Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Fail Better, Ladies by Kelly McCaughrain

I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Day’s excellent podcast series How to Fail this week. In each episode she interviews a celeb about their biggest failures, the aim being to debunk the myth that successful people never fail, to tear down those carefully curated Instagram profiles and show that failure is what teaches us to eventually succeed. 

It’s a brilliant idea and a great podcast, I recommend it. I’ve mainly been listening to the writers she’s interviewed and my principal observation so far has been the difference between the way the male and female interviewees approach the concept of ‘failure.’*

(*this is obviously a massive generalisation based on a small number of podcasts but still…)

Day says it’s harder to get men to come on the program because when asked to name ‘failures’ in their lives they genuinely can’t think of any. Whereas women are like,

In the ones I’ve heard, women list among their failures things like miscarriage, infertility, being made redundant, relationship breakdown, alcoholism, their entire twenties, being overweight and mental illness. These are things over which we have little or no control yet women list them as personal failures, rather than things that happen to you in the same way as flu or cancer happen to you.

Sebastian Faulks, conversely, said he “found it difficult to relate to the concept of failure.” His ‘failures’ were a souffle that didn’t rise and being beaten at tennis and cricket.

I do want to point out that Faulks seemed like a genuinely nice and interesting guy, and I’m not getting at the male interviewees here. I’m actually saying I wish the women had the same attitudes to failure that they did, and I just want to point out the massive differences as I perceived them, and question where this comes from.

Basically, I noticed a huge trend for women to label anything that went wrong in their lives a ‘failure’ that they felt as a personal flaw or something to be ashamed of, while men tended to blame external circumstances for anything that went wrong and deny that failure was even a real thing, since they might succeed on the next attempt anyway. 

While Elizabeth Day sympathised and reassured the women and reminded them that failure is character building etc, there was sense with the men that she was actively chucking their failures at them in a desperate attempt to get them to admit to one of them.

While Jesse Burton described her descent into depression at the terror lest her second book ‘fail’ (ie not be the MASSIVE bestseller her first was), when Day brought up Faulks's Bad Sex Award for Charlotte Grey, he said he’d won because Birdsong had been so successful people felt he needed taken down a peg. When he failed to win a big Italian Literature Prize, the winner was the brother-in-law of the chairman of the judges. He also failed his driving test twice but was failed for being ‘young and cocky’ because there was no other box to tick, and added that he was still only 17 when he passed so was that really a failure?

James Frey caused massive controversy with his first book when it was discovered that he’d fabricated parts that were supposed to be true. He was called out on the Oprah Show. When Day called this a ‘humiliation’ he objected to the word and said it was great advertising and that he considers the whole thing a ‘gargantuan success’. 

When he talked about a book of his that hadn’t been popular with readers, Faulks said it was either ‘misunderstood’ by people who weren’t sophisticated enough to get its unusual structure or criticised by readers who wanted to show how clever they were by saying this unusual book wasn’t very original at all. He felt that people who don’t like his books and patronisingly call them a “smashing read” do so because they “feel threatened” and like to defend themselves by “mumsifiying” the book. Interesting that calling a book entertaining (rather than difficult and literary presumably) is ‘mumsy’ but anyway…

When Marian Keyes failed to get onto a journalism course at uni she felt she’d been “hubristic” to even attempt it and subsequently gave up all career ambition and started drinking. She actually did get a law degree but this huge success didn’t feel like an achievement because “anything I could achieve automatically felt worthless.” Malcolm Gladwell said when he failed to get a job in advertising he wasn’t too bothered and pasted the rejection letters on the wall as a joke.

While Olivia Laing said she never remembers or notices anything from reviews except the things that upset her, Faulks said he found them ‘bracing’ as long as they weren’t personal. (It hadn’t occurred to me that you could NOT take a review personally but there you go.)

Laing said she had trouble narrowing down her failures and felt that women are socialised to be self-deprecating and not claim their successes. She listed as a failure being made redundant from the Observer, but called getting that job in the first place "a magical stroke of luck" and getting her book published a "complete and utter miracle".

Frey likes to break the rules and can’t see why he should live or write the way anyone else thinks he should, while Keyes felt shame for her body’s inability to do what it was ‘supposed to’ and bear children.

Laing felt that every book is a failure until it’s finished and Burton and Keyes both felt imposter syndrome. Frey said his ‘overnight success’ was really 12 years of being the only person who believed he could do it and that he has almost no self-doubt when writing. It’s not “Can I do it?” it’s just “How long will it take?” He’s also about to publish the first draft of a book that he’s refused to let anyone edit; he likes the flaws and bits that don’t work because they’re part of life. (Hmm. Wonder if I could get my editor to buy that.)

I couldn’t help wondering how I’d have felt if a woman on the program (I didn’t find any) spoke about failure like the men. Would I find her arrogant, while the men are admirable? I think I did find the women ‘normal’ and the men ‘arrogant’ but I wonder do men notice this difference and, if they consider themselves ‘normal’, what they think of the women?

I think class plays a big part in this too. And really the podcast isn’t about faults or flaws, it’s more about revealing the truth behind our Insta-Lives. The women do talk about how failures have led to their subsequent successes. But still, I found the gender differences staggering.

And, I just wanted to draw attention to this because as writers we are on the rollercoaster of rollercoasters when it comes to success and failure and it’s all very public. Most of my writer friends are women and I think there is a tendency for us (even though we know in theory that there are a hundred reasons a MS might get rejected) to automatically assume that every ‘failure’ is a personal flaw. Rejection leads to dejection leads to depression leads to even lower confidence leads to giving up.

I think our problems come from the idea that our work is so linked to who we are. Of course rejection is hard in those circumstances. Are men just better at separating their work from their identities? Or are they just better at assuming they are awesome people? 

What if we were all able to think, ‘OK, so that book was my heart and soul and this person didn’t like it. They must be an idiot/too busy to have read it properly/under pressure to find a different kind of book/already representing a similar book/going to LOVE my second book/not a fan of steampunk comedy noir/jealous of my enormous talent/one in 7 billion people on the planet who just doesn’t get me and probably isn’t destined to be my BFF.’ Instead of leaping straight to ‘I must be a really crap human.’

I wrote a post a while back about the necessity of defining success for yourself, so that you’d notice when you’d achieved it. But I think we also need to have a look at how we define failure. So we notice when we’re beating ourselves needlessly and illogically around the head with it.

I wish I could finish this with the inspiring words of a female writer but actually I’m just going to quote the men. Faulks began his interview by questioning what failure means and ended by saying, "It’s how you look at it." Frey said failure is just "part of the process" and that if you can remove your ego from a process then there really isn’t a difference between success and failure; it just is what it is. Malcolm Gladwell famously believes that failure is just 10,000 hours from success.

How do you define it?

Have a listen to the podcast anyway, it’s very entertaining (especially Alain de Botton's, which is fascinating). It’s also fun (and illuminating) to imagine what you’d chose as your 'failures' if you were a guest on it…   

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page



Nick Garlick said...

For what this may be worth, I don't identify with any of the statements from men that you quote in your post. To me, Frey and Faulks just come across as arrogant prats who don't know - or won't admit - how lucky they've been. To hear them tell it, success is little more than a question of waiting for your due recognition. If only life were that simple. I do believe I can write well, but it's pretty much a daily battle to remind myself of that. Rejections hurt like hell.

(I liked this post, by the way. A lot.)

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Nick, and I totally agree, it's a huge generalisation and was just based on the ones I listened to. But it's something I'll look out for in future in myself and in others, just becuase it's interesting.
I did think Frey was a bit full of it, but Faulks just seemed like a decent guy until you closely compare the women and men. I wished I could think more like him! I wished we all could. Alain de Botton's is really fascinating on the idea of luck, you should listen to that one.

Ann Turnbull said...

I haven't heard the podcast, but must admit I'm with Nick on this. I certainly don't think like those men! But I don't identify with any of the comments made by women either. I've never won an award or sold in spades, but have always felt confident about my books, even the unsuccessful ones.

Sara OConnor said...

Wowsa! When I saw the blog headline, I rankled.

But I totally DO identify with the statements from women here, and also identify the hearing of those types of statements from men. Of course it's not "every" man or woman who approaches failure like this, but I definitely recognise the pattern.

I also agree that it is up to me to mindshift and stop seeing the things that are out of control as my failure. And I should adopt a little of that Teflon attitude.

My attitude towards failure has never stopped me from doing or trying anything. But it does bring with it a weight that I shouldn't carry.

Really love this piece; thanks for writing it!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Ann, I found myself in between, in that I know logically that lots of things are just down to luck and circumstances, but I still feel irrationally that they reflect on me personally. But I'm more aware of that now, which helps.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Sara, it's amazing the things we think without even being aware of it really. It's only when you hold them up to scrutiny you realise how nuts you're being! I've found the podcast really interesting for that reason.

Sara OConnor said...

P.S. Just ordered the book in your bio from my local bookshop.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Wow, thanks Sara, how kind! Hope you enjoy it. And I love that you shop local! x

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for this post Kelly. I haven't listended to the podcast yet, though will do.

My additional thought is that when one's/your writing task already comes wrapped in a good dusting of fear of failure, the amount of time that writing takes can seem harder to justify(at an almost subconscious level)in a social context. Being or acting with confidence as a writer is a constant effort, and easily undermined.

(By the way, I love the fact that a lot of women writers now don't feel quite like this.)

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Very true, Penny. It's like an additional drag factor on what is already quite a hard job!

Stroppy Author said...

What a great post — thank you! I have a rather logical metric for deciding whether something is a failure: what mistake did I make that caused the failure? If there is no mistake, it's not a failure. If a book is rejected, and I genuinely believe it's a good book, the mistake might be sending it to the wrong publisher. Next question is 'could you foresee that it was a mistake?' If you sent a gardening book to a fiction publisher, the answer is yes. If you sent a horror novel to a publisher that publishes horror, the answer is no. If no, not a failure but something else - a mismatch of your book and the receiving editor, too close to something else they are publishing, etc. Obviously, infertility is not a failure in this sense. It is a 'failure to conceive' in the same way that my poor eyesight is a 'failure to see properly' - something that might be distressing but is not a failure BY you personally, just OF your biological system. This leaves the genuine failures - I haven't had this book published because I haven't sent it to enough editors, or whatever. But you have identified the mistake so you can correct it. It does mean, though, you have to own up to your real failures. Eg I haven't had this book published because I haven't sent it to enough editors because I am too scared of it being rejected. if you fail to overcome your fear of rejection, you stay on the failure pile. (Me, I mean. Not judging anyone else. This is my personal metric :-) )

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Wow, this is PROFOUND, Stroppy Author! Please turn this into a flowchart we can all use immediately!!!