A Response to the “Failed Novelist”: Failure, Empathy, and Infertility
April 7, 2017
“Four years on, I still can’t look at the new fiction tables in Waterstones; they make me feel like an infertile woman at a baby shower. I feel pity and scorn for people with dreams.”
—Anonymous, “What I’m Really Thinking: The Failed Novelist”
I’m a failed novelist. I’m also a woman who underwent two years of fertility treatments, with the cause of infertility still unknown. And I’m here to tell you that, hoo-boy, I lost my shit on Twitter when I read those two sentences back-to-back. And I will probably lose my shit here, too, but I want to do so in a more coherent way that unpacks the problems with those two sentences being next to each other.
Anyway, we’ll get back to that in a minute. First, I want to situate my “failure”: I’m a failure in the sense that I have not published any fiction, but I don’t consider it a permanent state. But I do understand the author’s state of mind, because I have failed at many things: I failed to be a concert flutist (thanks, cubital tunnel!). I failed in my career in academia entirely. I failed to get good funding for my dissertation fieldwork. I failed to get “with distinction” from my committee for my dissertation in a two-year stretch when everyone in my program else did. I failed get my favorite academic piece published. I failed to get a tenure-track job, and, in the biggest sign of failure in academia, I slipped onto the dreaded “adjunct track.” I failed to get a career in an academia-adjacent field. Later, I failed for a long time to get a literary agent. I failed to get an offer on my book after a major publisher asked for an extensive R&R that I thought I nailed.
And I understand that rejection can put you (or, at least me) into a spiral of self-loathing, self-pity, and self-doubt. I understand crushing moments of defeat, like when I got a letter about a grant that said, “You are not a winner.” Thanks, terrible rejection-letter writer! I understand feeling like nothing will ever work out, no matter what I do. I understand the whining, self-pity into which Anonymous dives (“But… but… I deserve this! It. Is. My. DESTINY!“)
However, I don’t let “failure” define me. Instead, once I get over my crappy mood, I usually see the other side of it. I’ve also had many successes, which I do not let my thoughts of failure obscure: I have an amazing husband. I have great friends. I won awards for my writing, and they were for the pieces I cared most about. I hold the PhD from a well-respected program at an Ivy League university. I wrote about things and people that meant the world to me. I used my writing about being an adjunct to help others. I got paid to write about my career transition out of academia. I now have a great job unrelated to academia. I am debt free. I have a literary agent. I have a book out on sub.
Now that we’ve established that I’m a “failure” (rather than an actual failure), I want to come back to my main “losing my shit” critique. My first reaction upon reading those two sentences was: JESUS FUCKING CHRIST YOU DO NOT DESERVE A CAREER, YOU CALLOUS ASSHOLE. My second was: maybe this author needs to work on empathy. It would certainly help her writing.
Now that I’ve gotten my own inner asshole on the page, let’s look a little more closely at those two sentences, and why they are so terrible.
The first one minimizes infertility. A book, no matter how much it means to you, is not a baby, nor is difficulty publishing the same as infertility treatment. You may find some parallels–even I do–but it takes a real lack of empathy to assume that they hold the same magnitude of feeling. And then, the kicker. Due to the parallel “I feel” construction, the second sentence ascribes fucked-up emotions to infertile women, “pity” and “scorn” for others (Presumably those who are going to have babies?).
As a woman going through infertility treatments, I felt a lot of things. Anger was second from the top: at my body, for not behaving the way I thought it should; at doctors, who couldn’t explain why I was only randomly ovulating, or why my estrogen levels weren’t rising when they should have, or why the fertility drugs failed to work sometimes; at people who would ask me rude questions (including “So, are you knocked up yet?”) when they heard I was doing IVF; at the fertility program’s social worker (!!!) who belittled my dismay at a failed cycle, telling me not to “bemoan” my situation.
And, yes, I was occasionally jealous of friends who had no problems getting pregnant. Or annoyed with people who pried too hard when I didn’t want to talk. Or upset that my clothes no longer fit. Or moody from my fertility drugs. Or anguished at the unfairness of it all.
But you know the overwhelming emotion? It was sorrow. A deep, wounding, chasmic sorrow that cut through me every time a cycle failed or my ovaries didn’t respond or that stupid social worker made another insensitive remark or someone asked if I was pregnant because, damn it, I certainly looked like it during the fertility treatments. That sorrow ached with the closing of possibilities, of roads that could not and would not be taken, of things that will never happen, not because you don’t dearly want them, but because they are not possible for you.
The connection of an infertile woman’s feelings to “pity” or “scorn”–the two emotions, by the way, that I never felt about a baby shower or my friends’ kids, because I love my friends and their kids, and I’m not an asshole–reduces that sorrow into mere bitterness. It reinforces gross cultural assumptions about women with fertility issues, that our barren uteruses and tired, shriveled ovaries leave us old hags on the sidelines, unloved and unloving.
Finally, as I said above, it lacks empathy. My suggestion to the author–and I am being far more charitable here than the “Fuuuuuccckkk youuuuu” that I uttered on Twitter–is that she needs to work on this facet of understanding humanity, both for her life and for her work. Empathy is one element of good writing, but is essential to good living and to being a good person. Some writers can get away with an underdeveloped sense of empathy in their fiction *cough* Jonathan Franzen *cough*, but as a human, its lack is detrimental *cough* Jonathan Franzen *cough.*
Several years out from my experience with infertility, I have some perspective and have gone through the grief process. I don’t think that the path for us to add to our family is via my uterus, and that’s all right with me. My husband and I are in the early stages of adopting. It’s going to be challenging, and also rely on chance, as someone has to pick us as parents.