“To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail – the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. It is this failure – a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind – that dominates my working life, just as an overweening sense of not having loved with enough depth or recklessness or tenderness dominates my personal one. It follows that to continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience – it’s often said that all political lives end in failure, but all writing ones begin there, endure there, and then collapse into senescent incoherence.
“I prize this sense of failure – embrace it even. As a child I loved a John Glashan cartoon that showed a group of meths drinkers lying around on the floor of a squat. “Anyone can be a success,” one of them was saying, “but it takes real guts to be a failure.” Clearly I intuited what was coming. When anyone starts out to do something creative – especially if it seems a little unusual – they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism – you learn this as you go on.
“People say my writing is dreadful, pretentious, self-seeking shit – they say it a lot. Other people say my writing is brilliant, beautifully crafted and freighted with the most sublime meaning. The criticism, no matter how virulent, has long since ceased to bother me, but the price of this is that the praise is equally meaningless. The positive and the negative are not so much self-cancelling as drowned out by that carping, hectoring internal voice that goads me on and slaps me down all day every day.”
To read the rest of Will Self’s article on literary failure, visit the Guardian Review here.