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Sunday Read: Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Will Self and Others Share What They’ve Learnt from Failure

Have you ever felt like a failure at life, love or work? Well, so have Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Anne Enright, Howard Jacobson, Will Self and Lionel Shriver. In an article for The Guardian, these writers – now considered successful – recall the failures and disappointments they’ve had to face in their lives and share the insights they’ve gained from these experiences, which makes for some inspirational reading.

Instead of a bookMaddaddamThe Sense of an EndingThe Forgotten WaltzZoo TimeUmbrellaBig Brother

Athill (95) has enjoyed great success with books published since she turned 80, including Somewhere Towards The End for which she won the 2008 Costa Book Award and 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. She recalls being devastated as a young woman by a broken engagement but says, “It was the writing that really put an end to failure”.

For six months in 1983 Margaret Atwood, winner of the 2000 Man Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin, struggled with a novel that was not to be. But it might have provided the spark needed to break “through some invisible wall”, which led to her writing The Handmaid’s Tale, winner of the 1987 Arthur C Clarke Award.

Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes, relates how he came to “understand the nuances of success and failure, to see how they are often intertwined, how success to one person is failure to another”.

Anne Enright wisely points out that, “Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold.” She won 2007 Man Boker Prize for The Gathering.

“One of the best ways of achieving this mastery over failure is not to drown it in alcohol, not to take pills or see a shrink, but to relive it, over and over, in words,” Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question advises.

Award winning author Will Self, whose Umbrella was most recently shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, is not fazed by criticism and realises that “praise is equally meaningless”.

And lastly, the concept of “failing well”, is something that appeals to Lionel Shriver, winner of the 2005 Orange Prize for We Need to Talk About Kevin. She admires being able “to rise above the unpleasant basket of emotions that come with the territory and to not allow disappointment to sour one’s very soul”.

Diana Athill

From the age of 22 to that of about 39 I knew myself to be a failure. For many of those years I was not positively unhappy, because I was doing work I enjoyed, was fond of my friends and often had quite a good time; but if at any moment I stood back to look at my life and pass judgment on it, I saw that it was one of failure. That is not an exaggeration. I clearly remember specific moments when I did just that. They were bleak moments. But they did lead to a subdued kind of pride at having learned how to exist in this condition – indeed, at having become rather good at it.

The reason for it was banal. Having fallen in love when I was 15, and become engaged to marry the man I loved three years later, I had known exactly what my future was to be. As soon as I finished my education at Oxford (not before, because I was enjoying it so much) we would be married. I would join him wherever he happened to be stationed (he was an officer in the RAF) and my life as a wife would begin. I didn’t doubt for a moment that it would be happy. My childhood and teenage years had been very happy so I was a young woman who expected the answer “Yes”. And then, not suddenly, but with excruciating slowness, I got the answer “No”.

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Images courtesy The Guardian


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