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The Book of Failure

By Matt Leibel

My book failed so badly that I was put on trial, because I lived in a country in which failure had been made illegal, and I was convicted by a jury of critics, and spent my time in captivity reading other failed writers, ones who had failed far worse than me, frankly, and I started to forget what good writing even looked like, until the day I was slated to die (I would be stoned to death with stone tablets on which all the great works of literature I couldn’t live up to were inscribed) and as the tablets were about to smash into me, I had a sudden vision, a vision for the greatest work of my life, a story that couldn’t fail, only now I knew I’d never write it, which made me sad, but just for a moment, because I knew that even if I had written it, even if it had been a critical smash, even if it had mass popular success and sold 10 million copies, even if it had been translated into hundreds of languages, even if it had been tattooed onto the chests of people on distant islands discovering the written word for the very first time, even if it been used by primatologists to teach sign language to monkeys, even if it had been turned into a wildly popular musical whose percussive elements involved the rapid opening and closing of multiple copies of the book, even if my book was the first thing people thought of when they awoke each morning and the last thing they remembered when their head hit the pillow at night, even if people in cold climates saw my story spelled out letter by letter when their own breaths materialized in the frosty air, even if skywriters were hired to reprint my book above the earth, even if my book was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace and Medicine as well as Literature, even if it led to breakthroughs that alleviated human suffering and pointed to a new way forward that reconnected us with our shared humanity, even if my book could be converted into edible form to feed the entire world, even if all that happened, the likelihood was that my next book, the one I wrote after that, whether by comparison or objective measure, would likely be a clear failure, an utter flop, a linguistic crash and burn, and through the same inevitable punitive measures of the merciless, memoryless society I lived in, I would end up right back here, in the same position, staring at angry, unsatisfied readers, ready once again to pelt me with the heavy, deadly words of my betters—so perhaps, I thought, I should embrace failure as the one thing I hadn’t failed at yet, I should make an argument that instead of a successful book, I’d set out to write an unsuccessful one, and by that standard I’d succeeded spectacularly, and I should be celebrated, feted as if I’d written something truly great in its terribleness instead of a forgettable, even-keeled mediocrity, but even as I thought this, I could already see the critics gazing at me askance, stone tablets in hand, bloodthirsty and ready for bear, primed to punish me for my crimes against literature, and my last thought, the one I hoped might bring me some consolation in this moment, was that at least these people cared about words; at least, I knew, there were people who believed that stories mattered—even if this time around, I didn’t much care for the ending.

Matt Leibel is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in Wigleaf, Lost Balloon, Electric Lit, and elsewhere.

Art by Liz Worthy, a Bay Area writer, illustrator, and ceramic artist.


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