Each hilarious answer spat out by ChatGPT is a nice little bag of futility plopped on a writer’s doorstep. Two additions to Biblioasis’s Field Notes series contend with such modern flavours of literary despair. Jason Guriel’s On Browsing offers a personal “browser history” that reveals the author as much as it elegizes the habit of sifting through physical copies of music, books, and movies. Stephen Marche’s On Writing and Failure romps through a series of anecdotes about the thwarted aspirations of authors so as to instruct a “kid writer” not to hope for anything. Reading the pamphlets together shows the connections between their topics. After all, writers browse most while failing to write. (Hello, Twitter.)
As Marche observes, “failure is big” these days. Tech and business thinkers welcome foundering so loudly that it seems a lucky charm for ensuring inevitably big success. Confessing to weakness and setbacks has become a way to proclaim a certain kind of acumen, the daring of not only having tried and failed but having been willing to talk about it, too. Marche places this business interest in failure in the same horizon as literary defeat. He talks about his own weekly rejections and a writer’s need for (and total lack of) thick skin. After raging through a syllabus’s worth of literary gossip, he ends with an allegory about the writing life as a relentless pounding against a closed door. In a section on Keats’s early death, he suggests that having one more Keats poem would be worth more than that diamond planet discovered in 2004.
Marche throws open a very personal sense of literary failure. Rejection sometimes seems his real focus, while he occasionally conflates the frustrations of striving to express ideas with the near impossibility of living from writing. His fuming tone and terse prose are enjoyable, but the book is most interesting for how it proves as contradictory and open-ended as the literary vocation it explores. Marche both rails against the circumstances of commerce that make living off literature hard and quests after the diamond planet of perfect writing, that uncommercial gem. Which is the real goal? Or, rather, which failure matters most? That Marche admits he can’t offer the definitive answer gives his text a compelling edge and proves his point: to write is to fail.
Many older millennials will find that Guriel’s opening paean to Blockbuster Video reflects their own nostalgia. We prowled those grand carpety caverns stacked with cassettes and discs in peeling plastic above all to discover the world of adults that awaited us. We were browsing for a future that, when it came, did away with browsing. Guriel wrestles with this particular dislocation. Not everyone will agree with his insistence that scrolling is not the same as browsing, but this book is really more of a personal history of discovering great art: a double tribute to the masterpieces that shaped Guriel and to the often independent shops where he found them. He argues for leaving the house to buy creative work in person partly because, he suggests, people spend longer learning how to love art they’ve carried home.
Guriel says browsing is about being alone, but he also chronicles a sense of communion in the experience. He memorializes a family life built around handwritten indexes of VHS tapes and trips to the mall. That now vanishing landscape extended his domestic world, as his family made weekly Saturday visits, dispersing to browse and then meeting up later. As when Guriel, in his teen years, comes unexpectedly upon his father eyeing Rolexes or waits for him at the World’s Biggest Bookstore, the author’s focus on browsing allows him to explore his relationships — with others and with himself as a writer. Although Guriel insists physical media makes all this discovery possible and that, in contrast, scrollers’ algorithms have no love to give, what is really savoured and sought after in his account and others like it is the personal history of discovering oneself. Maybe the delivery tool is beside the point.
Any kid writer (to use Marche’s phrase) nosing around TikTok will have their own future nostalgias and accounts of how gorging on their “For You” page helped shape them. So what if the algorithm gives them an accelerant? The rocket launch is the same. Indeed, as TikTok drips out one’s own distilled idiosyncrasy sixty seconds at a time in a kryptonite purity, the real threat isn’t that the young don’t discover themselves but that they’re sold, piped straight back to corporate headquarters, in the act. In this Faustian bargain, the gift and its price are both selfhood. The serendipity of browsing and self-discovery still happens online. But the trouble is that these pleasures in hyperdrive transfix their denizens and keep them from finding reasons to leave the house to seek out eye contact or failure, trapping them instead in the spinning orbit of their own diamond planets, discovered and pocketed at last.