No-Hit Wonders

03.18.15 5:02 PM ET

Dictionary of Failure Is a Big Success

C.D. Rose’s fabricated compendium of failed authors includes one who wrote in an undecipherable code, one who could only get as far as the opening sentence, and one who ate his own books.

While success may have many fathers and failure is an orphan, in the case of C.D. Rose’s The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, these orphans at least have a warm roof over their heads. Rose’s quest to “tell the tales of those whose tales will remain untold,” in the form of 52 portraits of failed literary careers seems initially to disprove the “failure is an orphan” expression—until, as in the best of fictional orphanages, some of the residents rapidly begin to look considerably less like foundlings and considerably more like offspring.

Andrew Gallix asks, in his introduction, “If, as Roland Barthes argued, the death of the author marks the birth of literature, does the death of literature—its loss, or failure to come into being—mark the birth of the author?” In this case, it likely does, in an index of literary failure of every possible variety. A near-blind author pours out a masterpiece onto a dry typewriter reel. An author strains in vain over a lifetime for a perfect first word, beaten to it narrowly by death. Another author suffers the comparatively prosaic misfortune of leaving the manuscript of his masterpiece at Reading Station. Reading this necrology of unseen fiction, one enjoys the creeping awareness that the greatest failure of anyone in the Biographical Dictionary was existing in the first place. This does tend to put their faults in perspective.

In an age in which even conventional dictionaries often include false entries as a trap for plagiarists—the New Columbia Encyclopedia likely won this game of counterespionage with an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a photographer best known for photos of rural American mailboxes who died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine—the rise of the fictional reference work is hardly a surprise, nor obviously is it particularly new. The false library or reference work has an extensive and esteemed lineage. Borges’s Library of Babel is the spiritual father of them all. Danilo Kis’s Encyclopedia of the Dead assumed a compensatory posture in the realm of biography: “The only condition ... for inclusion in The Encyclopedia of the Dead is that no one whose name is recorded here may appear in any other encyclopedia.” Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature of the Americas profiles a set of authors who were better off not existing (and requires some discretion to read in public).

Rose’s work, like Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, achieves something more comic given its relentless focus on failure.

Misfortune in dictionaries mirrors that in life, and the range of authorial mishaps in the book draws deeply from those you might imagine and a good deal more. There’s a lost modernist manuscript, “L’homme avec les mains fleuries,” lost when a friend, suspecting the author died in the Great War, complied with his request to burn it. Another casualty is U-Boat litterateur Baron Friedrich Von Schoenvorts, whose aquatically-composed works about an undersea colony of Martian invaders were lost along with his submarine. Or, more outlandishly, the bibliophage who would promptly eat his output.

Writer’s block or belabored starts, probably the most familiar complaints in the epidemiology of writer’s afflictions, are well-represented. Aurelio Quattroch “spent all of 1973 pouring over a single word, and most of 1974 erasing it.” Wilson Young, who determined he could not write until he had finished comprehensive travels, filled notebooks with “mouthwatering descriptions of the menemen eaten in Istanbul, the manoushi in Beirut and the grilled milza in Palermo,” but wrote nothing else. Then there is Felix Dodge, who, “among many other things, investigated and wrote extensive notes on Russian steamships, First World War artillery battalions, the Mauve February anarchists, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, the United Kingdom’s lesser-used train routes, rare psychological complaints (bibliophagy and graphomania in particular), translations of obscure German and Russian literature, the nature of the true Ark, seventeenth-century traveller’s tales, Muscovite street slang, early submarines, Bothno-Ugaric languages, the practice of demonology in West Yorkshire, Age of Discovery-era Portuguese statuary and the contents of the great lost library of Alexandria. Dodge then died of an aneurysm when eventually he sat down to write.”

There are realized works marooned by linguistic difficulties and the absence of a ready readership. Ortha Orkut (even Rose’s names are memorable) wrote lyric verse that proved to be an epitaph for her language, of which she was the last speaker (this language is familiar, but only from a certain Calvino novel). Or Peter Trabzhk, who authored a Dubliners for the city of Bzyzhzh, in Spanish, a language that no one in the city spoke. Or the suspiciously Fassbinder-y Veronica Vass, whose wartime work at Bletchley Park led her to write a novel in a code that no one has ever deciphered. Hartmutt Trautman, an East German whose enthusiasm for English as the most beautiful language, was impaired by his failure to understand any of it, perhaps because his principal tool of reference was a German-English dictionary “particular to the field of East German electrical engineering.”

Some of these attempted epics sound like postmodern classics come a little too soon; to quote Steve Coogan in the film adaptation of Tristram Shandy, “written before there was any modernism to be post about.” There’s the positively Oulipian Chad Sheehan, who wrote 1,917 opening lines for novels, and no more. Virgil Haack, laboring on a genuine work of literary minimalism, sent out a work consisting only of “the single word, ‘I’ on the first, and only, page of his novel.” The editors “unanimously mistook that lonely, passionate word for the number ‘one’ and believed that Haack had forgotten to enclose the ensuing chapters of his great work.” Kevin Stapleton, who “spent the next few years in his bedsit writing tales of great journeys to Ceylon, Siam, and Persia, unaware that those countries had ceased to exist.”

There’s a prolific author whose works simply sound too perfectly eponymous: Henderby of Henderby Hall, Ernest Maltravers, and Cheverley, the Man of Honor. The author Aston Brock became convinced that writing’s failure to pay could be blamed on the replicability of the book.

“It was with this in mind that Aston Brock decided, seeing as his attempts to break into literary renown had yet been unsuccessful, that he would henceforth publish his work in limited editions of one. One copy, only. No more, ever. The author’s signature would grace the title page.”

With singularity ensured, “his novel Christ versus Warhol would attain the status and price tag of such works of art as Jasper Johns’s Gray Numbers ($40 million), Gerhard Richter’s Three Candles ($8.9 million), Cy Twombly’s Untitled 1970 ($7.6 million) or even Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (a relatively modest $5 million).” Naturally this didn’t go according to plan.

It’s easy—at least at first—to read the biographical dictionary credulously. But specific details do raise red flags: One author’s family, for instance, is a virtual melting pot: “his mother Swedish, his father Franco-Polish, his brother Armenian.” Ostensibly the book was once a website, although the entries were soon deleted in a suspiciously Bartlebooth-like act of erasure. Some traces are more subtly salted; the authors who crop up in other entries, the fact that a notable forger’s work, “The Man With The Flowering Hands,” sounds suspiciously like the lost manuscript, “L’homme avec les mains fleuries.”

Literature being a game, like any other, intrinsically concerned with the relative winners, there is no doubt that there are, as the introduction notes, “dozens or hundreds or thousands whose work has been lost to fire or flood, to early death, to loss, to theft or to the censor’s pyre.” There are, obviously, no real biographical dictionaries for these. The fortunate thing, though, about a book that’s not grounded in recognition but in unfamiliarity—less of a “Who’s Who” than a “Who Isn’t”—is how would you possibly tell? And given the results, how could you argue?