How To Fail In Literature: Revisited

By Kenny Brechner
(This essay originally appeared in "Maine in Print" Vol. XIV, NO. 17)

    That mediocrity is a far more awful resting point on the compass of endeavor than either excellence or abomination, its two respective poles, has been often observed. The Scarlet Pimpernel sagely noted, for example, that "nothing is quite so bad as something which is not so bad." And, looking further, we find the Red Foliot ominously made ware of the truth that "he who is infirm of purpose is ground betwixt the upper and the nether millstone."

    For centuries, dutiful persons have labored to direct those adrift upon the literary enterprise towards the pole of success. Practical directions towards the nether pole, however, have been almost entirely withheld.

    Andrew Lang may be cited as a solitary exception in this regard. Having, as an editor, received and considered some hundredweights of manuscript, Lang concluded that untutored ignorance was an insufficient means for ensuring literary failure. He thus observed that education in ill success is really a popular want. Stepping admirably from thought to action, he proceeded to deliver a memorable lecture at the South Kensington Museum entitled How To Fail In Literature.

    Lang's address, which he afterwards expanded and revised for book publication, was made in 1890. The modern reader is at once aware that How To Fail In Literature, while remaining a delight throughout from a literary vantage, and on many heads quite as pertinent as ever, has, in a number of areas, seen its advice rendered obsolete by changes in technology and style.

    The literary ideal of Lang's times was to be a man of letters, and few persons more closely modeled that ideal than Lang himself. Poet, translator, novelist, essayist, and long time editor, Lang was a gentleman of well founded knowledge, sense and humor. As to what constituted failure in his mind, he spoke clearly. But in poetry to-day a man may succeed, as far as his art goes, and yet may be unread...He pleases himself, and a very tiny audience : I do not call that failure. I regard failure as the goal of ignorance, incompetence, lack of common sense, conceited dulness, and certain practical blunders now to be explained and defined.

    On this, its one hundred and eleventh anniversary, one may feel, resting securely upon the same underlying cause that rendered its initial delivery a matter of such pitch and moment, that a revisiting of How To Fail in Literature is an urgent undertaking. This revisiting is by no means intended as a substitute for consulting the original. Indeed, no one who wishes to avoid success should brook the smallest delay in making his or her acquaintance with it.

    None of us is so young, Lang advised, Abut that he may make himself perfect in writing an illegible hand. The advent of the word processor has obviated this straightforward means of spoiling a manuscript. Yet modern writers may take heart, for if word processing has put illegibility beyond our reach, it has also brought us tools for defacing a manuscript beyond the dreams of the nineteenth century.

    Due to space restraints we shall leave aside such lesser, but still fruitful tools, as colored ink and dubious fonts, and focus our attention on two engines of surpassing potency, spell checking and grammar checking software. In employing these consummate means of disaster one may be best served by trusting the software implicitly and saying yes to any question it asks. New features such as auto replace should always be selected.

    That spell check has removed the potentiality for misspelling the seeker after ill success may well bemoan, but the new species of typographic error it has bred, correctly spelled but inadvertent words, must be acknowledged as more than offsetting the loss of its ancestors. Consider the following example of a sentence subject first to misspelling and then to inadvertent words.


    The day rose on the ship's horizen before faltaring suddanly because the ship's wizard drew forth his wand and cast a darknes over the sirprised horizen.

    The day hose on the ship's horizon before foddering suddenly because the slip's wizard draw fourth his wane and past a darkness over the surprise horizon.


    The benefits of spell checking software, however prodigious, pale before those provided by grammar checking software. If allowed to operate fully this software has the power to turn the finest prose ever written into torpid drivel. Consider the famous opening passage of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Here in the original...


    Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The door would be taken off its hinges; Rumplemayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning-fresh as if issued to children on a beach.


And here after modified by Wordperfect's Grammatik.


    Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. Rumplemayer's men were coming to take the door off its hinges. Clarissa Dalloway then thought, what a morning-fresh as if issued to children on a beach.


    In terms of more general principles Lang explains that He who would fail at literature cannot begin too early to neglect his education, and to adopt every opportunity of not observing life and character. These principles are as sound as ever, and yet the means for achieving them in Lang's day were made far more tortuous than those which commend themselves today.

Self absorption is, of course, as old as humanity, and yet up until recent decades society has deemed that it should not appear naked in literary form. Today's seeker after ill success may therefore dispense with the study of the more convoluted means of self immersion that engaged his predecessors, and steer as direct a course as possible. He will therefore be most effective by employing the following formula. He must use the word I as many times as possible, employing as many other self referential terms as occasion allows, and select for a subject his own physical and mental actions. One should therefore describe reading a book as follows.


    I picked the book up in my hands and I set it down on my counter, the place in my house where I put things down so that I can read them. Moving my eyes to the beginning I read the words on the page. I'm excited because I'm going to read an article with my eyes, and eyes are my favorite organ. Holding the edge of the book down with my left hand I read the words on the page I'm holding. I like words very much and so I'm liking this book a lot. Also, I had not read this book before and so it was new to me and I like new things.


    One should note that questions of tense are strictly regulated by their attachment to I, whose self importance unifies all notions of past, present and future.

    Moving on now to Poetry, which was Lang's forte, he notes that If you are ambitious to disgust an editor at once, begin your poem with Only. In fact you may as well head the lyric Only.



Only a spark of an ember,

Only a leaf on the tree,

Only the days we remember,

Only the days without thee.

Only the flower that thou worest,

Only the book that we read,

Only that night in the forest,

Only a dream of the dead,

Only the troth that was broken,

Only the heart that is lonely,

Only the sigh and the token

That sob in the saying of Only!


    Lang's advice, though trenchant, sadly speaks to a bygone world. Yet the modern poet, though incapable of writing Only, may take heart in learning that an excellent, and equally potent, means of failure has been developed. This simple method is carried out by writing prose and then calling it poetry. The words should be written out as standard prose first, of course, and then the question becomes how to chop them up properly. The central point here is to see the matter visually, think of how the lines look on the page, not how they sound. If one still feels insecure on this head the word processor can provide an excellent remedy. All that is required is setting the right margin in a few inches and voila, a poem. For example:


    Her father sat in the rear seat of her car. Her father, who for her entire childhood had been the driver, sat now, not even in the passenger seat, not even up front, but in the back.

Her father sat in the rear seat of her 
Car. Her father, who for her entire 
Childhood had been the driver, sat
Now, not even in the passenger seat,
Not even up front, but in the back.

    This method of avoiding any hint of line or voice has the great virtue of taking the guesswork out of failure. Another essential blunder, one certain to "disgust an editor,@ is to take advantage of the proliferation of almost unmediated venues of publication, Zines, personal web pages, and so forth, by including in every cover letter a publishing history several pages long and drawn up along the following lines.


Haikupps, Ser.26, Vol.5, WordHose, Ser.93, vol. 26, themeatcylinder,, SlamMasterPete,, Haikupps, Ser.26, Vol.6, Haikupps, Ser.26, Vol.7, Haikupps, Ser.26, Vol.8, WordHose, Ser.93, vol. 27, WordHose, Ser.93, vol. 28....

    If she puts her faith in technology, thinks only of success to the exclusion of artistry, and watches plenty of television, the modern writer needn't despair of sinking no lower on the compass than the doldrums of mediocrity. On the other hand, as Lang notes, A If anyone has kindly attended to this discourse, without desiring to be a failure, he has only to turn the advice outside in.@

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