Children's Books Ireland Conference May 24/25 2014: The F Word: Failure

April 28, 2014

The F Word: Failure

            During a recent school visit, I asked the fifth class students if any of them had read a book that they disliked. An eleven-year-old girl raised her hand.

            “Not lately,” she said, “but when I was young, I read Horrid Henry and I didn’t like it because Horrid Henry was mean and threw a blanket over Perfect Peter’s head.”

            “Hmm,” I said. “I have some sympathy for Horrid Henry. I think that I’d be strongly tempted to throw something at Perfect Peter. He sounds very irritating, going around being so perfect all the time. I prefer Horrid Henry despite his failings, or maybe even because of them.”

            To have failings, to fail, is a human prerogative. It might be our privilege. Children’s Books Ireland has chosen “The F Word: Failure” as the theme for its upcoming Dublin conference in May, 2014. Most writers know a lot about failure. We relish the stories of authors who suffered massive and repeated failure before achieving dramatic success. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by 20 publishers, including one, who denounced the manuscript as “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy, which was rubbish and dull.” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance garnered 120 rejected slips. James Joyce’s Dubliners was rejected 22 times. When it was finally published, only 379 copies sold in the first year. Joyce himself bought 120 of those.

            What about the fantasy novelist J.M. Hadley? He wrote nine lengthy and complex novels, all of which were rejected until finally at the advanced age of eighty-seven, he . . . died.

            His novels were not published posthumously. If he had talent, it was never recognized.

            I didn’t read about J.M. Hadley on some obscure blog because his story can’t be found on the web or anywhere else. I made it up. But I’m sure that there is plenty of his kind out there. His story is inconvenient. I like my failure to be ultimately overcome by success. I want failure to be a learning experience. I want it to be useful. I want it to mean something. Sometimes it doesn’t mean anything but bad luck.

             I wonder about J.M. Hadley’s funeral. I like to think that it was well attended by his grieving widow, children, grand-children and hundreds of friends and former colleagues. I want to force him to be George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. But I suspect that he might have been the male equivalent of Eleanor Rigby and his death went unmourned and even unnoticed.  Did J.M. Hadley consider himself to be a failure?  I don’t know. I do know that Wikipedia has more than 200 pages devoted to famous successful writers who committed suicide. Maybe J.M. Hadley was not so unlucky after all.

              I am speaking at the upcoming CBI conference on May 23rd. That’s the brochure in the photograph. I’ve experienced heaps of failure on every level in my life. I wrote my first novel in 2002 and got my first publishing contract ten years later. I finally passed my driving test last year after a number of unsuccessful attempts due to my staggering inability to accurately gauge distances. To put my failure in context, I believe that Lindsay Lohan passed her N.Y. State driving test on the first try. 

             I am looking forward to the CBI conference and learning about the other speakers’ experiences with success and with failure. It is a myth that failure must precede success. I know writers who landed big contracts on their first forays into the field. But I think that without failure, there is no story, at least, not a very interesting one. 

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