By Eric Olsen
You may recall a recent post about 20 depressing reads, the idea being that nothing lifts the spirits quite like reading about someone else’s misery. Martin Chilton, the British chap who compiled the list of depressing reads, describes the books on his list as “…a sort of literary electric shock treatment. You think your life is bad? Try 400 volts of pure Thomas Hardy and count your blessings that you’re not Jude The Obscure.”
All the books on Chilton’s list are novels, all of them written decades ago. Titles on his list range from Hardy’s Jude to Kafka’s The Trial. But now it appears that the really hot ticket these days in depressing reads is not the depressing novel, but rather the depressing memoir. Check out the March 25 issue of The New Yorker and an article by Giles Harvey titled “Cry Me a River: The Rise of the Failure Memoir” (Note: you have to be a subscriber to access the full article online). It’s about a number of memoirs written by failed writers about being failed writers. “The formula is simple,” Harvey writes in his opening, “when all else fails, write about your failure.”
Harvey opens his essay with a discussion of Too Good to Be True, a memoir by Benjamin Anastas (published originally by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, reissued last year by New Harvest, an Amazon imprint). Anastas, Harvey tells us, published two novels to critical acclaim, but neither sold, so naturally the guy sank into a funk — what writer wouldn’t — and cheated on his fiancée (of course), but they got married anyway, and then his wife dumped him for another guy while six months pregnant. Anastas was finally reduced to teaching creative writing classes — the horror! — and did some journalism, and wrote an inspirational self-help book for a “Christian oilman.” And soon he was broke.
The problem here is that Anastas’ memoir more or less describes the career trajectory of nearly all writers. As Harvey tells us, “most literary careers end ingloriously. Most of them, in fact, end before they’ve even begun, with the failure to complete what John Updike said should be the primary goal of any writer: getting into print.” So what’s the big deal?
Other titles mentioned in Harvey’s essay include:
Greg Baxter, A Preparation for Death (Penguin Ireland, 2011).
Josh Gidding, Failure: An Autobiography (Cyan Communications, 2007).
David Goodwillie, Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time (Algonquin Books, 2006).
Tom Grimes, Mentor: A Memoir (Tin House Books, 2010).
David Shields, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (Univeristy of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and How Literature Saved My Life (Knopf, 2013).
Toby Young, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (Da Capo Press, 2008).
Note that this is, as Harvey puts it, “a conspicuously male genre.” Women writers may fail as much as the guys, but for whatever reasons, they don’t seem inclined to spend a lot of time whining about it.
Harvey doesn’t have much that’s kind to say about any of the books he mentions, which of course is why I found the essay so much fun to read. Anastas, Harvey tells us, writes that he doesn’t have the time “to disguise this story for the sake of art.” This seems to be a common feature of all the failure memoirs that Harvey writes about, which tend to be less expressions of the author’s abilities than the “widespread belief that candor will do the work of talent.”
Of Baxter’s book, Harvey writes, “there is much to dislike… the see-what-sticks prose, the antisocial ranting, the whirlwind of narcissism and consumption that is our narrator—but it does one thing very well: it captures the wild presumptuousness of literary ambition.”
And of Shields, Harvey writes that “How Literature Saved My Life seems to take its commitment to what Shields calls ‘reality-based’ writing as license for a kind of slack personal chit-chat.”
Harvey wonders if the “epidemic of novelists’ failure memoirs” doesn’t reflect a “failure of confidence in the novel itself. Hardly a week goes by without somebody, often one of the most eminent practitioners, disparaging the form.” Perhaps, Harvey writes, “the rise of the failure memoir is the result less of an aesthetic disenchantment with the novel form than of something more mundane. Failure is timeless, but for writers there’s now more of it to go around….”
But, Harvey adds, “for the novelist, the memoir form itself represents a kind of failure.”
Harvey concludes his essay with a look at some failure memoirs by writers who managed not to replace craft with candor. These include:
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (New Directions, reprint edition, 2009).
Norman Mailer, The Deer Park (Vintage, 1997).
Philip Roth, The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (Vintage, 1997).
Check ’em out.
What successful failure stories have you read? Better yet, what disastrous tales of woe, bereft of redeeming qualities?