Reviewed by Nick Havey
On Writing and Failure
by Stephen Marche
February 2023, Paperback, 128 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1771965163
Last year I was on the academic job market, peddling my wares (my research and sample syllabi) at colleges and universities across the country. Before I even began to apply, I sat down in the offices of the tenured, established faculty members I respected and trusted for their advice. In most of these meetings, I received advice, sure, but I also heard long-winded tales about surfing, golf, and choosing the right church. Or synagogue. Or squash club. Were these stories what I asked for when I sat down and pointed to the first bullet on the agenda I had sent over in advance? Certainly not. But they were ultimately useful, colorful packaging for the snippets of advice that lay at their core. Reading Stephen Marche’s On Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer felt a lot like those conversations.
The jacket copy describes On Writing and Failure as ‘less a guide to writing and more a guide to what you need to continue existing as a writer.’ This astute synopsis, courtesy of the team at Marche’s publisher, is accurate: On Writing and Failure is less about writing and more about perseverance. Reading it reminded me of all the things I thought impossible before I tried them and now find impossible to live without. Writing is one of those things.
Marche, a novelist, essayist, and teacher of writing, begins with the sort of line of rhetorical questioning anyone who has ever gone to a professor’s office hours would find comforting in its slight, albeit fair, condescension. ‘Is it ever easier,’ Marche describes a ‘kid writer’ asking him. ‘Do you ever grow a thicker skin?’
Yes and no, he replies, before chronologizing his thoughts on failure and his belief that writing is, at its cores, defined by the failures a writer must endure to continue to call themselves a writer. The advice that follows, wrapped in the seemingly tangential stories Marche uses as conversational punctuation, could be construed as pedantic. Condescending. Belittling. But the tone is what makes the advice useful: Marche isn’t simply providing advice that worked in the 80s and is now so utterly devoid of practical meaning it’s useless, he’s rationalizing that advice to apply to nearly every topic, writing included, by shooting straight.
“You think it should be easy to sell your feelings? You want to be congratulated for it? You want them to throw you a big party?” It shouldn’t, he explains. You won’t be, he reminds. And you simply can’t expect to be celebrated for the fundamental act that is writing. You have to have a reason to write, and be aware of the reality that rejection is a core part of the writer’s experience.
In detailing the rejection of runaway successes like the Twilight series, he reminds readers that the stories meant ‘to be inspiring,’ to serve as ‘a testament to the idiocy of literary gatekeepers,’ are a surprise at all. ‘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 shit people might need, like a vacuum cleaner or a new smartphone. Nobody needs a manuscript.’
And he’s exactly right. Nobody needs a manuscript. Nobody needs a short story. Or a poetry collection. Or the next great American novel. Recounting James Baldwin’s advice in the Paris Review to ‘Write. Find a way to keep alive and write,’ Marche distills the bulk of dozens of pages of wisdom into four words: discipline, love, luck, and endurance. But these can all be distilled to endurance. ‘They’re just motivations for endurance,’ Marche explains. ‘James Baldwin’s writing advice can be summed up in a word: Persevere.’
Perseverance, as the subtitle of the book suggests, is the core of Marche’s philosophy on writing and is the central theme of each anecdote and quote from the page, stage, and screen he peppers into the book. Quoting Rear Window, Grace Kelly asks ‘Where does a man get inspiration to write a song like that?’ Jimmy Stewart responds. ‘He gets it from his landlady once a month.’ ‘The very best reason to keep throwing yourself against the door is because you have to,’ Marche reminds the reader, even if that reason is that the rent is due, though Marche is steadfast in his advice that there are much better ways to make money than writing.
Other nuggets of wisdom are applicable to writing and other pursuits, such as the idea that ‘so much has been written in the spirit of ‘I’m going to show those motherfuckers.’’ I’ve certainly done, and written, a lot in that spirit. But ‘those motherfuckers’ have rarely had their noses pressed into my work, and they probably won’t be forced to consume yours, Marche explains, so it’s best if you’re mostly working to show the motherfucker that actually will: yourself.
But maybe I’m reading Marche’s work all wrong. After all, he explains, ‘in the best work, the intentions of the author fall away, leaving an open field for readers to play in, and they create meanings that may have nothing to do with the author’s.’ Maybe the beautiful field I’ve been playing in since finishing On Writing and Failure is completely outside of Marche’s intended design. Maybe it’s not. But it’s certainly beautiful.
Marche closes On Writing and Failure with a brief story called “The Grand Hotel”. “The Grand Hotel” is exactly as it sounds: a monumental, wondrous space. Something grand to explore, full of rooms and courtyards and hallways to traipse through, to spend time in. But it is not open to all. The boy at the center of “The Grand Hotel” makes his own way into it, calmly observing and scheming until he’s in. ‘The fact that a door was closed to him was enough that he had to see it open,’ Marche says, ‘And once a door opened, he forgot it had ever been closed.’ If writing is “The Grand Hotel”, On Writing and Failure might just be a key.
About the reviewer: Nick Havey is a Senior Manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all, but particularly queer, fiction. Nick’s other reviews of fiction are featured in Lambda Literary, forthcoming in the Washington Independent Review of Books, and his reviews of academic work appear in a number of peer-reviewed journals.