In a recent essay on books such as How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big and The Value of Failure, and podcasts such as Elizabeth Day’s interview series How to Fail, the NS columnist Megan Nolan described a new cultural obsession with failure as “a hot commodity”. Such books and podcasts have little interest in failure as we might traditionally understand it, but, through interviews with celebrities, posit failure as “a necessary milestone in the lives of the ultimately fabulously successful”, or “a series of experiments which lead inevitably and inexorably to the conclusion of success”. It’s a limiting framework.
[See also: The childish, cartoony smut of The Great]
Into this context comes a new episode of the BBC Radio 4 interview series One to One. The culture journalist Rosie Millard – a former arts editor of the NS – has years of experience speaking to leading figures in the arts about how they “made it”. She admits that the predominant narrative is that “luck and persistence will out: all you need to do is follow your dream”, because we are a culture that is “obsessed with success and terrified of failure”. But in this sensitive, thoughtful, three-episode series, Millard speaks to those with stories that don’t fit this narrative, and whose voices are rarely heard in popular media.
In the first episode (12 Jan, 9.30am), she talks to an Edinburgh-based fiction writer, Debbie Bayne, who is in her early 60s and is yet to have a novel published. A management consultant for many years, Bayne came to fiction writing later in life: after spending nine months writing and editing a draft, she sent a copy to “all the agents I could find in Britain, and had no success”. Bayne is frank about the fact others might see her writing career as a failure. On whether a lack of publication invalidates her work, Bayne herself feels “divided”. “In my better moments I don’t think it does at all, because it still exists, those characters still exist, they still have a life. In my worst moments I just think, ‘Well, it means I’m not a good writer.’” Bayne is insightful on the “binary” world of publishing, where you either get your work accepted, or you don’t. “The measure of doing a good job is whether you get published or not,” she says. “But I can’t control that.”
One to One
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control