Saturday, June 23, 2007

When A Good Book Ends I Die A Little - Failure

I would be a fool and in the wrong business if reading books didn't excite me, but sometimes it goes a bit too far.

I have recently read two books that were so great I almost wish I hadn't read them. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano and David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero. Both left me feeling down for days because they were over. I've read them now. It's not the same reading a book the second time, in fact I hardly ever do it.

Finishing The Savage Detectives would have been far far worse had I not had Tokyo Year Zero to follow. There was something about that book that really resonated. Probably all to do with the inherent failure involved in writing. Try as you might, the words are never quite able to convey the feeling - believe me I've tried. (Ten years writing the same novel four times and it was still bad!) The obscure poet the poet heroes of the Savage Detectives are looking for remains mysterious. The only poem of hers they ever see contains no words, only abstract symbols. There is something achingly sad (I think) about writing and the literary world in general. If there is anything concrete to be gained from reading it is often hard to measure, let alone grasp hold of.

David Peace seems to be interested in failure as well. GB84 was all about the miners strike - the tipping point in the recent failure of the left. The Damned Utd examines the only period in Brian Clough's life when he failed - his time managing Leeds Utd. Tokyo is set in a recently defeated Japan and explores some of the psychosis such a massive defeat unleashed amongst the survivors. Even the Red Riding Quartet could be seen in terms of failure - the police took a very long time to catch the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe. Then there is that famous Beckett quote, a favourite with Zadie Smith - "Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better."

There is something undoubtedly heroic about failure. Supporting Fulham is one way to become acquainted with the positive aspects of failure. Trying to write a novel is another.

At any rate, failure is an interesting subject I think.

What really matters about failure is what you do after.

I used to stay awake at night worrying the shop would fail, after all that's what everyone seemed to expect when we opened. Now I sleep soundly (or at least the things that wake me tend to be small boy shaped rather than book shaped) for a couple of reasons. The first is that the shop is doing well and we are succeeding. The second is that having stuck our necks out and gone for it I now see that failure is impossible if you refuse to fail.

As Beckett says on another occasion:

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

I will finish that novel one day!


  1. Well, Bill Gates famously said "Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.".

    Most of life is random (read "Fooled by Randomness" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for a comprehensive discussion on this) and the people who succeed 'throw enough sh*t at the wall' and see what sticks. Success is thus a matter ofa ) being willing to fail, and b) being willing to learn from your failures, and making less of them.

    At the end of his book "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations", having given a masterful and succinct history of the world's economic systems, David Landes essentially says that - looking back over the whole course of human history - the only 'success tip' for economic success is to keep trying.

    (You wouldn't guess I'm working on our accounts today, would you!)

  2. I think that only in the simplest cases is success/failure a binary value like true/false. Most of the things we try to do in life are far too complex for such a simplistic evaluation. In fact, I sometimes think that success and failure boil down simply to how you look at the story so far.

    Many times in my life I have sought to do something and "failed" but only in the sense that I achieved something different instead. In simple binary terms I "failed" but in life-enhancement terms I ended up better than if I had "succeeded".

    Maybe on the way to writing a novel you encounter experiences and achievements you would otherwise have missed and in that way go beyond a mere literary success.

    Everything is grist to the mill and the trick is in knowing how to use it.