A Review of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, Edited By C.D. Rose

(Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014)

To be lost, forgotten, rejected. In a word: failure. There are precious few words in the English language that strike so hard, or cut so deep, bereft of nicety or preamble. No matter how one dresses it up, failure is a painful companion, one that is never sought but so often encountered along the road to its happier sibling, success. But do our failures define us? C.D. Rose argues that for some, they do, and that’s not always such a terrible thing.


Hailing from East Anglia, C.D. Rose is “universally acknowledged as the world’s preeminent expert on inexpert writers”. His first book, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, features over fifty failed writers, who for one reason or another managed to escape the cloying maw of success to enjoy a quiet, humble existence in literary obscurity. As the book explains, sometimes literary failure is a virtue, for both readers and undiscovered writers alike. But why should readers be compelled to read rubbish? Or writers of awkward, stumbling prose be cajoled into submitting their feebler efforts to the threshing machine that is critical review?


Though their failure may have rendered them silent to future generations, in life these unlucky souls were anything but. Far from stowing their innermost thoughts inside the locked drawer of a desk, these brave men and women were on the front lines of contemporary literature—that is, until fate made other plans. As Andrew Gallix writes in his introduction, “Manuscripts and books remain blank to us through being censored, lost, drowned, shredded, pulped, burned, used as cigarette paper or wrapped around kebabs, fed to pigs or even ingested by their own authors… Marta Kupka produces a blank memoir, not of her own volition, but due to a potent combination of failing eyesight and dried-up typewriter ribbon”. Though some prefer the self-imposed life of obscurity, most of the brave souls canonised by C.D. Rose are not there by choice, but due to plain dumb luck. We can hardly blame them for that.


Overwhelmingly, the BDLF offers a nuanced look at the life of aspiring authors. If not uplifting, per se, it is at least encouraging and light-hearted. In fact, the book explains that there is something noble about failure—indeed, there is nobility to all writing, no matter what the genre or legacy. “The power of writing is one of the greatest things we have, whether it is read or not,” Rose explains, and in this there is hope. He asks readers to think on “those dozens or hundreds or thousands whose work has been lost to fire or flood, to early death, to loss, to theft or to the censor’s pyre”. He asks us to think on those whose work might have bettered the world, or forever altered the soul in just a few short pages, lines, or even words. Readers are asked to remember what could have been, what never was.


Indeed, the pages of the BDLF are full of failed heroes: men and women who suffer acutely from what Michael Chabon calls the “midnight disease,” a “kind of emotional insomnia” from which there is no escape. The afflicted, whether they are compelled to write by midnight or any other time of day, suffer what Chabon describes as the feeling of laying restless in a stuffy room while their neighbor comfortably sleeps. The restless souls bound in the pages of the BDLF would doubtlessly feel likewise. Take for instance the humorless Wendy Wenning, who so valued tight prose, believed so wholeheartedly that every word was essential, that she grew to believe her “thousand-page epic,” a novel depicting post-war America, had run entirely out of her control. (For example, Wenning would have abhorred the previous sentence, decried the usage of an extended parenthetical). Her solution? She whittled her epic day by day; indeed, she kept at it until her masterpiece was “A perfectly blank sheet of paper.”


Other forgotten legends include Ellery Fortescue, a sufferer of ‘Graphomania’ (the incurable need to write); the unknown ‘Goatherd Poet’ of dubious Saxon lineage; and the not-so-everlasting Belmont Rossiter, whose literary successes were fleeting in the extraordinary, giving him the wealth to buy up, and later pulp, all available works of the Brontë sisters that could be found in Hampshire. He is also known for possessing the confidence to look George Eliot dead in the eye and inform her that “she looked like a horse.” There is a nostalgic streak to Rose’s collection, which articulately recounts the good old days, when literary giants could be heroes of national importance, or legends for the ages. And if readers haven’t heard of most of these would-be literary greats, there’s a reason for that. Rose’s collection, culled from “a website celebrating the lives of writers who have ‘achieved some measure of literary failure’” features only fictional accounts.


Each biography is a study in miniature, a gift to readers. These playful accounts are a tour de (failed) literary force. They record the deeds and misdeeds of unfortunate souls who fumbled, bumbled, and ultimately fell on hard times—leaving hardly a written trace with which to map their considerable shortcomings. Rose offers them a place where their lives are retold and immortalised for a modern audience. Not to be underestimated, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure makes for enjoyable reading—the perfect thing for aspiring writers and armchair literary critics alike. Cut into bite-sized pieces, each tale is easily digestible, and a worthy antidote to smugness and prolonged feelings of self-satisfaction.


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Alexander Oliver is an Editorial Intern at The Literary Review. He is currently finishing his undergraduate work at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the not entirely unrelated fields of History and Creative Writing. When not drinking tea, discussing the finer points of English cheese, or being accused of general ‘snobbery’, he can be found in the library, recounting charming tales from his youth to anyone who will listen. Generally a bit of a jokester, he is quite serious about commas.