The Fine Art of Failure

Rejection, not acceptance, defines writing life.

An illustration of a typewriter, the surface of which is transforming into a crumpled piece of paper
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

English has provided a precise term of art to describe the writerly condition: submission. Writers live in a state of submission. Submission means rejection. Rejection is the condition of the practice of submission, which is the practice of writing. Rejection, not acceptance, is what defines the life of a writer.

And rejection has never been easier. Digital technology has allowed people to be rejected at exponentially higher rates. I’ve known writers who used to submit, literally, the manuscript of a work. It might loiter for six months in some publisher’s office before being returned by way of a self-addressed stamped envelope. Under the conditions of print, a dozen failures a year were difficult to accumulate. Today, if you work at it, you can fail a dozen times before lunch.

I kept a scrupulous account of my rejections until I reached the 2,000 mark. That was in my late 20s. Last week, I was rejected seven times. I had to go back and check. I don’t notice rejection much anymore.

Many writers don’t talk about their rejections, even among themselves. I’ve been lucky enough to know some of the most successful writers of my generation, men and women who have won all the prizes, who have received all the accolades, who have achieved fame insofar as writerly fame exists. The wins don’t seem to make much difference: They don’t protect them from the sense that they’ve been misunderstood, that the world doesn’t recognize who they are. If you’re a writer who’s just starting out, you must think either I’m lying or they’re crazy. All I can tell you is that I’m not lying.

The psychology of failure and success can work the other way too. I once knew a professor who published a single letter in The Times Literary Supplement. He constantly brought it up. He had it framed, hung on his wall. On the basis of that letter, he considered himself a major intellectual, part of “the larger conversation.” And who’s to say he’s wrong? Maybe the works of Jonathan Franzen will slowly disappear and future scholars will discover and celebrate “the TLS letter.”

Writing without perseverance does exist, although it’s rare and such is the nature of the enterprise that to write without perseverance requires its own kind of perseverance. “Celebrity, even the modest sort that comes to writers, is an unhelpful exercise in self-consciousness,” John Updike wrote. “One can either see or be seen. Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer became conscious of himself as a writer … The ‘successful’ writer acquires a film over his eyes. His eyes get fat.” Add another contradiction to the business of writing: Success destroys what gives success. Without struggle, there is the struggle of no struggle.

In the United States, after the Second World War, there was a strange phenomenon of career-ending literary triumph. After Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison became more than a writer; he was a sort of fusion of political and artistic achievement for whom mere composition of manuscripts may have seemed like some quaint old-world ritual. Success silenced him. He left behind, from the second half of his life, only some loose notes that editors have struggled to turn into a cohesive work.

Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer, finished his masterpiece, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” in 1964. He went into the office regularly for the next 32 years and contributed not one word to the magazine. His colleague Calvin Trillin remembered hearing that Mitchell had lived “writing away at a normal pace until some professor called him the greatest living master of the English declarative sentence and stopped him cold.”

Some of the most successful writers develop a nostalgie de la boue, a craving for the gutter. Alex Haley, the author of Roots, lived the standard life of total rejection for many years. He remembered the phrasing of one rejection note from Reader’s Digest: “Dear Mr. Haley: We’re sorry, but this does not quite jell for us.” Years later, after Roots was published, Haley found himself on the Readers Digest corporate jet. “I walked up the runway into the plane, and I looked around at seats for about 14 people, but there was nobody but me. One of the men came up and said, ‘Sir, if you’d like, there’s scotch, bourbon, cigars, cigarettes,’ and there was everything. There was a silver tray with all kinds of little sandwiches cut in circles, diamonds, and everything.” What did he contemplate at this moment of personal victory? “I remembered those rejection slips and what they said. And the thought just came to me: ‘Well, I guess it finally jelled.’” Even in the face of massive success, a little part, maybe a big part, maybe the biggest part of the writer’s heart dwells in failure.

All creative careers demand persistence, because all creative careers require luck. In 2015, at a South by Southwest session, casting directors from Fox, Paramount, and Disney estimated that the talent of any actor accounted for about 7 percent of the reason they were cast in any given role. Age and ethnicity and “box office value in China” all have their say. An actor’s success is related only incidentally to talent or effort. Painters and sculptors and designers and dancers and musicians all create under the same capriciousness of fortune. Even so, the life of a writer demands a peculiar persistence. Writers make meaning. They trade, equally, in illusion and disillusion. To live in the quaking of meaning is to shudder from your feet up.

Occasionally, I will meet with a younger writer who has confused me with somebody to be envied. They want to know what it’s like to write professionally. My good news is the same as my bad news: 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 the biggest writers. The difference is one of scale, not of kind or quality. This is hard to explain to younger writers. The problem is probably not that they’re being rejected too much but that they’re being rejected too little. Most people tell you to develop calluses. It’s not enough—you have to relish the rejection. Rejection is the evidence of your hustle. Rejection is the sign that you are throwing yourself against the door.

This article was adapted from the book On Writing and Failure: Or, on the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer, by Stephen Marche.

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