The most obvious answer could be: Yes, you have failed as a writer if you aren’t famous. What’s the point of writing if you know zero to three people are ever going to read your work? Try as you might to tell yourself that you’re doing it for yourself, it’s pretty evident that the aspiration to be a writer is nothing if not utterly narcissistic, with all those people out there who feel it’s essential to tell their story.
True failure, though, lays in surrendering simply because no one has any idea who you are if and when they see your name in print. And you’re not alone: Many renowned authors never thought their work would amount to much, and it frequently didn’t until after their deaths.
If you thought Moby-Dick was always considered a classic, you’d be mistaken. In Herman Melville’s lifetime, what is now considered his masterpiece was seen as the beginning of his end. Published in 1851, Moby-Dick received a resounding, collective negative review. His lament over what he presumed would be received as his finest work is best expressed in a letter to fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne in which he stated, “Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory — the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended.” Melville’s situation poses a question as equally daunting as utter obscurity: Have you failed as a writer if your work is grossly misunderstood in your own time?
Possibly one of the few writers of pure intention (i.e. writing for writing’s sake) was Emily Dickinson, who remained little known until after her death. Her reclusiveness made writing the perfect “occupation,” though she never saw much in the way of money for her tireless work.
Continuing in the tradition of somberness was Edgar Allan Poe, another author who had a great deal of trouble finding interest in his work while he was alive. Although he tried to be a full-time writer without the burdens of a day job, Poe chose a tumultuous time in American publishing history to pursue his career. Pirating from European authors was common practice amongst American publishers, who were unwilling to pay for new material from unknown authors. This was compounded by the recession fueled by the Panic of 1837, which meant that paid work as a writer was hard to come by. Poe achieved minor triumphs, including writing as a literary critic for the Southern Literary Messenger, though he was fired for showing up drunk. Realizing the struggles of writing may have been greater than he expected, Poe attempted to secure a job in government, but his alcoholic tendencies prevented him from even getting to the interview.
Another literary legend who suffered from the common writer’s affliction of obscurity was Franz Kafka. With the occasional short story appearing in journals like Hyperion, Kafka never received anything other than a lukewarm response in his era, even when it came to his novels. Upon his death, he demanded that his literary executor, Max Brod, destroy all of his work, whether published or not. Obviously, Brod did just the opposite, helping to promote Kafka’s posthumous legacy. It is endlessly ironic that Kafka’s themes focused largely on futility and that, as soon as he stopped trying (very literally, due to his death), fame came in spades.
A more modern example of the “failed” writer is John Kennedy Toole, the now beloved author of A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole attended Columbia University and taught briefly at Hunter College. He started and completed A Confederacy of Dunces while teaching in Louisiana and began submitting it to publishers like Simon & Schuster in the late ‘60s. His incessant rejections from publishers fortified his ever-present state of depression, prompting him to end his life at the age of 31. His talent was vindicated after his mother presented the manuscript to Walker Percy, the novelist best known for writing The Moviegoer. Percy published Dunces in 1980, and it won the Pulitzer in ’81.
I’m not saying that death is the answer to your fame problem (definitely, definitely not), merely iterating that a number of literary heavyweights suffered just as much, if not more, than you only to have their efforts go unrewarded. So peel yourself off the floor and get back to your desk. True failure doesn’t lay in being unknown, but ceasing to write.
Genna Rivieccio graduated with a degree in screenwriting and closely identifies with Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. She has written for pop culture blogs, including Culled Culture, The Toast and Behind the Hype, as well as satire for Missing a Dick and The Burning Bush.
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