In Praise of Literary Failure

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I’ll be honest: I’m baffled by the contemporary mania for the slogan “fail better.” Sure, in context, I appreciate Samuel Beckett’s famous line, but I can’t shake the notion that it comes from a piece called Worstward Ho. “Ever tried,” he writes, “Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The way it’s often used today, “fail better” implies that we’re lurching and stumbling, toddler-like, toward a better world. But the speaker in Beckett’s fiction isn’t moving toward success; he’s moving worstward. If we take the Oxford English Dictionary’s first-order definition of failure as a “lack of success,” we can appreciate that to fail better is to screw up more drastically, more spectacularly than ever before. To “fail better” is to lurch and stumble ever closer to the abyss.

Pure literary failure, though, is hilarious. It’s also sad and depressing. To spend one’s entire life working on a novel, let’s say, and never to finish it, or to have it burned or stolen or resigned to the trashcan of history, is a terrible, terrible thing. Yet this species of failure does have one advantage: it’s far more interesting than literary success. Literary failure teaches us more about the world we live in, the society that rejects us, than literary success ever could. When a friend shows you her rejection letter, especially one that details precisely why her manuscript was denied, she seems to have uncovered a truth about herself, her society, her would-have-been publisher. When another acquaintance gets a six-figure book deal, the world is shrouded in mystery.

Take the example of Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki, born in Paris in 1880. Like Kafka, Adamowitz-Kostrowicki read his life’s work only to his friends, instructing one of them to burn it should he never return from the war. Only, unlike Kafka, his masterpiece was actually torched in a small bonfire on the street when it was mistakenly assumed that he died on the front.

Or what about the bibliophage Ernst Bellmer, the autodidact son of an innkeeper, who, after writing an epic bildungsroman, summarily ate it? There’s also the graphomaniac Felix Dodge, whose plan for his unfinished life’s work ran more than a thousand pages. And what about Chad Sheehan, who was so obsessed with great first sentences that he spent his entire career filling nearly 2,000 spiral notebooks with nothing but opening lines?

Luckily, the miniature biographies of these failed writers, who have so much to teach us about life, literature, and mental illness, are compiled in a mesmerizing and hilarious little book called The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure. Edited by C. D. Rose, the collection contains nothing but a Borgesian archive of literary failure in all its depressing splendor. The book’s introduction, too, is one of the finer pieces of literary criticism to be released this year. Written by Andrew Gallix, editor-in-chief of 3:AM magazine, which purports to be “the first literary blog,” the intro deftly surveys the gamut of literary failure. Especially good and poetic is Gallix’s take on the scourge of the writer, the blank page:

Blankness is the sine qua non for inclusion in the BDLF, but it is seldom sought after directly. Manuscripts and books remain blank to us through being censored, lost, drowned, shredded, pulped, burned, used as cigarette paper or wrapped around kebabs, fed to pigs or even ingested by their own authors…These brief biographies are sketches that merely gesture towards the possibility of narrative development; stories that are cut short or fall silent. Stories that would prefer not to.

This explains the inclusion of failures like Hugh Rafferty, who, drunk on confidence and absinthe, attempted to compose his own masterpiece, “The Green Fairy,” only to find that he had written nothing but gibberish. Or the unfortunately named Hans Kafka, whose publishers refused to believe that he wasn’t writing under a pseudonym.

You may wonder how The Biographical Dictionary of Failure unearthed these mini-biographies of the thwarted, faceless, and forgotten. How did they find these writers, lost to history, without making them up? You might say they failed on this account, too. And who in the hell is C.D. Rose, the book’s editor, whose only online bio states that he currently lives in the south of Italy where he writes about “fish, shoes, ships, jewels, paintings, photographs, violins, cats, kites, big cities, small towns, bets, promises, deals, dreams, thefts, displacement, exile, love, loss and death”? The archive presented in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure might be made up, it might be a fiction, but the failure itself is very real and illuminating.