Fear of Failure | Karen Kao

We all fear rejection. To be the last kid picked for the kickball team or the only wallflower at the school dance. We long to be popular, wildly so, or at least to seem that way. This human desire predates likes and followers, obsession with crowd sizes or the invention of money as a measure of success. We are social animals. To survive, we need to be liked.

the wall


And yet writers are rejected all the time. You might say we seek it out. Every time we set pen to paper, there’s a near perfect probability of rejection, sooner or later. By the writer herself, the editor of a literary journal, an agent, a publisher, the readers at large. Sometimes you’re told in the most painful terms possible why you’ve been rejected. Usually, though, it’s silence that greets the writer every morning and lays down with her in bed each night. The silence that says: you’re a failure.

Still, we write. If writing cannot satisfy our most basic human need, why do we do it?

winning strategies


Paint by numbers. Image source: screenshot Google Play
There are artists who create art for art’s sake. This sounds very high-minded and possibly even admirable. After all, such an artist must know what art is and how to make it. Or it could be a fancy way of saying: I don’t care what other people think. I reject thee, rejectors.

Writing to express one’s self seems to be a variation on this theme. The artist exposes herself without wondering whether anyone is looking. In fact, the existence of an audience may be utterly irrelevant. It is the act itself that counts.

I fear that neither of these approaches is a winning strategy, as measured in readership or brass tacks. Perhaps that’s the point. To starve oh-so-elegantly in a lonely garret.

Yet the opposite end of the spectrum sounds even worse. Some experts will tell you to market your novel before you’ve written a single word. Others will suggest adopting formulae, as in the case for screenwriting, to make sure your pacing never lags. Maybe it’s good for the bottom line but it sounds like painting by numbers to me.

ars poetica


To be fair, there are also writing professionals offering real help. Literary journals usually stipulate the kind of work they’re willing to publish. A handful of journals has crafted their own aesthetic manifesto, an ars poetica, if you will.

The best of them will admit that any concept of art is prone to shape-shifting. It’s not just a matter of personal taste. It is a sign of the times. Today’s political environment – whether the US or the UK, India or China – is fraught with existential fear.

Sven Birkerts, editor of the Boston University literary journal AGNI, describes his current measuring rod:
[I]s this work telling me something I need to hear in this new order of things? I’m not saying it must directly protest abuse or injustice or mendacious opportunism. But do I feel that the words have been put to the page out of some recognition of larger human urgency? Do they – if only in their fresh or arresting placement – signal that this is not business as usual? Are they blowing the dust off all the things that matter?
The subtitle of this article is literature and resistance, words that belong together just as art and politics make a fine pair, too. Yiyun Li once said that an author who’s trying too hard to reach the reader is writing propaganda. Whereas the author who doesn’t try hard enough can only be whispering. There’s a fine balancing act between art and politics. How to avoid the one becoming a mere vessel for the other.

rubber chickens


Crystal Pite is a Canadian choreographer and dancer. You can see her works all over the world. I saw two of them performed by the Nederlands Dans TheaterThe Statement and Parade.

Parade by NDT / Crystal Pte. Photo credit: Rahi Rezvani. Image source: NDT program

In The Statement, a terrible mistake has been made, leading to a catastrophic conflict in an unnamed region. There is fear for a public relations disaster. Hence, “upstairs” must disavow someone from “downstairs.” A functionary comes to extract a statement from the designated scapegoat. The voice-over in the carefully modulated tones of an animated superhero provides the rhythm for this dance of blame.
Nonetheless, I’m here to get a statement explaining how your department acted independently. I don’t care if it’s the case or not the case. I get the statement and then we can talk. Then we can deal. It’s the only way forward.

From realism, Pite moves into the realm of allegory with Parade, a depiction of war. The setting is a mountaintop under a starry sky. A troupe of clowns battles a marching band for possession of this piece of land. The losses are huge. Rubber chickens dance a march of death and The Statement is reprised in puppet form.

It was this last bit, explicitly linking The Statement to Parade, that weakened the whole for me. Don’t hit me over the head with your rubber chicken. Let me connect the dots myself.

lost in translation


It is apparently a well-known fact, at least among translators, that Romance languages favor the listener over the speaker. The grammatical structure in Spanish, for example, is so specific that it’s difficult to translate it into English. The latter is a language that favors the speaker: muscular, terse and thus open to multiple interpretations.

Language that speaks to no one is just so much noise. And, by the way, please don’t yell at me either. Between all the shouting and the whispering, surely there is some quiet place where you and I can talk?



Since the launch of my debut novel, I’ve been asked a lot about the violence in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. Is there a link between rape, self-harm and prostitution? (Yes.) Is the Chinese culture particularly prone to sadomasochism? (No.) Did things like this really happen? (They still do.)

But the question that stumped me is: how did you create those horrible scenes of self-mutilation? I didn’t interview rape victims. I’m not drawing on personal experience. I just made it all up. It’s a pretty lame answer.

Then I read an interview with Richard Ford in the Financial Times, in which Ford quotes the American playwright Marsha Norman as saying:
If you want to write something good, write about the thing that scares you the most.
Our deepest fears center on loss: loss of control, love, life. My expression of fear is deeply personal. Does it need to be said? That’s a question for you to answer.

Note: Fear of Failure was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir


Your post speaks to all of us, especially those of us having problems confronting and expressing our deepest fears.
Griselda Heppel said…
A hard-hitting message which we writers need to hear, even if it leaves us with no place to hide. Not so keen on writing about my deepest fears... so do you think it would be ok to write something that's, um, almost good? Fairly, even? Guess I know the answer to that...
Bill Kirton said…
A fine, direct, thought-provoking (and thought-demanding) post, Karen. Thanks for resurrecting questions we should all keep asking ourselves.
julia jones said…
Much wisdom here
Umberto Tosi said…
Kafka couldn't have put it better. You got me. I write for myself plus one. The rest is in the hands of the fates, despite my PR self trying to take the credit. Thank you once again for a most stimulating post with much to consider.

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