Failing Upward & Into Print
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Every year, a new crop of aspiring writers comes to the city hoping to make it: to become a hot-shot reporter, to pen fiction in the romantic poverty of a fifth-floor walkup – and finally to have a story accepted by the New Yorker. But some memoirs published by newcomers in the last few years suggest that failure, disappointment, and distraction almost make better material than success.
That writers would document their career angst is a natural consequence of the rising popularity, and the democratization, of the memoir. But this subset of books is hardly the genre’s most captivating form, since they mainly document the authors’ battles against themselves – against their too-high hopes, their lack of inspiration, or, even, God forbid, their lack of talent.
“Memoirs always need to be outlaw books,” author Geoffrey Wolff said. “They always need to be ‘me against them’ – a kind of revenge against bullies.That works very well if you’re writing about your childhood, because everybody’s terrorized by their parents. But it’s a window that isn’t open very long.” When the subject is personal ambition, Mr. Wolff said, “and sometimes an ambition that’s not very grand to begin with, [a memoir] has a lot of things to overcome.”
Yet somehow, overcome they do. British writer TobyYoung made the failure memoir popular with “How To Lose Friends and Alienate People” (Da Capo, $24.95).The book was his account of coming to New York to work at Vanity Fair and, instead of taking the city by storm, making enemies of everyone he met – and getting himself fired. The book was an unlikely hit.
Having found a winning formula, Mr. Young is back with a sequel memoir, “The Sound of No Hands Clapping.” This time, his quest is not a place in New York journalism, but Hollywood fame. A well-known producer asks him to write a screenplay; meanwhile, other studios vie for the rights to his book. Of course, as in “How To Lose Friends,” both potential sources of stardom eventually come to naught.
Unlike in the previous book, however, the cause of his failure is not his own obnoxiousness, but simply the arbitrary nature of Hollywood success. Mr.Young is hardly the only failed screenwriter. As for his own behavior, he seems to be mellowing with age.And he has become a father, so he devotes pages here not just to his ridiculous attempt to stalk the Hollywood producer, but also to the terror of his 2-week-old son getting chicken pox.
At the end of the book, after some pro forma complaining about his wife’s wish to return to London, instead of staying in L.A. – which he thinks might be better for his career – he gives in, acknowledging that, in fact, he doesn’t put his ambition first anymore. Giving his son and 18-month-old daughter a bath,” I realized that my family was now at the absolute heart of my life,” he writes. “They were the priority and everything else, including my personal ambition, was secondary.”
Ambition plays a curious role in “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $23.95) by David Goodwillie, who came to New York to be a writer after a brief flirtation with playing professional baseball. His experience is a story of distraction and derailment not uncommon in the late ’90s; he gets sucked into some highly speculative dot-coms along the way to his final resolution to quit temporizing and write.
His haphazard career provides some amusing inside scenes.A job devoted to writing catalogue copy for a small auction house that specializes in sports memorabilia leads to an offer to launch a new sports department at Sotheby’s. The renowned house had acquired an enormous, highly valuable collection to sell, and Mr. Goodwillie soon sees that he’s in way over his head. Fortunately, it turns out that he’s only the titular head and public face. The real expert whom Sotheby’s needed was less telegenic and demanded a huge salary. The solution was to hire the expert as a freelance consultant and have the young, guileless Mr. Goodwillie in the permanent job.
The parts of the book in which Mr. Goodwillie describes his yearning to write, and the frustrations – and rejection letters – that litter the path to literary glory, are less entertaining than the insider look at Sotheby’s. The book might have been more effective if Mr. Goodwillie had focused on one of his several mini-careers, or found some way of turning his scattered resume into a more coherent story.
The advantage of the scattered version is that it’s an honest (and often earnest) record of a young person’s experience coming to the city and thrashing about in its sea of opportunities. Despite his earnestness, and the triteness of his literary worship – he holds up Adam Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon” as an example of “what writing can do” – Mr.Goodwillie is an endearing narrator. This reader’s heart leapt when he finally opened an envelope from the New Yorker to find – no, not an acceptance, but a rejection with a messy scrawl across the bottom: “A lively, polished piece. Keep trying. -B. Buford.”
This kind of book amuses with all the wild ways in which our hero pays the rent, but the story of wanting to write in New York, and struggling, is too common. Is there a better way to document the flailings of youth? Yes: The humorous essay. “Before the Mortgage: Real Stories of Brazen Loves, Broken Leases, and the Perplexing Pursuit of Adulthood” (Simon Spotlight, $14.95), an an thology by the editors of the ‘zine of the same name, is full of examples. The authors don’t take themselves, their dreams, or their missteps too seriously. In Thomas Beller’s “Portrait of the Bagel as a Young Man,” about his job as the inventory guy at H&H Bagels, just when he starts to get self-pitying – worrying that this is not a temporary diversion on the way to literary fame, but a permanent rut – real disaster strikes: The sugar runs out. Bagel production stops.
Stories of career burn-outs and frustrated literary dreams require a light touch. And they often merit the length of an essay, not a book. An essay, though, rarely pulls anyone out of a financial rut – or turns a failure into a star.