Why we should be honest about failure

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Why we should be honest about failure


On a long-haul flight, Can You Ever Forgive Me? becomes the first film I have ever watched twice in immediate succession. Released last month in Britain, it recounts the (true) story of Lee Israel, a once-admired, now-marginal writer who resorts to literary forgery to make the rent on her fetid New York hovel. Her one friend is himself a washout who, as per the English tradition, passes off his insolvency as bohemia. Lee pleads with her agent to answer her calls and, in the rawest scene, confesses her crime with a wistful pang for the success it brought her.

There are serviceable jokes (including the profane farewell between the two friends) but the film is ultimately about failure: social, financial, romantic, professional. Put it down to the lachrymose effects of air travel — a phenomenon that has no definitive explanation — but I found the film unusually affecting. Or perhaps it was the shock of seeing failure addressed so unsentimentally, and from so many angles.

Failure — not spectacular failure, but failure as gnawing disappointment — is the natural order of life. Most people will achieve at least a little bit less than they would have liked in their careers. Most marriages wind down from intense passion to a kind of elevated friendship, and even this does not count the roughly four in 10 that collapse entirely. Most businesses fail. Most books fail. Most films fail.

You would hope that something so endemic to the human experience would be constantly discussed and actively prepared for. Instead, what we hear about is failure as a great “teacher”, or as a staging post before eventual success. There are management books about “failing forward”. There are educational methods that teach children the uses of failure. Consult an anthology of quotations about the subject, and it is not just the Paulo Coelho types who sugar-coat it. Churchill, Edison, Capote, at least one Roosevelt: people who should know better almost deny the existence of failure as anything other than a character-building phase.

There are good intentions behind all this. There is also a lot of naivety and squeamishness. For many people, failure will be just that, not a nourishing experience or a bridge to something else. It will be a lasting condition, and it will sting a fair bit.

Our seeming inability to look this fact in the eye is not just unbecoming in and of itself, it also inadvertently makes the experience of failure more harrowing than it needs to be. By reimagining it as just a holding pen before ultimate triumph, those who find themselves stuck there must feel like aberrations, when their experience could not be more banal.

I have known lots of Lee Israels: sensations at 25, under-achievers at 40. Sometimes, there was an identifiable wrong turn — a duff career move, say, or the pram in the hallway. But in most cases, it was just the law of numbers doing its impersonal work.

In almost all professions, there are too few places at the top for too many hopefuls. Lots of blameless people will miss out. Whether at school or through those excruciating management guides, a wiser culture would not romanticise failure as a means to success. It would normalise it as an end.

Look again at that list of names who have minted smarmy epigrams about the utility of failure. It is, you realise, a kind of winner’s wisdom. Those who overcome setbacks to achieve epic feats tend to universalise their atypical experience. Amazingly bad givers of advice, they encourage people to proceed with ambitions that are best sat on, and despise “quitters” when quitting is often the purest common sense.

At the end of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Lee is an unambiguous failure. There is (and you will excuse the spoilers) no rapprochement with an ex-lover she is plainly not over. There is no conquest of her drink habit. The film could dwell on the real-life Lee’s successful memoir, on which it is based, but only mentions it in text as the screen goes dark. She loses her solitary friend to illness. Even the cat croaks. Why, then, is the film so moreish as to demand an instant repeat over the Atlantic? It is, I think, the honest ventilation of a universal human subject. It is the novelty of being treated as a grown-up.

Follow Janan on Twitter @JananGanesh or email him at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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