t as good as we think they are. Sometimes failures are simply failures. The ecosystem wants us to take valuable lessons from those rejections, understand them as valuable guidance. But what can I possibly spark with this dump of wet twigs moldering in my inbox?
In “On Writing and Failure,” Marche attempts to reset the way we talk about such struggles. He stomps Freytag’s Pyramid flat. “Rejection never ends,” he writes. “Success is no cure. Success only alters to whom, or what, you may submit. Rejection is the river in which we swim.” Samuel Beckett’s directive to “fail again, fail better,” is misunderstood as inspirational, Marche asserts: “To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.”
Marche has plenty of examples of writers who have faced rejection and failure — and anxiety — in spite of success. James Joyce couldn’t get a lousy teaching gig; George Orwell despaired of how his work was misunderstood; you know how things ended for Ernest Hemingway. Marche relates a funny story about how Margaret Atwood, the last writer who ought to feel competitive with anybody, hastened to tell a gaggle at a literary party that she, too, had written for the New York Times.
“If it was like that for Orwell, why would it be any different for you?” Marche writes. Indeed. I felt like a failure for the book I couldn’t write. But the three books that crossed the finish line never entirely felt like successes either; when I reflect on them, I think primarily about their flaws and the stress of writing them. Talking with other writers, I know it’s a common feeling. Writing something new is often a prayer that you might escape the pangs of disappointment over the last thing you wrote.
Marche’s book isn’t a pep talk, but it’s not intended to cut you off at the knees. His sole prescription is stubbornness. “You have to write. You have to submit. You have to persevere. You have to throw yourself against the door. That’s it.”
I haven’t given up on the possibility of writing another book. But I’ve abandoned the fantasy of trajectories — the idea that if I did write that book, it would represent the culmination of something. In fact, it would only be evidence of itself. One thing in an array of other things. A blip in the face of the failures of the past. And no guarantee against the failures that are sure to follow.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”
On Writing and Failure
Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer
By Stephen Marche
Biblioasis. 128 pp. $12.99
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