When I first moved to Los Angeles I watched a close friend, an actor, go out on audition after audition, only to be told, over and over, that was great but we’re going in a different direction. He had a fair amount of success—but I was fascinated by the regularity of failure that was part of the life. No way, I thought, could I put up with that much rejection. And it is so final. If you prepare a role for an audition and you don’t get the job, it’s over. You start fresh on something new.
Writers have a different road to travel. If a story or poem is turned down somewhere, we can send it somewhere else. If one agent doesn’t want to represent our novel we can take it to another agent.
But we all know failure. We know that we had to abandon projects because we couldn’t make them work. We know we failed to write the book we hoped to write—we wrote a different book, but not the one we originally dreamed. We failed to break the new ground we were hoping to break. We failed to find the perfect simile, or the perfect word.
We fail so much, and so often, in fact, that failure can start to feel like an old friend. And it can serve many different functions, depending on how we react to it. Because we do have choices about what we do with failure.
1) Accept Failure
Anne Enright summed up the place of failure in her life for The Guardian: “Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people.”
My writing life, like hers, is defined by failure, and by one enormous failure in particular. I first attempted writing a novel in my late teens, and throughout my academic career, my editorial career, and my career as a nonfiction writer, I failed to write that novel. All those years, deep in my psyche, I was a novelist, one that just happened to be involved in an epic procrastination. Or maybe I was just afraid of competing with the hundreds of great novelists, like Anne Enright, that I was reading and interviewing and writing about. But I never doubted for a moment what I really was: I was a failed novelist.
2) Refuse to accept it
Herman Melville started out a success. He banged around as a sailor for five years or so and then, in 1846, when he was 26, he published his first autobiographical novel, Typee. It was a bestseller, as was its sequel, Omoo, the following year. But after disappointing sales for his third, Mardi, which he thought of as a proper novel, and which gets abstrusely philosophical, wanders off topic, and had sales to match, he wrote his first apology to his publisher. He promised that his next would return to his bestselling ways, and Redburn and White-Jacket were again autobiographical, although dotted with somewhat improbable fantasias of vice and violence. These books, he said, he published for the money (“I know Redburn to be trash, & wrote it to buy some tobacco with”), but they still didn’t match the sales of his first two. After each disappointing sales report, Melville would write his publisher and say, don’t worry, I’m going to write a bestseller next time, I know just how to do it, I’ve got this covered.
After White-Jacket, which sold roughly a third as many copies as Typee, he wrote to say I’m doing exactly what the public wants this next time, I’m writing a rip-roaring adventure tale of good and evil on the high seas, and it’s going to sell buckets. That turned out to be Moby Dick, his spectacular failure. It sold some 3,000 copies in his lifetime, and only because he still had fans left over from Typee.
Moby Dick was his sixth novel in six years, and because it sank like a stone, his career was more or less over at age 32. He apologized to his publisher once more, saying, don’t worry, this time I’m writing a sure-fire bestseller. I’ve read the bestselling novelists—almost all women writing sentimental and religious novels—and I know how to do it: I’m going to have an innocent boy, Pierre, who prays to God and loves his mother, and there will be a dark-haired vixen who will try to lure him into a life of sin, and a light-haired heroine who will bring him safely to virtue—I will follow that bestselling formula and write a blockbuster love story for the ages.
Well, that novel turned out to be Pierre, and its premise is exactly that. But then Melville had to be Melville, and so eventually we find out that the light-haired woman is actually Pierre’s sister, the product of his father’s infidelity, and when Pierre finds this out, he shoots and kills his father. Melville’s uplifting story of virtue threatened and virtue triumphant descends into a maelstrom of adultery, incest, and patricide. It sold even more miserably than Moby Dick.
This story has a happy ending—for us rather than for him—after his death, his genius was discovered, and he turned out to be not the one-hit wonder defined by his failure that the critics in the late nineteenth century described. He turned out to be Herman Melville.
3) Think of failure as an experiment
About a decade ago I spent a year running the MFA program at CalArts. An institution devoted to experimentalism, to forging the future of the arts through free, innovative trial and error work, CalArts likes to function, as the chair of its board of directors Tim Disney likes to say, as the arts’ R&D department. Over the course of my year there, one student, for instance, put Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights through a computer program that slowly removed words from the text, which we could watch on monitors. The pages of text slowly—over the course of many hours—disappeared, letter by letter, and word by word. I couldn’t quite see the point, I’ll admit—I tried reading the degraded text to see if something new was revealed about these classic novels, and no. I asked the artist if I was missing something, if I was supposed to catch interesting recombinations in the remaining fragments, and he said, no, he didn’t think so.
What do such experiments mean? We only call things literary experiments if they are failures, it seems—we don’t look at Leaves of Grass or Emily Dickinson’s poetry as experiments. They were innovative, they changed poetry forever, but they are not considered ‘experimental.’ Ditto with The Waste Land and H.D.’s poetry. The metafictionists and Toni Morrison and Lydia Davis felt like something new under the sun when they appeared, seemed experimental briefly, but then they became literature, they each became what we recognized as a main stream of the literary. But that mechanical erasure of Jane Austen? That’s experimental. Nobody will ever do that again.
In my novel Born Slippy, which I finally stopped failing to write, I use a few things that might have seemed experimental back in the day—including, for instance, inserting phrases from my 20 favorite books, salting them through the text. This may have at one time seemed experimental, but this kind of referentiality—especially the way I do it, which is to make them as invisible as possible—hardly qualifies as an experiment these days. Born Slippy may be a success as a novel or a failure, but not because it incorporates various little tricks of the experimentalists of yesteryear….
4) Find the comedy
Gilbert Sorrentino, who was avowedly experimental, appended letters of rejection from 30 publishers to the opening of his best novel, Mulligan Stew. It is a novel about novelistic failure, prefaced by the novel’s own long career failing to get published. This Sorrentino thinks is the essence of artistic activity. He agreed with Donald Barthelme, who said it was the function of an artist is to fail.
He is, of course, right. No artist ever conceptualizes his vision and he knows that this fact as he begins the process of conceptualization, since the vision that serves as the impetus of the work is changed, reformed, corrupted, dissolved, and so on in the act of making the work…. So all is really a drive against an ideal, and the artist knows this as it occurs—he fails as he works and the failure is apparent to him.
He is, of course, right. We never quite get where we thought we were going. I tend to think of what happens as a series of accidents and edits rather than failures, but maybe that is so I can carry on.
Critic David Andrews wrote of Sorrentino in 2001—at which point Sorrentino was teaching at Stanford, where I met him—that there was “no other living American writer who can match his achievement,” yet “Sorrentino continues to have trouble publishing his work, and it is an almost trite sad-but-truism that his reputation remains smaller than his accomplishments would dictate.” Was he a failure? Of course not! Did he feel like one? Sometimes, yes. I think we all do. Did he turn it into one of the great comic novels? Yes. Did he adorn that novel with a parade of the funniest rejection letters? Yes.
5) Ignore it
There is only one part of the writing life that makes you immune from failure. It’s writing. While I was writing Born Slippy there were days when I would pick my laptop up while still in bed and spend the day in a manic flurry of fingers on my keyboard, laughing at the hilarious sociopath at the heart of the novel, completely engrossed in the flow of it, racking up 7,000-word days, 8,000-word days. No fear of failure could reach me in those hours. And this has always been true. When I am in the throes of writing, no fear, no doubt can assail my pure, rapt, enthralled absorption. Truman Capote said that, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor,” but it isn’t success that is the opposite of failure for a writer. The opposite of failure is not success, it is process. The opposite of failure is writing, itself.
In that Guardian piece I started with, Anne Enright also says: “I have no problem with failure—it is success that makes me sad. ….. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results.” And I think that is true for most of us. “In the long run we’re all dead,” she concludes, “and none of us is Proust.” Or Melville.
But what pleasure it is to have a good day at the keyboard.
Tom Lutz is the author of several books, including And the Monkey Learned Nothing (2016), Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World (2017) and Crying (2001). His work has been translated into a dozen languages and named amongst the New York Times‘ Notable Books. His book Doing Nothing (2007) won the American Book Award. He is the founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Born Slippy is his first novel. Visit his website, or connect with him on Twitter or Instagram.