Big Free Libraries

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My struggle is yours: why failure is the new literary success

Alexandra Smith, University of Sydney

What happens when novelists actively incorporate the idea of failure in their books?

We generally understand failure as a negative attribute, particularly when looking at politics, the economy – and, yes, art. As individuals, we are driven by thoughts of success and achievement, so it makes sense that failure might make us feel slightly uneasy.

Turning that unease into something aesthetically pleasing is no mean feat, and yet, that’s where we are with the work of several well-known contemporary authors.

Failing to speak

In 2007, British novelist Tom McCarthy, with philosopher Simon Critchley, issued what they called a Joint Statement of Inauthenticity, in which they argued that:

the essence of poetry is […] of trying (and failing) to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing.

While this might not seem to relate to the novel, what they were setting up there was a relationship between “trying to speak” and “failing to speak”.

One of the pervading motifs in McCarthy’s novels is an emphasis on some form of failure. In his first novel, Remainder (2005), the narrator tries, and fails, to reenact a moment of perfection.

In Men in Space (2007), McCarthy’s character Ivan Manasek forges a stolen Byzantine painting in an attempt to perfectly recreate the original object. In McCarthy’s most recent novel, Satin Island (2015), the narrator, U, is tasked with writing The Great Report of our age.

Long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, this novel is, at its core, about the failure to write. The Great Report’s essential function is one of identification, one that “name[s] what’s taking place right now”.

U’s boss, Peyman, asks him to “[s]peak its secret name”. For U, this is rather like trying to name “Rumpelstilskin”, but it seems that McCarthy is directly engaging with the enduring aim of poetry to “speak to the thing”, even if he fails.

Trying and struggling

We don’t always feel pleased with artistic expressions of failure. In an article in June for the London Review of Books, American poet and novelist Ben Lerner suggested that the reason that we might “dislike or despise or hate poems” is because, in some way, “they are – every single one of them – failures”.

In Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the narrator, Adam, is obsessed with artistic and linguistic failures because they allow him to experience an almost transcendent ambiguity. While in 10:04 (2014), the narrator, Ben, often addresses the second person – “You have failed to reconcile the realism of my body with the ethereality of the trees” – despite never being heard.

For Lerner, the “you” occupies “a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed” – or, in other words, an audience that he will always fail to reach.

But it is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part literary project, My Struggle, that is perhaps the most overt example of such an attention to failure. It offers a prosaic, not poetic, assessment of failure.

Indeed, it is a project that strives deliberately towards constructing “real” experience. In framing the work as a novel, Knausgaard has claimed that he was able to “use [him]self as a kind of raw material,” enacting “an existential search” of the self.

The “struggle” suggested in the title references, in part, the struggle to write without shame to create something of value.

An Eastern perspective

Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His most recent novel, Seiobo There Below (2013), introduces the reader to failure in slightly different terms, through the aesthetic of wabi-sabi.

Rooted in ancient Japanese tea ceremonies from the 15th century, wabi-sabi recognises beauty in imperfection, impermanence, and incompletion. To a Western eye, beauty is often equated with perfection, but for Krasznahorkai, fleeting moments are established as beautiful even if they go on to decay.

The novel’s first vignette describes the magnificent beauty of a white heron hunting, in contrast to industrial Kyoto.

But it is wabi-sabi’s focus on “the now” that makes it interesting when thinking about contemporary writing. What might be expected from a novel that reflects on its own inability to say things successfully? Or, more pressingly, that constructs failure as an aesthetically-pleasing subject?

By focusing on failure, contemporary novelists might find they can wield surprisingly equal critical, ethical, political, and aesthetic power.

Perhaps failure is not so bad after all.

The Conversation

Alexandra Smith is Sessional Lecturer and Tutor in English Literature and Rhetoric at University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The evolution of female pen-names from Currer Bell to J.K. Rowling

Michelle Smith, Deakin University

Last month author Catherine Nichols went public with her account of sending her novel manuscript to literary agents under a male pseudonym. A writing sample sent to 50 agents in her own name resulted in only two manuscript requests. Seventeen out of 50 agents requested the same materials from “George Leyer”.

Were the agents exhibiting a subconscious gender bias that assumes the superiority of male authors? Or were they responding to the practicalities of a reviewing culture and audience that can overlook or even reject women’s literature?

Women’s fiction is reviewed less often than men’s in major publications. Even though women buy two thirds of all books sold in the UK, they are much less likely to be reviewing books in male-dominated literary magazines.

And some audiences, such as young boys, are presumed to be entirely unwilling to read books written by women. J.K. Rowling’s publisher felt that an obviously female name like “Joanne” would dissuade boys from reading the debut Harry Potter novel.

The unpublished Rowling was simply happy to be published and said in an interview that “they could have called me Enid Snodgrass”. But Enid Snodgrass would have had the same sales handicap as Joanne Rowling—a woman’s name.

Most discussions of contemporary women writers who have adopted male pseudonyms or initials to mask their sex draw connections between these writers and a long line of literary women, such as the Brontë sisters and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), who have published under assumed names.

What is less recognised is that the cultural reasons behind women writers concealing their names have shifted dramatically since the nineteenth century.

Today female names vanish to avoid industry and reader perceptions of what women’s fiction is like. Historically, in the British tradition, female names were hidden because of the perceived inappropriateness of women writing novels.
To understand this difference, it is important to know that the very act of reading novels was heavily policed for girls and women in the nineteenth century.

In The Woman Reader, Kate Flint shows how girls’ and women’s reading, especially of material deemed frivolous or escapist, was a subject of great public concern and debate. Any novel reading that might detract from a woman’s role as a wife and mother within the home was perceived as a threat to the very foundation of society.

Likewise, women authors challenged expectations of women’s domestic and maternal roles. Budding writer Charlotte Brontë received the following comments in a discouraging letter from English poet laureate Robert Southey in 1837:

Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.

Jane Austen published her first novel in 1811. The four novels that were published during her lifetime appeared anonymously, as were those of many early women writers. Although women who wrote educative or didactic fiction, such as Maria Edgeworth, or less respected genres such as the Gothic romance, as in the case of Ann Radcliffe, were not similarly compelled to hide their gender or identity.

From the twentieth century onwards, women novelists’ use of pseudonyms seems to have acquired a more focused purpose: to avoid pre-judgement of women’s fiction as inferior. V.S. Naipaul has embarrassingly said that no woman writer is his equal and that “within a paragraph or two” he knows whether a work “is by a woman or not”.

Naipaul might have found a friend in Henry Lawson. Lawson read Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career in manuscript form and wrote to Franklin eagerly: “Will you write and tell me what you really are? Man or woman?” When the novel was published in 1901, in his preface Lawson rewrites history: “I hadn’t read three pages when I saw what you will no doubt see at once — that the story had been written by a girl”.

The most enduring fictions of literary history hold that a woman writer’s voice is readily detectable and less perceptive and sophisticated than a man’s. These ideas buttress more recent views about narratives by women about girls’ and women being of interest to female readers only.

The use of a male pseudonym or ambiguous initials removes the gender prejudiced lens through which much women’s fiction is viewed. Yet it does not help to transform that prejudice as it is exhibited in literary magazines and reader “preferences” in certain genres of fiction.

As the majority of books are read by women, there must be a way for us to influence the publishing industry and reviewing practices that shape literary culture.

The Conversation

Michelle Smith is Research fellow in English Literature at Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Not My Review: Loved Walked Among Us – Learning to Love Like Jesus, by Paul E. Miller

The link below is to a book review of ‘Love Walked Among Us – Learning to Love Like Jesus,’ by Paul E. Miller.

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Not My Review: Preaching – Communicating Faith In An Age Of Skepticism, by Tim Keller

The link below is to a book review of ‘Preaching – Communicating Faith In An Age Of Skepticism,’ by Tim Keller.

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