This week, New York runs an excerpt from James Atlas' forthcoming memoir My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor's Tale, all about a subject very close to the author's heart: failure. Particularly the sort of failure that befalls a Harvard-educated, former staff writer for TIME, editor for The New York Times Magazine, head of his own book imprint, National Book Award nominee, esteemed biography of Saul Bellow who live on the Upper West Side. Yeah, you know the kind of failure we can all identify with.
I'm so obsessed with this theme that I actually keep a failure file. What stands out for me in the biographies of Faulkner and Fitzgerald are the months and years they wasted out in Hollywood, getting sodden over their squandered gifts. Cyril Connolly, one of the most distinguished critics of his day, made his name with a book, Enemies of Promise, that elegiacally bemoaned his lack of distinction. And the novelist Paul Auster writes in his memoir, Hand to Mouth, In my late twenties and early thirties, I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure. Ah!
Sounds like a fun dude.
Clearly Atlas has been thinking about failure a lot. Why, back in November 1996, he wrote an essay for The New Yorker entitled The Fall of Fun in which he griped, "If you don't have a six-figure deal by the time you're thirty-five, you've failed. In fact, why even be a writer?" (Now, don't you feel better about yourself?)
From musing for The New Yorker to musing for New York: what failure could this guy be talking about?