The author of a recent New York Times opinion piece postulated that writers are “the real professionals” when it comes to failure. To support his premise, Stephen Merche ticks off writers such as Fitz-Greene Halleck, widely praised in their own times and all but forgotten today, as well as those such as John Keats, whose work is celebrated now but died failures. He points out that for every big-name writer, there are hundreds of thousands more whose names are unknown. Some remain in well-deserved obscurity, but others have penned works that sing.
Merche notes that of the approximately 300,000 books published annually in the U.S. alone, not more than a few hundred achieve any measure of success creatively or financially. However, far from being depressing, “Failure Is Our Muse” gives us writers cause for hope. A novelist himself, Merche says that writers excel at more than failure. We are exceptionally good at persisting in the face of failure. All this unsung writing creates what he calls a “subterranean richness,” hidden treasures that readers delight in finding. It’s a trove he says that The New York Review of Books series continually mines, and it’s a lode that never will peter out.
Merche includes a quote from Gustave Flaubert that resonated with me: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” More often than not, our results do not reach beyond the mundane, yet we keep trying. We experience outsized satisfaction when we succeed in molding ordinary words into extraordinary prose and poetry. We write against the odds, hoping to gain critical recognition and financial rewards. But that is not primarily why most of us write. We write because we have a vision. As we continually hone our skills, we hope that one day our words will melt the stars.