Fail, Fail Again

‘On Writing and Failure’ by Steven Marche feels pretty true

No matter how much I succeed as a writer, I always feel like a failure. And I’m not alone. In fact, I’m every writer. Steven Marche, a Canadian writer who I’m friends with on Facebook but have never met and probably never will, reminds us that nearly every writer shares my feeling of failure, and the reality of actual failure. His mini-book, ‘On Writing and Failure,’ which is almost certain to be a failure even though it is eloquent, darkly funny, and brilliantly crafted, throws literary failure into sharp relief. Here are some choice quotes:

“Rejection never ends. Success is no cure. Success only alters to whom, or what, you may submit. Rejection is the river in which we swim. If you are sending short stories to literary journals, you are engaged in the same activity as Ian McEwan.”


“Trying to find fulfillment in writing is like trying to fly by jumping off a cliff.”

“Nobody needs a manuscript.”

“The world does not particularly like writers. It never has. They celebrate a few, for reasons of their own, but they allow most to rot and die, and for every one they celebrate, they persecute a hundred.”

“You shouldn’t envy any writer, not because it’s bad for your soul but because it’s stupid.”

“Samuel Johnson once said that ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,’ but if you’re looking to make money, there are a hundred thousand better ways to do it than writing.”

And so on, for 85 or so highly literate pages, citing examples from every culture throughout human history. Marche is more or less on my level, success-wise, and not a day goes by where I don’t awake with the thought “is that all there is?” as regards my career. I’ve published 12 books. But if you look at Goodreads–and if you’re a writer of books, you probably do–the most prominent “publication” of mine is an essay in a collection called ‘An Atheist’s Guide To Christmas.’ None of my books created as much hoopla as a memoir I published in 2007 called Alternadad. That book has been out of print for years. And my son, the second protagonist in that book, is now a 20-year-old man who somehow survived repeated attacks on his character on, an evil media entity which is also now defunct.

Last decade, I published five novels with various Amazon genre imprints. When that gravy train ran out, I contributed several pieces to a now-defunct program called “Kindle Worlds.” One of them was a pretty good Kurt Vonnegut homage. The rest were pulp garbage about young-adult or thriller series that I hated. You can find evidence of those on Goodreads, too. But they’re not on Amazon anymore, so did they even exist? Who knows? Who cares?

More people read, by far, my recent review of Creed 3 than have read my last two books combined. And my last two books were at least pretty good, if not better than that. I once had a column in Vanity Fair. I sold a pilot to CBS. Twenty years ago, wrote a piece about me called “Rockin’ With The Greatest Living American Writer.” I was on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. But you’d be hard-pressed to find that out about me now unless I tell you. Which I do, constantly, and yet it all vanishes like this sentence shortly will.

Most writers don’t reach even those heights. In retrospect, the heights weren’t even that high, though I was very high when I reached them. Somehow, Marche’s book gives me comfort. As he says, “the quality of your writing will have very little effect on your career, and yet it is the only thing that matters. If you want to write well, the overwhelming majority of the time you will be doing so for its own sage, with a vague, not particularly sensible hope that it will somehow resonate.” In that, he says, you will place yourself in a long line of writers who died considering themselves failures, including Jane Austen, Herman Melville, John Keats, Ovid, and George Orwell. And those are just the names we know. Imagine how many actual failures line up behind them in history.

The ironic reality is that there has probably never been a better time to be a writer than right now, and things still aren’t that good. With some effort, some talent, and a bit of luck, a dipshit like me can more or less support himself over a 30-year career, producing work that’s legendary in my mind as well as some godawful celebrity profiles, hundreds of uncredited pieces of corporate info-spam, and questionably squidgy things like my column “Bad Sex With Neal Pollack.” Maybe after my death, which hopefully will come soon, something I wrote will survive and become canon for all the right reasons. But probably not.

I will always feel like a failure, especially when I compare myself with other writers who are more successful, and especially when I compare myself with Dave Eggers, who helped birth my career and is so much more successful than me that it’s almost comical. Whenever that thought makes me feel like crap, I have to remember that there are some writers out there, though increasingly fewer, for whom my career or something resembling it is the lodestar. If they want it, they can have it. I will be sending it to Goodwill this week along with about 40 T-shirts that I never wear anymore.

Marche cautions against writers feeling such self-pity more than, say, twice a day. He says, “if you’re writing well and failing and submitting and persevering, there is no more that anyone can ask of you, even yourself.”

However, I can ask that you pick up a copy of Marche’s book. At the moment, it’s the 14,718th bestselling volume on Amazon and has 21 reviews, totaling four stars. That’s better than most, worse than some, quite a bit ahead of my most recent novel, which you should buy as well. Help a couple of midlist strivers feel like a bit less of a failure. It’s a public service.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

3 thoughts on “Fail, Fail Again

  • March 8, 2023 at 1:49 pm

    Such a comical (darkly) and frustrating business. Watching friends of mine get nominated for (and even win!) major genre awards, watching celebrated writers I know from the last twenty years struggle to find someone to publish their work, and yet nothing moves the needle except….I don’t even know. It used to be “movie deals” but that doesn’t have much impact any more. Being famous for something else first seems to be the only surefire way to sell a lot of books.

    What a stupid industry, and a stupid job, writing. One day, I sell two books to France and one goes on to be reviewed in France’s Rolling Stone! But when I ask the French publisher if they’d like to buy more? Dead silence. One day, one of the most successful agents in the country calls (once and then again in six months) and says he’d like to work with me, but he doesn’t call back, and the book I sent him then goes on to be rejected by 80 other agents before I publish it with a small press and sell, oh, about 700 copies.

    And yet, I can’t stop, won’t stop. Got nothing better to do, I guess.

  • March 9, 2023 at 12:21 pm

    Oh, how I sympathise – and what writer who isn’t selling the equivalent to a small country’s GDP wouldn’t? We dream, we write, we edit (endlessly), we agonise over the end result and, like wildebeest rushing across a crocodile-infested (ie: agents, editors, publicists, vanity publishers, etc) river, we submit.
    And we fail, to one degree or another. Perhaps we’re simply a bunch of masochists.
    I did have a thriller optioned in Hollywood years ago. Sadly it never made it to film… but I enjoyed the excitement.
    My excuse for continuing is, after being a full-time freelance writer for 25 years, I’m probably unemployable by anyone who doesn’t want workers with freedom of thought.


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