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Washington, DC

The Intentional is a print literary and culture magazine that supports emerging writers and prizes approachability.

Book reviews, essays, and more

Book reviews, essays, and more, all by emerging or unpublished writers.

When You've Failed Again: Read C.D. Rose’s “Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure”

Elizabeth Weinberg

By Guia Cortassa

Here’s to the draft you just trashed. To the brilliant idea for that line which, once on the page, wasn’t that great anymore.

Here’s to the pages you didn’t save before the blue screen of death appeared on your computer. To the miles and miles of walking trying to coax that sentence out of the meanderings of your mind.

Here’s to the overthinking, the inadequacy, the procrastination; here’s to the writing prompts that never worked, to the sudden 3 a.m. inspiration that you couldn’t remember the morning after, to the countless motivational quotes you’ve browsed the internet for.

Here’s to all the times you tried to cut down your adverbs, your modifiers, your pronouns, until you were left with only a blank page. To the umpteenth standardized rejection email you just got for your latest submission.

You are not alone.

There were people, before all of us, who suffered from these very same struggles. We haven’t heard of them because nothing of their art survived after their death, but their experience is a precious refuge for those who have attempted at least once in their life to turn to writing.

We had not heard of them until British author and self-proclaimed “world’s preeminent expert on inexpert writers" C.D. Rose decided it was about time to shed some light on these perfect strangers’ ordeals.

And so he did.

First came a peculiarly time-limited website. Each week, for a year only, Rose, the editor, would post a short biographical note on a writer who amazed in his talent of failing at actually being a writer. After 52 bios, the blog would be deleted, leaving, once again, no trace whatsoever of the authors’ existence.

But then, in a twist of faith, the possibility to turn this evanescent digital form into an everlasting, tangible, printed book came to save the miserable writers from damnatio memoriae once again, giving substance (and paper) to their lives and efforts. This is how The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failures was born.

How can someone be a master in failure, you might be asking right now. Well, let some of C.D. Rose’s search results explain it. For example, meet a poor, scatterbrained Stanhope Barnes, who forgot the only existing copy of his manuscript on a train in the pre-digital era; or one Martin Burscough who just kept chasing buses to Poetry meetings throughout Britain as if they were rainbows. And what about Maxim Maksimich, who went ashore from the only steamer that would take him to Moscow, never making it out of a remote Russian town again?

There are writers afflicted by lethal illnesses, like the bibliophage Ernest Bellmer, who would devour his manuscripts like Saturn did his sons, or Ellery Fortescue, for whom “writing was not a therapy or a cure, but a symptom.” Writers at the mercy of their misleading and forgetful memory, whether caused by drugs, alcohol, or an accident. Writers struggling with language, like Edward Nash, forever looking for one perfect sentence, or Otha Orkkut, the only speaker (and writer) left of a dead tongue nobody could understand, and let’s not forget the notes on translation offered by the infamous work by Lamotte Fouquet and Harmut Trautmann.

There are those whose words were bigger than fiction and could only be taken as real, as it happened to the E.T.A. Hoffman-inspired work by Charles Hèbè; the demonic, esoteric experimenting of Benjamin Rust; the self-fulfilling prophecy of Robert Roberts’ life; or Kevin Stapleton’s imaginary travel stories, crossing the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Those haunted by the ghost of visual art, a shady presence lingering throughout all the pages, like Aston Brock or Virgil Haack, Eric Quayne, Ellen Sparrow and Bas Van De Bont.

And, again, writers who were overwhelmed by their thirst for life and experience, like a fool Felix Dodge, who spent his life travelling only to sit at his typewriter too late to be spared by the touch of Death; or J.D. ‘Jack’ Ffrench who approached his crime fiction with Stanislavski’s method — it isn’t hard to guess how his career ended.

But there’s more than meets the eye in all of those stories. Leafing through the pages of the Biographical Dictionary, the abundance of apparently secondary details comprised in the short texts is something impossible to leave unnoticed: the failed masters’ favorite books and sources of inspiration, their writing places of choice, even the make and model of their beloved typewriters are only a few of the things that will catch your attention. And even if it’s true that a trouble shared is a trouble halved, relief is not the first thing you will feel upon reading. Because even though something in the writers’ names and background will ever remind you of already familiar matters, something else will still leave you puzzled until the book’s very end: a strange feeling of mystery, an inexplicable impossibility of completely grasping the likelihood of truth within these lives.

You will then start googling, researching to know more about those authors; you’ll be eager to know what’s behind those murky shades within their stories, to fill the gaps left open by Rose’s narrative. The more you’ll look for answers, the less you’ll get. The more you’ll feel acquainted with the failure described in the texts, the more you’ll find yourself pondering and reflecting on it.

Only after reading Sara Zeelen-Levallois' fleeting story, the very last of the collection, will you understand that this whole time, you were being asked to surrender, to suspend your disbelief, and to fully enjoy the fifty-two biographies for what they are: a year-full of cautionary tales letting you know that, indeed, all you have to do is "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."