Thursday, January 30, 2014

Failure and the American Writer by Gavin Jones

When I requested this book, I thought it was going to be a historical book - how American writers struggled with failure. But, it's actually a literary book - how American writers treat failure and how some of their "failed" works are actually not that much of a failure. Oops, that was a huge mistake in the assumption I made.

The authors and their (failed) works that are examined are Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Sarah Orne Jewett and Henry James. Personally, I wish there was a better gender balance, especially since the Sarah Orne chapter talked about Edith Wharton as well, and it seemed like examining The House of Mirth as a treatment of failure would result in some interesting analysis.

What this book is mostly concerned is getting meaning out of the "failed" works of authors. For example, for Mark Twain, the text examined is Pudd'nhead Wilson. It's a text that Mark Twain admits starts as one story but became another - and the changes were so huge they weren't changed well. But instead of this simply being Mark Twain being careless in writing, the analysis is that "the text of Pudd'nhead Wilson replicates this ontological insecurity, just as its characters are unable to stand alone as integral and consistent units."

Personally, I'm not entirely convinced by the book. It does make some interesting arguments, especially Sarah Orne Jewett, that her failure (through the lack of plot) is a deliberate Resistance to plot. But for most cases, I do wonder if it's simply the case that the author just failed to use his talents to the full.

The book is quite dense, but it's a rewarding read. While I won't say that it's very readable, if you have an interest in this subject, you'll probably enjoy reading what this author has to say. Now, if you want to test whether you'll understand and enjoy the book, take a look at the following sentence:

"Contradictions in narrative authority mean that there is no way for the novel to manage or transcend a collapse of psychological integrity that is wired into the normative self."

If you understood everything and it piques your interest, then this book is for you! And don't worry, the book does have the occasional moment of humour. For example, the chapter on Sarah Orne Jewett and her sketches is called "Sarah Orne Jewett Falling Short." In fact, now that I look at the chapter titles, all of them are puns.

So if you have an interest in the literary analysis of failure, especially of the six authors mentioned, you should pick up this book. If you're just a literature buff, this is a good book to use when you want to stretch your brain muscles.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

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