“William Gold has earned only 50 cents after 18 years of unceasing labor.”
Any child who read the Guinness Books between 1976 and 1982 has reflected on these words. In 1976, William Gold first appeared as the world‘s “Least Successful Author,“ a record which he held, tenuously, until 1982. He was not included in 1980, returned in 1981, and by 1982 only remained as perhaps a cautionary image, no longer with an official record entry. He appeared alone, a superstar of failure, in the early years, but had the privilege (or indignity) of later sharing his space with, alternately, Agatha Christie and Jacqueline Susann, as if to exemplify the extremes of literary destiny, one of those little cosmic jokes the McWhirter twins liked to play, here at Mr. Gold‘s expense.
For a long time, this image was a haunting one for me, as perhaps it still is. It now strikes me there is something saintly about Gold. Maybe it‘s the head cradled over his typewriter in lotus petal hands, his ringed Svengali eyes daring you to fail more, fail better than he. But as a young adult, it was another matter entirely. Here was someone who had every semblance of having the role of “writer,“ not to mention “human being,“ under his control; he owned a suit and seemed to reside in some kind of office. Particularly shaming to me was the fact that he had the energy and time to have completed eight books and seven novels. Why was Gold more “Least Successful“ than I? Hadn‘t I put in long, undocumentable hours, months, and years into writing that was unpaid, unpublished, and unbindable even by my own stapler?
This category no longer exists, and for good reason. All of our failures are incalculable. Many of them compete handsomely with Gold‘s failure, although these failures might not submit easily to Guinness metrics. The literary world is haunted by the unpublished, and in fact may productively be generated only by the existence of the vastness of the unreadable. But can we say that Gold‘s fifteen books have impacted the literary world in any way? How different are they from, say, Jacqueline Susann‘s unreadable The Love Machine , for which she garnered a $500,000 advance, after submitting to the publisher merely seven pages, handwritten on pink paper? While still a freelance writer, Nora Ephron wrote in 1969 that “The publication of ‘The Love Machine‘ should not be confused with a literary event. Not at all. There is nothing literary about Miss Susann—a former actress who became somewhat successful in the fifties doing Schiffli embroidery commercials with her poodle Josephine—or her writing.
The literary world is also haunted by metrics, the math— many times computer modeled—out of which literary value has been erected in the age of the publishing conglomerate. The Guinness book, dealing only in numerical extremes, transforming otherwise anonymous personalities and invisible oddballs into momentary spectacles merely on account of their numeric prodigy, is perhaps the purest example of this. In fact, it would, in the years when it cannibalized the failure of William Gold, become the world‘s “Most Successful“ publication.
In another, perhaps more cruelly organized world, William Gold‘s dubious achievement would be placed next to that of Mrs. Marva Drew, whose claim to fame is the seemingly more wholesome, cheerfully troglodytic activity of typing the numbers one to one million, for which she took six years out of her life. However, the indefatigable Drew‘s stunt is separated from “Arts and Entertainment“ by over two hundred pages. In “Endurance.“
Another saint? Or perhaps here is an allegorical figure of “endurance,“ “duration,“ and a sense of the hard materials of life: Marguerite Duras. Is she the inverse of Gold? She is fearless towards the negative pull of the unpublished, the unprofitable, delighting in things unrepresentable because of the ravishment of time. There was a destructive force that was foundational to her work, not a product of despair after the fact. In the words of Maurice Blanchot, she was “one who could destroy by a pure movement of love . . . bestowing an infinite emptiness where the word destroy becomes a non-privative, non-positive, neutral word. When she took the soundtrack of her film India Song,and created a sequel by merely adding new images, completely devoid of any sense of contemporary human activity, she said, “If you must define me, I think it is there that you must look. In this wager, in this wager that I make against myself, to undo what I did . . . I call that progress. To destroy what I have done.
Even in the original film that she “destroyed,“she was already playing out the creative destruction of non-representational art by composing it without clear action, locatable dialog, or discernable tempo. India Song is a film of memory, evanescences, absence, heat, with a horrible cry of pain at its core. We are not given any framework by which to hold these elements (even the actual frame of the film is complexified by a large mirror in the mise-en-scène ), and in fact, it is hard to remember anything about the film even immediately after the film is finished. It leaves no moments for us that we can take as souvenirs, no “things.“ In this way, one plays out the ruin of one‘s own art, not merely thematizing but embodying death and forgetting, operating through despair and absence, while motivated by, as Duras says, love: “If India Song is successful in any way, it can only be in that it documents a failed project. A result that fills me with hope. . . . The only possible setting for the story is the incessant swing of our despair between this love and its body : the very obstacle to any narration.
In 1957, Duras defined what she called “virtual literature.“ She couldn‘t have known anything about hypertext, caves, and data gloves. The reference occurs in the introduction to a short piece entitled “One out of a Hundred Novels Makes it to Publication,“ where she defines virtual literature not as the electronicized dream-world of floating words, but rather, as that which is notliterature. She says, “Published literature represents only one percent of what is written in the world. It seems worthwhile to talk about the rest, an abyss, a black night out of which comes that ‘bizarre thing,‘ literature, and into which almost all of it disappears again without a trace. As such, “virtual literature“ becomes a useful term providing a link between works that accidentally find themselves in the void of the unpublished, such as Gold‘s and those that, for whatever reason, find that the failure of their work is not only preordained, but also is the condition for its creativity (and, in a sense, its lovability).
Duras‘ “one percent“ may seem quaint to us now, too fat an integer. It may be that published literature now forms a mere infinitesimal speck on the spume of great oceans of data. If it seemed worthwhile for Duras to talk about “the rest,“ this would now include not merely the weekend novelist who is not published, but the multifarious forms of self-publishing, as well as those modes of writing that are para- or sub-literary, which could include, among other things, the data fall-out of Web 2.0. This “remainder“—although it is too much in the majority to really call it that—assails us everyday in the noise of the web, and we are already virtual when we navigate this vast metacategory of “what is not literature.“
We can make our own literature out of this non-literary realm, and it is perhaps no longer such a dark realm when we can so easily activate a lost memory, or frame some data detritus for enjoyment and wonder, connecting each new fragment in a total system of sympathies. Duras‘ more terrible virtual still exists, but one wonders whether we are distracted enough by digital positivism not to see at the heart of any database her pure destructive nothing, whether we can see, as in the almost featureless face of her early photographs, time nullified, but duration (unperceived, unrecorded) sustained.
To blacken some paper. This is how Breton describes the surrealist writing experiments he conducted with Phillipe Souppault, which lead to his formulations in the “Surrealist Manifesto.“ Write quickly, without any preconceived subject . . . put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can . . . do not be tempted to reread what you‘ve written . . . with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard . . . Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur . . . Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. His confidence that he could externalize thought—which for him could be not faster than the pen, but which still could be held up at the customs of the mind— was bolstered by the belief that its formless, uncensored contents were more marvelous than those shaped by literature.
Instead, he wishes to become a passive recording mechanism. If the pen drives thought rather than the opposite, then our thought is only limited by the speed of our machines. But how can a machine poetics be thought ? Why should our productions submit to thinkability? Why should we ? Indeed, as Gilles Deleuze will later assert, it is the image of thought itself that blocks some of the more exciting assemblages of which we are capable, including the experience of virtuality in its purest state. Breton stood at a golden time where he could imagine a harmonic alignment between the typewriter, the radio, the dreamer and the poet, and so his unliterary assemblages did not seem so far outside of literature or the thinking being‘s constitution; one could still feel like a swim in the black sea of data was salubrious for the writer, especially if that black sea was the repressed contents of one‘s very self.
For Breton, literature was merely a type of filter, and the Surrealists “we, who have made no effort whatsoever to filter.
Today, this filterless experience may strike us as an outright impossibility, since we have access not only to our own unedited, unconscious contents but potentially to those of millions. And their cat photos. But the filter—whether implicated in the structure of the mind, narrative or the computer—always determines the borderlands between actual literary practice and its virtual backdrop, between what gets read and the wilderness of the unreadable.
If we were to create some sort of spectrum of artistic attitudes towards this virtual realm of the unpublished, where would we put Breton? On each end are the impossible attitudes towards the virtual: either full emersion in the filterless (a kind of death) or totally filtered experience (a kind of idiocy). As with Duras, Breton espouses a loving nihilism, with his particular form of anti-literature framed (or unframed) as an initiation into death that one must undertake. Yet his anti-literary gestures are precisely those that, in turning attention to the unframed contents of existence, affirm life, and create a new literature. In Nadja , the main character—only approached by various feints and oblique indications (she is not even mentioned until halfway through the book)—asks Breton to bring her some of his books, to which he replies “Life is other than what one writes.
But Breton‘s surrealist paradox is that his new combinations and attentions make for a better capture or experience of life. The act of continuous passive recording becomes a form of action-art, with energies reawakened by the virtual, approaching life more willingly than do the deadly impositions of generic forms.
Warren Motte describes Breton‘s supposed antagonism between literature and life as a game where the terms constantly mutate, so that the anti-literary becomes the heart of the literary, and the non-book secretly congeals into a book, while “the potentiality of writing is . . . the primary concern of Nadja. As we will see, “potentiality“ is one of many synonyms for the virtuality of the text in this, my bestiary of the unpublished and unpublishable. The word implies an openness into which literature renews itself, primarily through the presumed anti- literary—process, duration, archive, junkpile. Thus, in Nadja , the flea market is a central engine of this potentiality, where one can access “objects that can be found nowhere else: old fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse. Its picked-over jumble stands to outdo the order of the library. There Breton finds an object that I feel is meant stand for a competing writing machine, a perverse dream-image through which he can imagine a future poetics emanating. He describes it as an “irregular, white, shellacked half-cylinder covered with reliefs and depressions that are meaningless to me, streaked with horizontal and vertical reds and greens, preciously nestled in a case under a legend in Italian, which I brought home and which after careful examination I have finally identified as some kind of statistical device, operating three-dimensionally and recording the population of a city in such and such a year, though all this makes it no more comprehensible to me. Next to a volume of Rimbaud‘s complete works “lost in a tiny, wretched bin of rags, yellowed nineteenth-century photographs, worthless books and iron spoons, this abandoned statistical machine is a hieroglyph of future writing—attuned to the minute data of life in the city—and all the more useful for literature since it seems, here in the flea market, to come from a future that has failed.
Breton did, after all, finish this book, as well as others. There is a photograph of him at the end of Nadja , plate 44, with the caption “I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book . . . He wants to believe, however, that having finished the book, one could still give it up. If we imagined Nadja to actually be given up in some way—that what we have just read was not a finished book, but rather something loosely grouped like a box of flea market nick- knacks—then the photo of Breton becomes merely one discard among others. I can even imagine this picture of Breton hanging in the foyer of a dilapidated mansion in a pulp novel for sale in a box with playbills, broken telephones, and rosaries with missing prayers. In this imagined potboiler, a plucky ingénue has been dispossessed of an enormous fortune by some wily and litigious relation. However, it turns out that the eyes in the portrait direct her towards an even bigger booty—the location of a hidden treasure chest, filled with wooden chips painted to look like pirate doubloons (but in the world of this novel, they are coin of the realm!) I think Breton would rather have us read his book in this way, and, in fact, Breton‘s eyes in the photo of plate 44 direct us to the following passage: “The sudden intervals between words in even a printed sentence, the line which we speak, we draw beneath a certain number of propositions whose total is out of the question, the complete elision of events which, from one day to the next or to another, quite upsets the data of a problem we thought we could solve.“ It is in-between the words where we are invited to give up the book, the blind spot where Breton urges our attention, and the source of his anti-literary gold.
Joe Milutis is a writer, media artist, and Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at the University of Washington-Bothell. His writing includes various literary-media hybrids, including digital essays, performance, and installation. He is a contributor to magazines such as Cabinet, Triple Canopy, and Film Comment among others. He is the author of Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything (Minnesota).
Failure, A Writer's Life
ISBN: 978-1-78099-704-9, $24.95 / £14.99, paperback, 296pp
EISBN: 978-1-78099-703-2, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook
Failure, A Writer’s Life is a catalogue of literary monstrosities. Its loosely organized vignettes and convolutes provide the intrepid reader with a philosophy for the unreadable, a consolation for the ignored, and a map for new literary worlds.