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Of Success and Failure

Am I a failure as a writer, or simply attempting the impossible?

[Geek Pride welcomes guest contributor Nick Mamatas]

It is extremely difficult to discuss failure, especially failure as a writer.

Most pop-psychology looks at failure as simply the precursor to success. Failure teaches humility, relieves the anxiety of perfectionism, programs the mind to think of alternatives. But sometimes there are no alternatives.

Edgar Allan Poe created some of the greatest work in the English language, but could never quite make a living as a writer, as the American publishing industry was in its infancy at the time he wrote. He was essentially doomed to failure, and is not around to enjoy his posthumous success.

Ultimately a true failed writer is one who never gets published, or who fails to even finish that one novel, or that one story, despite years of effort—or at least years of performing “efforts” for friends and family. When one speaks of failure as a writer, the subject quickly changes to...success!

When I pitched a panel on failure to the Associated Writing Programs conference, it was difficult to get writers to agree to appear on it, and the AWP rejected my idea anyway. I mentioned this failure to a few friends of mine and they were full of success-oriented advice: “Do a panel on how mistakes lead to success!” “Find some really successful writers and have them talk about their early failures!” Ugh. Will no-one rid me of this troublesome notion of success?

On some level, I am a success. I’ve published roughly a hundred short stories, mostly in science fiction and horror magazines and anthologies, and occasionally in literary journals and crime fiction venues. I’ve published a number of novels and story collections as well, exclusively with independent presses. I am an un-commercial writer of commercial fiction so failure is guaranteed, even if independent presses weren’t constantly imploding, failing to ship books on time, falling down on the job when it comes to copy-editing, and the like.

So far I’ve had three books handicapped thanks to publisher/distributor bankruptcies or schisms, three published by teeny laptop-in-a-living-room micropresses for which distribution to bookstores was a bourgeois affectation, and one by a fairly large press that paid so little attention to the book that when the folded and gathered pages arrived in the office and somebody actually looked at them, I was given a choice: delay publication for months while the book was laid out a second time, or cut the cover price in half. So anyway, my novel Love is the Law, about a punk rock Harriet the Spy who is very into Aleister Crowley and Leon Trotsky, is only eight bucks. Cheap! (Buy it.)

And yes, I did try to sell my work to larger publishers. One editor at a major house suggested that I eliminate the homemade nuclear bomb from my novel Under My Roof and instead give the tweenage main character a girlfriend. Being used to failure and true to my art, I accepted a rejection letter instead and published the book with Soft Skull Press, who haphazardly squeezed it out as its distributor was going bankrupt. Almost ten years later, reading the script to the low-budget film currently being made of the book, I came across a character I’d never heard of: a girl named Tessa. My protagonist got himself a date after all!

My one book with a major publisher is Haunted Legends, an anthology I co-edited with Ellen Datlow. It was released by a publisher so huge that without malice it put out another horror anthology, this one called He Is Legend, on the same day. That other book contained a short story by Stephen King though, so you can guess which one was a success. Haunted Legends did win the Bram Stoker award for edited anthology...and lost the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards in the same category.

Then there are the constant minor failures. The rejection letters, the submissions lost in the mail or email, the brand new book I eagerly open to my story just to encounter a typo. Dennis sat down to eat a crap cake sandwich indeed.

Today, the popular short story is dead. Hell, the popular novel is dead, having been supplanted by the popular series comprised of volume after volume of tediously exciting extruded adventure.

Am I a failure, or am I attempting the impossible by writing for a small audience and yet hoping for a large one?

Another bit of pop psychology comes to mind: “depressive realism” is the idea that people experiencing depression have more realistic views of the world. It’s a controversial claim, but it seems to hold true in one set of circumstances: people with depression have a better understanding of situations over which they have no control, while non-depressives overestimate their ability to influence events.

Have I just self-diagnosed myself with depression instead of failure? No: because I’ll keep writing, forever.

Nick Mamatas

is the author of several novels, including Love is the Law and The Last Weekend. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2013, Lovecraft's Monsters, Asimov's Science Fiction and many other magazines and anthologies. His most recent anthology, Phantasm Japan, co-edited with Masumi Washington, will be published in September. Read more at and Twitter @_UnderMyRoof

Nick Mamatas

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