Writing About Not Writing

There are books about things, and then there are books about writing about things. Much self-reflexive writing tends to turn into self-panegyric about discovering—against all odds—the “freedom” to “create,” the discovery of one’s “voice.” The books below dwell on honest failure, shame, and the sharp self-awareness that comes after failing to write about anything other than failing to write. Each of these five authors shows us that writing through failure can produce great and necessary work.

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard, translated by David McLintock

A book-length suicide note written by a character who insists he is just about to start writing his masterpiece. Like Bernhard’s other novels, it eschews dialogue (except as reported speech) and most narrative detail (including descriptions of persons, places, and things). What’s left is a series of terse, overlapping refrains and a slow and relentless movement toward the book’s violent conclusion. McLintock describes Bernhard’s neurotic quasi-lyric repetition as skill, but to me it has always seemed more like a side effect of the desperation to say anything at all, and the subsequent desperation to escape the desperation to say anything at all.

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley

Exley’s novel is an account of the desire to write a masterpiece and the failure to do so. Though the plot concerns the protagonist’s obsession with football great Frank Gifford, the book’s real subject is inadequacy and its byproducts, especially rage: “It suddenly occurred to me that she and not the girl with the chestnut hair was the cause of all my anger, and that I was for perhaps a very long time going to have to live with that anger.” The aching reserve captured in the stilted phrase “for perhaps a very long time,” and its noble faith in the difference between eternity and merely apparent eternity, is one of the book’s best moments.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer

This book about trying to write a “sober, academic study” on D. H. Lawrence is a fine example of the design rule “If you can’t hide it, paint it red.” Dyer ruminates on his inability to write the book, to decide where to live, and even to choose which books to bring to his temporary lodgings, while failing to write the Lawrence book. Out of Sheer Rage soothes me, not because Dyer’s self-disgust and self-sabotage eventually abate, but because they describes a long-term strategy to try to outlive such sabotage and disgust: “I’ll be glad that this little book turned out how it did because I will see that what was intended to be a sober, academic study of D. H. Lawrence had to become a case history. Not a history of how I recovered from a breakdown but of how breaking down became a means of continuing.”

Reader’s Block by David Markson

A novel made entirely of fragments of assorted literary gossip that meld into a narrative about the failure to narrate. The book becomes the story of the writer who has, after all, chosen and arranged the fragments according to some obscure human need. The resulting book—a substantial part of which comprises lists of writers’ failures and deaths—is a comfort. At least things couldn’t be any worse than it was for them. Markson’s most recent novel, The Last Novel (2007), has been called a book-length suicide note (see Bernhard, above).

Enough About You by David Shields

In Shields’s words: “I loved how Marcel was both sort of the author and sort of a character [in Swann’s Way]; how the book was both a work of fiction and a philosophical treatise; how it could talk about whatever it wanted to for as long as it wanted to; how its deepest plot was uncovering the process by which it came into being.” Unlike the books listed above, Enough About You isn’t a failed attempt to write a book; it is the book that came after Shields discovered that, like Proust, he didn’t need to write a narrative in conventional form and of conventional length—he could write about himself, or whatever he wanted to, for as long as he wanted to.

Sarah Manguso is the author of four books, most recently the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).