Indeed, this is the (unexpected) discovery I have made. It is that having been holding out against failure for a long time, having been committing to hope, trying to make the writing better and so on, it is rather liberating to let all that go. I’m never going to win a Clarke, never going to get shortlisted for a Hugo, never going to get an American deal, and it’s …. relieving, actually. The emotion is a largely positive one, muddied if at all only by a slight sense of embarrassment that I ever thought those things in the first place. Indeed, given our culture’s toxic Trumpoid obsession with winning, winning and winning again, with winning so much we get tired with winning, there may even be a principled merit in failing, provided only we accept the failure as our own, and don’t try to shuffle off responsibility onto others.
2016: the Story So Far. I’ve been thinking a lot about this post by my friend Adam Roberts, whose language of failure (as you’ll see if you read the whole post, and you should) concerns his most recent novel, The Thing Itself. I’ve wanted to respond, but I haven’t been sure quite how — Adam’s post touches on so many issues that seem vital to me. Still, let me leap in and flail about as best I can.
I began an article I published last year by talking about Frederick Buechner’s status as a rock star among Christian readers of literature. I’ve seen 1500 people pack into Pierce Chapel at Wheaton College to hear him read, and a more rapt audience you couldn’t imagine. Yet it was around the time of that reading that Fred changed publishers from Atheneum, a very classy house that had done his books for many years, to Harper, and when I asked him why he had done that he told me, “Atheneum expects my novels to sell 8,000 copies each and that’s precisely what they do.” But I don’t think his books with Harper did any better. And yet on 8,000 copies per book a writer can become an absolute rock star — at least among a certain subset of that fictional entity The Reading Public.
All of which is to say that literary success and failure are elusive concepts. Sales and awards are two ways to measure success or the lack thereof; but there are many others that are equally valid, and some of the criteria can’t be applied immediately. I’ve read The Thing Itself three times now, each time with more admiration and emotional investment, and there is much in it that I still haven’t grasped. (When Adam and Francis Spufford and Rowan Williams and I were discussing the book in Cambridge a few months ago, Adam briefly mentioned the ways the structure of the book echoes that of the Aeneid, and I am certain that I never would have realized that had he not mentioned it — and yet now that I know it I have a better understanding of the book. I feel like Stuart Gilbert being told by Joyce how Ulysses is organized. Except Adam told the whole room rather than just me.)
I simply don’t believe that a book so ambitious is likely to find its place in the world immediately. Milton famously spoke of writing for “fit audience though few” and for a long time “few” was what he got. The most highly-regarded English poet in Milton’s lifetime was Abraham Cowley, and if you’re wondering who that is, you have just grasped my point. It is of course difficult to sustain yourself as a writer on the hopes of future generations realizing your greatness long after you’re a-moldering in the grave, and probably only the deeply narcissistic can manage it; but it’s a factor, you know? Something to consider, especially if you’re as good a writer as Adam. The story of the reception of The Thing Itself is not over; it has scarcely begun.
In one sense I’m all for letting go of hope, as Adam says he has: not only am I in favor of it, I’ve done it myself! I have long realized that if I’m granted a normal lifespan I’ll outlive all my writings, and while I sometimes cast around in my mind for ways to increase my readership, basically I write for two reasons: to scratch itches, and to provide extra income for my family. But I’m no Adam Roberts, and while I perfectly understand why he might want to take a vacation from the demands that a really ambitious book project places on him, I hope at some point in the near future some such itch will afflict him, and in flagrant disregard of all the world’s award voters he’ll sit down and write a big crazy book that will move me to laughter and tears and thought and envy and admiration. Again.