It’s Monday morning. The yawning gulf of your workweek stretches before you like a festering baby mouth. How long until the cold monotony of this unmatched abyss becomes heated, for a short moment, by the weekly report known in your heart of hearts as #AuthorFail?
Ho! The time for failure, my cubicle-bound friend, is now.
In this edition, Jeffrey DeShell’s entire career stands as one long flatline. He ignores the initial call (you too, may participate) to write about one specific failure–and so expands into the existential depths of Sartrean gloom, Keirkegaardian trembling, and Kafkaesque comedy. Yes, such writers are a sad and surly lot…yet we love them all the same.
For me, the concepts of failure and success slide easily into one another. When I publish a novel, when I hold it in my hand, touch the cover, turn the pages, I feel like the object is both a success (in that it’s finally an object, existing in the world) and, inevitably, simultaneously, a failure. The feeling of failure is real, oppressive, discouraging.
The novel as object marks, to me, a failure of possibilities. The book is the (grave) marker of infinite options narrowed and drained into a shadow. A shadow of what it could have been, yes, as all the choices taken, restricted and created by language in the translation from the perfect and luminous image/story in my mind to the (oft) mistaken and imprecise sentences now fixed on the page certainly marks a type of failure. I once possessed something ineffable and beautiful, something I could only approach by writing. But by writing, I destroyed that perfect image/story. And so writing becomes the impossibility of communication; an impossibility that ruins the original image/story. If writing communicates, it communicates only that impossibility.
But there’s a deeper failure, almost a death, and that’s the failure of so many possibilities destroyed. With every choice taken—be it on the level of single words, or syntax, characters and their attributes, characters and the color of their eyes and choice of shoes, places and times etc.—an infinite number of other choices has been rendered impossible, moot. The novel as a shroud of all the books it is not. Think what could have been! And see what is.
The failure is mine: it belongs to me and is me. One of the possibilities destroyed is the possibility of me. The change in tense from the one who was writing the book to the one who has written the book is a kind of death (the impossibility of biography). The possibilities enjoyed while writing the book, the desire enjoyed by writing the book, give me hope, and the illusion of work and control. And the end of the book when it is published is the end of that illusion and hope: “I could be” changes into “I was.” The person (who was) writing the book is no longer present, alive, possible, and the book is a book of mourning.
At the same time, the novel is now out. Where once was nothing is now something. That is a success. The novel grants me an identity, that of novelist, an identity I can translate into a way of being in the world. The novel gives me what “I” do and what “I” am. It now has a chance to be read by others, the possibility to make its own way in the world, so to speak. But those possibilities pale in the face of what could have been.
The novel is not the novel. I am not the novelist.
Jeffrey DeShell has published five novels: Arthouse (FC2),The Trouble with Being Born (FC2), Peter: An (A)Historical Romance (Starcherone), S & M (FC2) and In Heaven Everything is Fine (FC2), and a critical book, The Peculiarity of Literature: An Allegorical Approach to Poe’s Fiction. DeShell was a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Budapest, and has taught in Northern Cyprus, the American Midwest and Bard College. Currently he teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He lives in Denver with the novelist Elisabeth Sheffield and their two children.
Last week: #AuthorFail 3: Gretchen E. Henderson
Next week: #AuthorFail 5: AD Jameson (Big Other’s own)
7 thoughts on “#AuthorFail 4: Jeffrey DeShell”
Lovely, Jeffrey. One worthless being to another. Curt
This reminds me of something Woody Allen said about making movies—that his favorite part is right at the beginning, when he’s lying at home in bed, imagining the film. And then, little by little, as he begins to actually make the film, he ruins is. He doesn’t get the characters of the lines quite right, and when they cast it, the people he wants aren’t available, and the correct locations aren’t available, and it’s sunny on the days when he needs it to be overcast, and the actors don’t say their lines quite the way he imagined it, and in a hundred other small ways, it all goes wrong. And so then in the editing room he thinks, “Well, let’s see if we can salvage this.” And then the film comes out and he says, “The next one! Next time, I’ll get it right!”
The easiest thing is to write the first line, right?, with blank space giving you every possibility. Then, things get tricky.
“. . . [T]he (oft) mistaken and imprecise sentences now fixed on the page certainly marks a type of failure.” Yes, but what about if those sentences happen to resonate with readers? Maybe even mark them indelibly? I’ve read all but one of Jeffrey’s novels and have never glimpsed any of those so-called imprecise sentences as nothing less than correct, precise, evocative, and masterful. Some dare I say have even been life-changing. The possibilities he’s abandoned in service of the ones he hasn’t (which a reader would never know anyway) can only be trivial in comparison. We trust the deft novelist to deliver not just possibility but inevitablity, as only he can divine. Plus, isn’t the very nature of the novel one that particularizes?
Charles, thanks for the words, and thanks for pointing out the (uncontrollable) irony here. On the one hand, I take to a public space to articulate my failure, using a literary language to bemoan the insufficiency of said language. All the while looking over my shoulder to see who’s reading. As if this ‘failure’ were a mark of authenticity. On the other hand, literature never does what we want; it might not do anything, or anything we can understand or control.
And A. D. Jameson, thank you for pointing out the irony between a materialist. vision and a conceptual one. davis should be coming in soon. . . We all know those people who say they’ve got a great novel (film, symphony, memoir), they just had to sit down and write it. One of the great games of narrative is the double requirement between the material and the concept.