Want to be a writer? This bleak but buoyant guide says to get used to rejection
"On Writing And Failure" is the title of a new pamphlet-length book by Canadian novelist and essayist Stephen Marche. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that while failure may be no laughing matter, Marche's little book is a witty delight to read.
Other segments from the episode on February 14, 2023
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "On Writing And Failure" - it's a subject that could fill volumes. But instead, it's the title of a new pamphlet-length book by Canadian novelist and essayist Stephen Marche. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that while failure may be no laughing matter, Marche's little book is a witty delight to read.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: No whining - that's one of Stephen Marche's refrains throughout his provocative essay called "On Writing And Failure." As a writer himself, Marche would never deny that writing is hard work. He well knows that writing for a living is fatiguing to the brain and tough on the ego and that the financial payoff is overwhelmingly dismal. But by repeatedly saying no whining, Marche is telling aspiring writers in particular to get used to it. His aim in this little book is to talk about what it takes to live as a writer. And what it takes, in Marche's view, is to have no illusions about the certainty of failure. Even beyond talent or luck, Marche argues, the one thing a writer needs to get used to is failing again and again.
"On Writing And Failure" is not your standard meditation on the art and nobility of writing as a profession. But while Marche's outlook is as bleak as one of Fitzgerald's legendary hangovers, his writing style is buoyant and funny. "On Writing And Failure" is part of a new pamphlet series being published by Biblioasis, a small, independent Canadian press. The pamphlet is a quintessentially 18th-century form, popularized by the likes of Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, and Marche walks in their footsteps. He's a quintessentially 18th-century Enlightenment stylist, bristling with contrarian views and witty epigrams. For instance, here's a passage where Marche discusses the cruel species of irony that drove the working life of Herman Melville. His first book, says Marche, was "Typee: A Peep At Polynesian Life" - pure crap and a significant bestseller. His final book was "Billy Budd," an extreme masterpiece he couldn't even manage to self-publish. Melville's fate was like the sick joke of some cruel god. The better he wrote, the more he failed.
The bulk of "On Writing And Failure" is composed of similar anecdotes about the failures endured by writers whose greatness, like Melville's, was recognized far too late to do them any good; or writers who dwelt in depression and/or rejection. English has provided a precise term of art to describe the writerly conditions, says Marche - submission. Writers live in a state of submission. Marche, by most measures a successful writer, shares that he kept scrupulous account of his own rejections until he reached the 2,000 mark. That was some 20 years ago. He's in good company, of course, with writers like Jack London, who reportedly kept his letters of rejection impaled on a spindle that eventually rose to four feet around 600 rejections.
If you're expecting a big inspirational turnaround after this litany of literary failure, forget about it. Instead, Marche insists on staring clear-eyed into the void. The internet, he says, loves to tell stories about famous writers facing adversity. What I find strange is that anyone finds it strange that there's so much rejection. The average telemarketer has to make 18 calls before finding someone willing to talk with him or her. And that's for stuff people might need, like a vacuum cleaner or a new smartphone. Nobody needs a manuscript.
Marche says several times throughout his essay that he intends "On Writing And Failure" to be a consolation to his fellow writers, to assure them that their misery has company - cold comfort. But Marche is smart enough to know that no one who wants to write is going to be discouraged by cautionary tales or dismal book sales statistics; nor should they be. Because, occasionally, when the stars are aligned, someone writes a work as provocative, informed and droll as "On Writing And Failure." Maybe writing well is its own reward. Marche would probably say it has to be.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "On Writing And Failure" by Stephen Marche. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, what does a world-renowned conductor listen to when he's not on the podium? We talk with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, and listen to the playlist he's made for us of music he loves that's inspired him. It includes pop, hip-hop and classical music. I hope you'll join us. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.