The Guardian talked to seven well-known writers about their missteps in life and literature. Julian Barnes has refined his understanding of failure:
When I was growing up, failure presented itself as something clear and public: you failed an exam, you failed to clear the high-jump bar. And in the grown-up world, it was the same: marriages failed, your football team failed to gain promotion from what was then the Third Division (South). Later, I realised that failure could also be private and hidden: there was emotional, moral, sexual failure; the failure to understand another person, to make friends, to say what you meant. But even in these new areas, the binary system applied: win or lose, pass or fail. It took me a long time to understand the nuances of success and failure, to see how they are often intertwined, how success to one person is failure to another.
Lionel Shriver looks on the bright side:
I’m fascinated by failure, a far more difficult experience to ride out with grace than victory, which tends to bring out the best in all but gloating arseholes: magnanimity, generosity, ease, confidence, joy, relaxation, energy, festivity, and a positive outlook. In contrast, failure naturally elicits bitterness, resentment, dolour, enervation, listlessness, pessimism and low self‑esteem – a pretty ugly package. Yet, against the odds, it’s possible to fail well – to rise above the unpleasant basket of emotions that come with the territory and to not allow disappointment to sour one’s very soul. I am bowled over by the massive number of remarkable people who face down the fact that no, they are not going to be film directors, famous artists or billionaire entrepreneurs and still come out the other side as cheerful, decent, gracious human beings. As emotional achievements go, that is much more impressive than making a go of something and avoiding becoming a complete jerk.