Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
In his 1903 novella, Tristan, Thomas Mann wrote that “a writer is someone for whom writing is harder than for everyone else” (“ . . . ein Schriftsteller ein Mann ist, dem das Schreiben schwerer fällt, als allen anderen Leuten”). Stephen Marche would agree, and on several levels.
Marche is an accomplished writer, and his latest book, On Writing and Failure, although short (79 pages), covers a lot of ground. Marche is out to puncture romantic notions of what a writer’s life is like. And he takes aim at the misleading nature of the labels “failure” and “success.”
The book consists of a series of stories and observations in which Marche uses the lives of writers to illustrate his points, diverging from a linear narrative to connect with a wide spectrum of writers’ struggles with their chosen path. Some of these writers are well-known to Canadians—Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance—others, such as the Chinese writers Du Fu and Li Bai or the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, probably not. He doesn’t talk much about Canadian writers. Margaret Attwood, Mordecai Richler, and a couple of others are only mentioned in passing.
To Marche, writing is seldom a rewarding experience, even for the best. The world, in his view, is stacked against writers because the odds of success are so slim. As he puts it: “Neither talent nor intelligence nor clarity of purpose seem to make a difference.” So many writers spend their careers living in near poverty. A number who wrote what are now considered masterpieces never saw fame within their lifetime. And he cites the examples of Orwell’s 1984, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Joyce’s Ulysses, works people gush over today, but that were published almost by accident, after multiple rejections.
Marche points out that most writers “fail” in their minds and in the minds of the public because they can’t get published, or, if they do, they can’t make enough to live on. But he goes on to show how failure in writing is more than being rejected by publishers, in fact, writing itself can be considered failure. The trick is, as Samuel Beckett said, “to fail better.” Marche doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as success in writing, and as evidence cites the experiences of Jonathon Swift and George Orwell. Neither Gulliver’s Travels nor 1984 were received as the author intended. Good sales, yes. But is being misunderstood success?
Marche even gives examples of where a writer’s initial financial success was followed by later failure. Herman Melville, for instance had a success with his initial book, Typee, a travelogue of his voyage to the South Pacific. From there it was downhill. Moby Dick and his subsequent books didn’t sell well, and Billy Budd was only published long after his death.
To Marche, the single most important characteristic of being a writer is perseverance. Near constant failure is a given, whether it be mountains of rejection slips or mere pennies in royalties. A writer has no choice but to keep on writing or find another trade. And not all writers, even good ones, are up to this. In a touching passage, Marche attributes Canadian poet A.M. Klein’s mysterious and abrupt ending of his writing years to exactly that. He just didn’t have it in him to take it any longer.
Marche can be opinionated, which is very entertaining, though he comes down hard on Canada, referring to the “willful indifference to talent that defines Canadian culture.” Ouch!
In the end, this is a very rewarding book, and not just for writers. Marche is extremely well-read, and it shows. And his thinking about the nature of the writer’s life is welcome, both to those of us who struggle at writing and those who want to better appreciate the results. What he delivers is a sobering, yet somehow reassuring perspective on how to think about this demanding and so often insufficiently rewarding craft.
On Writing and Failure is published by Biblioasis.