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Weekend reads: On writing and failure
A Q&A with Toronto novelist, essayist and cultural commentator Stephen Marche
In Canadian essayist, novelist, and cultural commentator Stephen Marche’s new book-length essay, out this week, he meditates on the grim reality facing writers today. “I have only ever made a living inside crumbling institutions — I know no one who feels differently,” he reflects. “I began teaching humanities just as jobs in the humanities vanished and writing novels as television replaced novels. Then I started in journalism, just as it was imploding.”
Still, Marche argues, such bleak prospects are hardly the exception for writers throughout history; they are more likely the rule. It’s not easy now, but it’s never been easy. And so, one writes simply because one must, and for no other reason, “because anything you hope to achieve by writing — fame, money, pleasure, improving the world — can always be achieved some better way than writing.” Perseverance is the point in any writing life, if there’s any point at all.
Marche’s advice to writers, then, is to “keep throwing yourself at the door.” Keep racking up rejections, keep amassing failures. Endure long enough, and eventually there will be a breakthrough, however arbitrary, however fleeting.
On Writing and Failure is thus both a dark glimpse into the trials of creativity — and a comfort, a consolation. Here, in this edited and condensed conversation, Marche and I unpack why.
TH: You and I last spoke in 2014. I was at CBC Radio at the time, and you generously agreed to have lunch and give me some advice on freelance writing.
SM: Did I really? I have absolutely zero memory of that. What did I say?
TH: You said, “Keep throwing yourself at the door.” [Laughs] I’ve thought about that many times since. How many writers did you give that advice to before you knew that you had a book?
SM: Since I’m clearly a space cadet, and the pot that I took over Covid has shredded my brain to the point where my memory loss is clear — who knows? There was a period where I used to talk to a lot of young writers. That would have been around then, I think. I was at Esquire and I’d been in The Atlantic, so there was a whole bunch of people who confused me with somebody to be envied. I would talk to a lot of writers, going for drinks and stuff like that. Maybe as many as 50, just as a rough guess. But, yeah, that is pretty much my advice. It’s pretty pathetic advice in some ways. But on the other hand, it’s probably true, right?
TH: I think it’s very true. The idea is just to log more failures, to pitch more, to fail more, to try more. But before we get into the book, let’s set the stage here. I’m not sure that everybody knows how dire the economics of writing have become. You recently retweeted a very telling tweet from Jason Colavito: “The publishing figures for 2022 were rather depressing. In a country of 332 million people, only 28 books out of 300,000 titles sold more than 500,000 copies. Eight were by one author Colleen Hoover.” In that same thread, he points out that the average book sells 200 copies, and the average bestseller sells about 2,000 copies. Walk us through what’s happening in the literary marketplace.
SM: I actually think books are probably the good spot. [Laughs] In all seriousness, people still publish books. People still read them; people still enjoy them. I guess it’s shrinking, but on the other hand it’s kind of more fracturing. Academia has been in total decline since I was 20. Now it’s just getting to the point where they are squabbling while the Titanic is underwater. On the flotillas, on the rescue boats, they’re squabbling right now. And of course, journalism continues a rapid, pretty severe contraction. So there’s all of that to be considered. I think we are very much in a transitional phase between print, as a medium, and digital. Writing has gone through these kinds of transitions before. We’ve just been in it for a long time, and that means rolling with the punches a lot.
TH: For people who aren’t aware, talk about what freelance writing for mainstream media looks like these days.
SM: Boy. I honestly don’t think I could paint a portrait of it because it’s so random and so strange. It also changes so rapidly. 15 years ago, I was a Shakespeare professor in New York writing avant-garde novels. Then I was a columnist for Esquire for eight years, where I lived off one column a month that editors would go through for six, seven drafts — serious drafts. It would take us three weeks to edit those 1,000 words, with excellent editors. That already is ancient history, basically. That’s just a vanished world. Now we’re in podcasting. Podcasting is pretty interesting; I like it quite a bit. I’m doing a lot of that. All this time, you’re working in some medias that you like and some medias that you do because they’re popular, and some medias that there’s an economic model for. The only thing that’s for sure is that we’ll all have to adjust to something completely different in five years. I would say that that’s really the reality.
I already feel like I have been through three or four careers now — and there will probably be two or three more, at least, before I’m 60. So, that’s a lot of change. It’s a lot of change to be dealing with. On the other hand, I think that same thing is true for lawyers and doctors, and certainly anyone in a gig economy job. You’re just constantly in this hyper-capitalist froth that you’re trying to navigate.
TH: The book makes the argument that the bleak conditions that we’re facing are nothing new. In fact, it’s the rule throughout history … There’s a lesson you come back to over and over again in the book: If it was like this for these other writers, why would it be any different for you? No whining. No complaining.
SM: Exactly. Shakespeare died with un-produced plays. Toughen up. You know what I mean? I think part of it’s that we’ve come up in this aftermath of the Boomers, who really did have this luxurious growth of institutions. They had this incredible, wealthy literary community. But really, there’s no other examples like that. That was a separate time. What we’re returning to is something much closer to the historical norm. I think Samuel Johnson would recognize freelancing today, for sure. His youth anyway, before the professionalization of writing.
TH: And yet, one of the points that you made that really stands out is that the digital [era] does increase the possibility of rejection exponentially. What’s the psychic impact of that?
SM: It’s interesting, I really don’t feel them at this point. I’d have to go back and check how many times I’ve been rejected this week. I genuinely don’t know. I just forget about it the moment it happens. But some people, I think, are really hurt by it. It hurts their self-esteem in a permanent way. I think there’s definitely got to be a psychological effect in living in this current of rejection.
The Internet — while it expands the possibilities of what you can do — also expands rejection. The reason I can get rejected more than, say, my father-in-law, who was also a freelance journalist, is that I can submit to American magazines and British magazines and Australian magazines, just with a click of a button. He could only be rejected, really, in the city in which he lived. The expansion of opportunity is actually what leads to the expansion of rejection. It’s kind of an odd trick of the mind to get used to. But, honestly, it would certainly be over 10,000 rejections for me, I think, at this point. So who really notices anymore?
TH: I want to spend a moment on the particular position we’re in in Canada, which you refer to in the book. I want to read a passage about the Canadian poet A.M. Klein, who suffered a breakdown in his 40s. You write: “I fear him because I know what broke him — the North, the sheer irrelevance of Canadian life, the confrontation with oblivion implicit in living beside wilderness, the willful indifference to talent that defines Canadian culture. Klein is the ghost that haunts me. There’s a little silenced Klein sitting right now in one of the chambers of my heart.” Talk to me about that.
SM: I do love A.M. Klein. I loved The Second Scroll so much. But yeah, he was the extreme case where his feelings of irrelevance drove him to a complete mental background. He actually was a mute. He became incapable of speaking. A lot of people have written about him. Leonard Cohen wrote about him quite a bit. Canada, obviously, we’re in a contraction, like elsewhere. But we feel it very much here, in a very intense way, where the storytelling institutions that we have are in real sharp decline, across the board.
I don’t think we talk about it, but listen to the CBC. It is not what the CBC was in 1995, nevermind 1976. But that’s too large a question for me to get into here. I think Canada has a kind of post-nationalist malaise, where it is finding it very hard to find stories by which to define itself. It, too, is returning to what it was before the nationalist revolution, where [Marshall] McLuhan said it was the only country that could live without a myth. I think that’s definitely the situation in Toronto. It is a city that has no myth of itself.
TH: That’s fairly recent. Even a couple of years ago, with the Raptors championship win, we had a different story of ourselves.
SM: I don’t know. Northrop Frye in the 50s said, “Toronto is a good city to mind your own business in.” It’s a good thing as well as a bad thing. Nothing is ever special, and everyone is the same. It has to do with the Garrison mentality, and socialism, and the pursuit of equality. Those are all very good things. They just don’t make it very fun to be a writer. It’s like, “You can be a writer, but you can’t be special. You can’t be good at it.” That’s sort of how I think CanLit works. Or doesn’t work, really.
TH: I want to talk about the cultural climate we’re in. But first, I read a Substack just today by Erik Hoel, who used to publish at The Atlantic and The Daily Beast. He said he’s not doing that anymore because “the amount of work it takes to get something published vastly outstrips the amount of work it takes to write it.” What are your thoughts on the Substack phenomenon? Are you at all optimistic?
SM: I really don’t like Substack. Don’t get me wrong, everyone has a right to make a living their own way — and I certainly have a lot of friends who do it. But to me, when writers go to Substack, what that economic model is is that you’re feeding a beast that’s narrower and narrower, and it essentially makes it impossible for you to escape your original frame of thinking. When you look at someone like Bari Weiss, she just does what she’s always done, only more so all the time. You can feel the cage narrowing in on their thinking. Because they have this base of readers, which is their security, and their economy.
My father-in-law is Bob Fulford. He was a great freelance writer. He certainly had the best Canadian freelance writing career of his generation. He said, “There’s only one rule in freelancing, and that is you always have to have more than one boss.” I think the thing about Substack people is that they only have one boss. It’s those whatever, 5,000, 10,000 readers that they have. They really can’t tell those people to fuck off. And I think if there’s one thing in freelance writing that you have to be able to do, it’s that you have to be able to tell people to fuck off.
TH: I think a lot of Substackers are aware of the pitfalls of audience capture, and I do see moves to —
SM: Audience capture, that’s the perfect phrase for it. That’s exactly it. I’ve been spouting my own ideas without knowing that it’s well-described in a billion places.
TH: I’ve seen a lot of Substackers making conscious efforts to publish pieces that are not necessarily going to go down well with your base, Bari included.
SM: What I love about writing is the feeling of learning. To me, the kind of writing that I really like is the one where you’re learning along with the writer at the same time. That he or she begins in error, and with an assumption. Then you see that assumption collapse … I think an essay really should be a try. Those are the ones that I really like, the attempts. I feel like Substack is extremely poor at attempts. It’s a proper frame for polemics. I mean, those are the ones that go big. I’m sure people do little resistance moves to the audience capture, but the biggest pieces on Substack are essentially angry priest missives. They’re essentially sermons and polemics. That just doesn’t interest me much.
TH: Let’s talk about the climate we’re all writing in. One of the things that’s difficult about the moment we’re in is how politically polarized things are.
TH: In the mainstream media, you have that issue as well. There are certain things that get through and certain things that don’t.
TH: How do you think through that climate?
SM: What I do is I avoid it altogether. I used to write quite a bit about gender. And then there just came a point where it’s like, “Well, they’re never going to publish a man about gender ever again.” So it’s like, “Okay, I won’t write about that anymore.” I find the political debates on wokeness, or however you want to describe it, the social justice stuff, totally futile. I don’t think anyone is learning. As I said, my definition of a good essay is one where you learned that you’re mistaken. Because that’s what life is. You have assumptions, and then they’re stripped away, and you realize that you didn’t know what you were talking about, and you learn something. And then you are changed by learning about something in the world.
TH: Pulling back now, I want to get at the heart of what you’re writing about in this book, which is why we continue to write in spite of all of this. Talk to me about what you’re getting from writing that makes you willing to go through all of this to do it.
SM: I really love writing. I love the English language pretty deeply. Obviously, I had some kind of childhood experience that made me confuse writing with what adults did, which has led to it being a kind of compulsive activity. Which is not necessarily healthy. On the other hand, here we are.
I think what I find very powerful is those feelings of connection that you get across time and space, that really only writing can provide. I feel like I know what Li Bai and Du Fu were talking about, even though they’re ninth century Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty. I feel like I know what James Baldwin meant, and I feel like I know what Shakespeare meant. That cosmopolitanism in time and space and that web of connections — to even be a small part of that is very powerful.
This book is I guess somewhat cynical, in a way, but I think of it more as practical. But that feeling is real. That is not a lie, or fraud, or phony. It is absolutely something that is humanizing in a very rich way. Its power is, I think, just undeniable. It can be a balm to a particular kind of loneliness.
I thought about this conversation a lot this week, and why writers continue to write, despite all that’s stacked against doing so. It’s a question with no easy answer: Why do we keep at it, knowing it may never get that much easier?
The answer will be different for every person. For Marche, it is a sense of connection across time and space. For me, it is a sense of connection in real-time — a feeling of being part of the culture, the conversation, the country, people’s individual lives.
For me, it is that I cannot not write. A life without reading and writing and interviewing feels incomplete. Like a life not well-lived.
One of the big griefs for me in 2020, at the height of the cultural insanity that overtook us, was the feeling that that chapter of my life was over. That the world of ideas was gone, inaccessible, out of reach. That the conversation was now impossible to have. Thankfully, that has turned out not to be the case.
And so, I am fundamentally optimistic. I see the public demanding more viewpoint diversity, more discussion, more debate — and voting with their dollars, funding the rise of independent journalism. Which, in turn, is widening the scope of available perspectives throughout the media. And, I believe, enlivening writing in the process.
So I continue to write, and happily so. And as the days add up, and the words add up, the good days outweigh the bad days.
In the meantime, I do the things that I tell other writers to do to keep their spirits whole: I go to the market and buy good cheese and sour pickles and dense bread. I drink strong coffee in the morning, as the sun comes up. I watch comedy. I listen to loud hip-hop. I read books that have nothing to do with politics. I work out. I take walks. I visit new places. I love my family and friends with everything I’ve got.
I let life be easy in the moments that it doesn’t have to be hard.
On that note, readers, by the time you get this newsletter I’ll be doing just that. I’ll be in New Orleans, posted up on a street corner, draped in beads, watching Mardi Gras floats and marching bands and dance lines pass by, eating po’ boys and King Cake.
Lean Out is on hiatus this week, but I’ll be back on Sunday with a new Weekend Reads. The following week, we’ll dive into the Public Order Emergency Commission’s final report.
Until then, I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking conversation between Lean Out guest Bridget Phetasy and Professor Wilfred Reilly, an independent thinker who manages to surprise many times throughout the episode.
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