Since I decided to write the Great Jewish American Novel, my imagination has been perky and optimistic. Despite the fact that I contribute to it sporadically, my ego has swelled, envisioning swift and eager acceptance by a somewhat established publishing house, glowing reviews (with the occasional glower from closet anti-Semites), resulting in a hearty best-seller. Not akin to The Da Vinci Code—I am reasonable—but I will receive a check with a couple of zeros, at least.
But my cocky self-assurance began to slide backward into the realm of reality after Sporadic Intelligence encouraged me to send a piece to Mishpacha Magazine (I only know how to write about Jews), and I had been greeted with steadfast silence. (No worries, SI, I'm glad that I did.)
Now the question: If they failed to recognize my genius, then why should anyone else?
With another kick in the kidneys, enter "Failure Is Our Muse," by Stephen Marche. Example followed by example of great writers who died penniless and hungry, of great classics that were gobbled up only for the benefit of the estate, the grand composers of language dying while wallowing in their own unpaid bills and squalor.
Failure is big right now — a subject of commencement speeches and business conferences like FailCon, at which triumphant entrepreneurs detail all their ideas that went bust. But businessmen are only amateurs at failure, just getting used to the notion. Writers are the real professionals.
Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.
This news is quite disconcerting, especially since I consider myself more pragmatic capitalist as opposed to starving artist. I don't like to expend copious amounts of energy for naught. Only recently I broke myself of the sedentary habit of only tackling a flight of steps unless there is more than one task at the top that requires doing.
Writers don’t fail like ordinary people. They fail in their bones. They fail even when they triumph. Bernard Malamud took the 1959 National Book Award for his short story collection “The Magic Barrel”; he left the check on the dais, and when he arrived at the dinner in his honor, the organizers had forgotten to set a place for him.
Ouch. I gotta say, I don't have that much tolerance for belittlement.
Marche concludes with the blah blah blah of don't stop trying:
If there are to be any claims to greatness, they are to be found only in the scope of the failure and persistence in the face of it. That persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity. To keep going, despite everything. To keep bellying up to the cosmic irrelevance. To keep failing.
Well. It would appear I have found humility before I have even begun.