This lovely brown book presents insights into 52 literary failures: histories of unread, unpublished, unfinished and sometimes unwritten great works, collected by C D Rose and retold with both care and wit. Every single one made me laugh, and I don’t just mean with schadenfreude or a dry resigned croak at the common fate of so many writers. As unlikely as it sounds, I found this book immensely cheering. This I put down to the treatment of this delicate subject by C D Rose, who is interviewed below.
Z: Writers often shy away from looking closely at other failed writers, perhaps for fear of infection. What made you dig so deep into this world? Was it one literary failure in particular or a general fascination?
C: I should say that I have been driven to write by an unnameable internal compulsion, a desire to translate into words that which I have seen, felt, or thought. I should say that I have an innate desire to tell stories, to captivate, enthral or thrill. And yet, I have to admit that one of the things that attracted me to being a writer was a description I once read of a day in the life of Ian Fleming: an early rise followed by a swim in Oracabessa Bay, a large cup of strong Blue Mountain coffee, a cigarette, a plate of lightly scrambled eggs perhaps, then two to three hours of writing before having a pre-lunch cocktail. Going to lunch with friends, then returning for a nap before spending another hour or two editing that morning’s work, then dressing for dinner…This, I thought, this would be the life for me (though, needless to say, it has never yet happened.) But taken from a biographical point of view – what boredom! Fleming had lived enough life to draw on to make his stories interesting, but who would want to read endless pages describing a life like that? There are, of course, the successful failures, Hemingway for example, or Dostoevsky, but their stories have been well and often told.
Failure, I believed, could not infect me, as I had so far managed to fail perfectly well all by myself, so the chance encounter with a few unfinished, tantalising stories – perhaps inevitably – drew me in. Fearing I could fail no more myself, I would gladly join their ranks.
There’s something somebody once said about not staring into the abyss for too long, for fear it should stare back into you. I was happy not to stare, but to jump.
Z: Another common characteristic of writers is a tendency for self-sabotage when success becomes an actual possibility. How do the writers you have uncovered fit into this pattern, if at all?
C: I don’t believe any of the writers in the book ever consciously self-sabotaged, but there again, who does? Ellery Fortescue who spent her writing life in bed, Stanhope Barnes who left his work on a railway station, Kevin Stapleton, the travel writer who developed an acute case of agoraphobia, Ernst Bellmer, who couldn’t help eating what he had written or Chad Sheehan, who has begun many promising works, but has been unable to get past the first line, may all seem to be indicative of this strange psychological block.
Works of art, it has been said, are never finished, only abandoned. Perhaps it is not success that writers fear, but completion.
Z: It strikes me that a complete dictionary of failed writers would be an awful lot bigger than a dictionary of all successful ones. Given the sheer number of unpublished writers and unfinished manuscripts, indeed unwritten works, out there, how did you decide when to stop this research?
C: It was tied to time. I had a year to tell these stories. One a week, for twelve months. I knew fifty-two had to be the limit. There are indeed many others out there, some of whom we nod to in the BDLF, but without a strict limit I would have gone madder than I already am.
Z: One curiously consistent detail in many of the entries is the brand of typewriter the author used. How were you able to ascertain this kind of information? Has it inspired you to avoid typewriters for fear of failure?
C: Writers are superstitious creatures. We have heard of some writers who will wear only yellow socks, others who will not change their underpants for the entire duration of a writing project, still others who swear that if they do not spend at least an hour drinking tea and checking their Twitter feed before starting work they will produce nothing of worth. Typewriters, in their (approximate) hundred year tyranny over the writer became a strange talisman. (I, for example, have recently had to acquire a new laptop, and have not yet written a word on it because the keyboard is, well, just, off somehow.)
For a period, during the writing of the BDLF, I started to collect typewriters, finding them among the many abandoned dwellings and remote junkshops that were our research libraries, and wanting to give them a home. Then I realised they were staring at me threateningly, their empty barrels a complaint against the very writers who had once loved them so. I had to move out, and left them all in the house I, too, abandoned.
Z: Through the successful publication of this book, the exposure you’ve given to some of the writers in it may result in a renewed interest in their work – perhaps even some new work or completion of work in progress. Would you then feel compelled to create a second edition omitting the writers that had become a success since the first publication of BDLF?
C: It would certainly be rewarding to see Otha Orkkut’s work finally translated, or Veronica Vass’ deciphered, or to read a reprint of Lysva Vilikhe’s Guide for the Curious Traveller. However, we feel – and not without regret – that this is unlikely.
Z: If you could choose how to fail (if you had not already been a success), which of the methods in BDLF would you choose?
C: I have already tried several of the methods described, none of which I found satisfactory. That which remains most tempting is the route of Wilson Young, who has never stopped travelling, and knows he cannot begin a story until his journey is complete.
Z: A certain Squattrinato has contributed several unreliable testimonies to your dictionary. How did you come to meet him and acquire these? Is he also a literary failure?
C: Ach, Squattrinato. I did realise that the publication of this volume may bring him a degree of exposure, but could not in good faith ignore his contributions (however dubious). I don’t want to go on about Squattrinato, as any more mentions of his name will only serve to further inflate his already over-inflated ego. Suffice to say that I met him during my sojourn in Italy, under circumstances best left obscure.
Z: I hope this volume inspires other dictionaries of failure – scientific, inventive, other kinds of artistic perhaps. What is next for you in your research? Can we look forward to further investigations into obscurity or are you going to risk it with some fiction of you own?
C: The best fiction often is an investigation into obscurity. A journey into the darkness, an attempt to set the darkness echoing. Fact? Fiction? Art or science? History or literature? True or false? Who can say what is true and what isn’t? Can you?
Thank you, C D Rose, for this insight into the marvellous Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure.
The book is available here. If you like stories and things that make you laugh, or if you know someone else who does, I strongly advise you to buy it.