Literary History’s Best Celebrated Failures

Whether you entertain delusions of grandeur or merely write to justify alcoholism, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure is a book for you.

Q: How does the artist earn a living?

A: Go ask his father.

It has long been accepted that artists are an unhinged lot. Stories abound of the often outlandish means to creativity ranging in severity, from self mutilation to the more socially acceptable avenues of drug and alcohol abuse. The artist is almost expected to be abnormal, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine musicians, poets, and painters throughout the ages using this perceived difference as a form of advertisement. Lady Gaga’s preference for questionable fashion is far from an original statement, and neither does the odd facial hair or bad tats of the hipster mark anything more than a passing acquaintance with some amalgamation of subculture.

It’s questionable whether insanity is a prerequisite for the arts. What’s more likely is that a bit of flamboyance is the natural inclination for those who’ve decided to commit themselves to a life’s work that could be considered uncertain at best. Art as a generic term encompasses nearly any medium of creation used to describe everything from rank imitation to timeless beauty. The improbability of quantifying taste means the term ‘art’ is also one of the most abused in both practice and definition. The “Flower Duet” in Lakmé, Van Gogh’s Water Lillies series, and Orson Welles Citizen Kane are but some examples of expression by yesterday’s raving lunatics which society has empowered through critical endorsement over time.

But of all the mediums, is there any greater example of an eccentric than a writer? Why do we do it? Reading requires the greatest amount of attention from an audience increasingly lacking in just that. Despite Stephen King’s assurances otherwise, the transition to the digital age has cast doubt upon the already precarious issue of payment for the writer, and the ease of modern execution means the market is flooded with potential books, and competition is fierce.

Still, the impetus to write is still very much alive and well in the face of diminishing returns. However, for every commonly recognized, peer respected author, say Haruki Murakami, Michel Houellebecq and Toni Morrison, there are literally thousands of ambitious, talented writers whose work will never be celebrated. The odds are stacked against the writer from the get-go. Most amateurs think publication alone denotes success, but the degrees in the quality of publications vary widely, as does the commitment of their audiences to actually read an entire text. (We’re assuming, of course, that said text is actually worthy of publication.)

We’re all enthralled by the great literary characters of history. Who hasn’t secretly yearned for the fame and fortune enjoyed by Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Twain? Thousands of titles abound for a glimpse into those celebrated lives, but what about the other side of the coin? There is no sweet in this life without bitter, so who’s celebrating the hacks, the almost famous, those that struggle through every dismal work week crafting text that few, if anyone, ever reads? The answer my friend is C. D. Rose, editor of the wonderful recent release, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure.

The humorous and homely Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure details a cross section of those legions that are isolated behind the type writers of yore, and the million unsung geniuses of these times who bathe in the soft blue glow of their computer screens, feverishly weaving together unrecognized masterpieces.

Most people don’t harbor illusions of grandeur. What’s more likely is rather they harbor friends, family, or lovers that do. Penury is the norm for a majority of writers populating this collection of failure. Take the chapter on Irishman Hugh Rafferty, who drank to such an extreme degree that the sublime stream of conscious poetry he recited in the depths of drunken fervor was lost to him come morning and sobriety. Bereft of patrons or publishers, after Rafferty’s death in the poorhouse, other boarders burned his life’s work to fuel fire on the cold night his body was removed and placed in an unmarked grave.

Regular dole payments might be the best income other writers ever make. Kevin Stapleton dreamed of joining ranks with history’s great travel writers. Unfortunately, poverty prevented travel for this wanderlust king and his adventures to exotic locations like Ceylan, Siam and Persia — written up without ever leaving his room in Stockport — were a bit dated. In fact, the countries no longer existed.

Poverty is only one example of bad luck that contributes to failure. Most of the authors in The Biography of Literary Failure never sold a single book, but then again, neither did Homer or Shakespeare. We all know artistic merit isn’t necessarily predicated upon financial remuneration, but some authors never see their work completed. Tragically, the elderly Marta Kupka sat down to write out her life story, but poor eyesight prevented her from realizing the ribbon in her typewriter had gone dry, making her months of toil wasted.

And then there are the simply delusional writers, such as Aurelio Quattrochi, who prefers to be absolutely certain that his work will be published. Perhaps too much, so. At 76-years-old, he expected his first great work to be finished by the year 2042. And finally there’s the bibliophage Ernst Bellmer, who baffled Freud himself with a compulsion to eat engaging works of literature. Pity they were Bellmer’s own manuscripts.

Many writers attempt success but find only failure. Other writers are directly successful at being a failure. Against all odds, Elise La Rue snatched certain obscurity from the jaws of eternal fame. An insider to the celebrated Parisian Lost Generation, in the period between world wars, La Rue was the toast of the town. There wasn’t an important scene or salon in which she didn’t play matriarch.

Unfortunately, the bridges La Rue burned on her way to notoriety left her no retreat when misfortune befell her after WWII. With waning popularity her poetry and prose were pulped and none of the friendships or beds she shared in better times could save her from a pauper’s death beneath the Pont Neuf. While Hemingway, Nin, Miller, Joyce and so many others endure in the public imagination and populate the canon of great literary figures, it is only here in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure that La Rue is celebrated.

The chronically impoverished, unrecognized literary lions of the world have at least one publication directly in their corner. As editor C.D. Rose so excellently explains in the entry for the lost record of the great Sara Zeelen-Levallois: “The ephemeral, evanescent, scarcely believable career of Sara Zeelen-Levallois shows us, if nothing else, one important, terrible thing: words will change nothing. Write how we may, the arrogant and corrupt will still run the world, people will starve needlessly, your lover will still leave you.

And yet.

The power of writing is one of the greatest things we have, whether it is read of not.”

Authors rejoice! Whether you see yourself as an undiscovered voice of your generation, crafting the next Great American Novel, or simply count yourself among those of us who use literary ambition to justify alcoholism, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure is a must read. One can learn a great deal from the missteps and what-might-have-beens sprawled across the hard-luck entries of this excellent, intriguing collection. So keep plugging away, you slush pile darlings, and maybe one day you, too, will enter the hallowed ranks of the elite within the The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, Vol. II.

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RATING 7 / 10