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Want to be a writer? This bleak but buoyant guide says to get used to rejection


"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, in air clear from the fumes of pompous incense." 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 Thomas 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 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. His 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 condition: Submission. Writers live in a state of submission."

Marche, by most measures a "successful" writer, shares that he "kept a scrupulous account of [his] own rejections until [he] reached the two thousand 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, and eventually the pile rose to four feet, around six hundred 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 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 eighteen calls before finding someone willing to talk with him or her. And that's for s*** 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 Marsh 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.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.