My career as a fiction author lends itself to regular rejection. When I started writing, I grew accustomed to capturing every inflection of my soul in a story, sending it to publishers and agents, building up a heady fantasy of my words in print only to be told it was not to be.
I remember the yawningly pedestrian nature of each failure. The day my first book was rejected by a South African publisher was also my first day at a new job. I scanned the email, the words “I’m sorry to inform you,” slamming me in the chest with a force that was almost physical. I asked my new boss where the bathroom was, locked myself in a stall and cried. The day I found out that I was not to receive a hefty writing scholarship I had applied for, at a time when freelancing, invoicing and earning enough money was keeping me up at night, I was on honeymoon. A banal refresh of my inbox stripped away the hope I had for a different future. Then there was the time my second novel was rejected by another publisher, news that hit me over a cursory glance at my emails on my phone over dinner. Each time, I stepped away from the person or people I was with and felt the stinging shame and hopelessness of it alone.
Elizabeth Day is very clear from the outset that the book deals with her own personal experiences, and that as a white, British, educated women of a certain class, her experiences bear innate privilege. This is important to remember, as her stories of failing, at dating, at relationships and even at being Gwyneth Paltrow, might come across as glib. Yet within each story, there is a sense of real despair and, in chapters such as How to fail at babies, real heartache. Day also weaves in the tales of high profile, high achieving individuals who suffered a series of failures ranging from ordinary to devastating. Sometimes these happened before their success, but sometimes they occurred in the heart of it too, dispelling the myth that extreme success can make a person invincible.
This is the point. The stories relayed in How to Fail are not always those of extraordinary failure, which makes them all the more relatable. We have all felt the shame of a failed relationship, a business that didn’t go to plan, a dream shattered, or the feeling of not being good enough. It is boring, everyday even, to voice these things. Sometimes – when we believe the failure is a reflection of our own worth – it is even shameful. Where do our daily disappointments sit when the world is burning, when there are people out there who have it so much worse?
Take my failures as a writer – I had access to a good education, a laptop on which to write and the privilege and mental space to even dream about a career in the arts. Who was I to be depressed when reality didn’t align with my dreams? The noes I received led me to an international book deal, and a career spent doing what I love. Many of the stories in the book are told from the vantage point of being separate from the failure, of weathering the storm and emerging better for it.
Yet vulnerability of any form, about any matter, is no easy task. As a digital society, we are learning to brace ourselves for a competing hot take, or a chorus of those who find our problems problematic. As Day writes, “Perhaps the unexceptional nature of my failures make this a conversation worth having.”
In a culture steeped in hustling for worthiness, it is a radical act to share our failures. In a world where it is common to portray the best of ourselves, though our digital avatars, revealing what happens when it all goes wrong introduces the opportunity for real connection.
Emotional, daring and often funny, How to Fail ultimately celebrates the resilience and enterprising nature of people, and assures us that failure doesn’t have to be the end of the story. ML
How to Fail by Elizabeth Day is published through Fourth Estate Books
"Censorship of anything at any time in any place on whatever pretence has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot." ~ Eugene O'Neill