Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review - The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure

Round about the time I got to entry number 14, Pasquale Frunzio, in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, I started to wonder whether this slim tome was a high-minded version of the TV show Punk’d. We are told that Frunzio, a frustrated writer living in Turin, is preparing to kill himself a la Sylvia Plath (head in the oven) when a courier comes to his door. Frunzio aborts his suicide attempt to see who is there and is handed a telegram from a prominent publisher expressing interest in releasing Frunzio’s work. According to the BDLF, Frunzio, still groggy from his inhalation of natural gas, sits down at his desk to re-read the telegram. When he turns on his desk light, the spark ignites the cloud of gas that had formed in the apartment, killing Frunzio and destroying the one copy of his manuscript.

Seriously? Of course, because almost all the writers featured in the BDLF are “never wases,” verifying their backstories is almost impossible. Editor C.D. Rose, in the acknowledgements at the end of the book essentially tells us to trust him – that “lack of space and certain legal niceties prevent us from divulging the whole history of the genesis of the BDLF” but that through a variety of methods and sources – junk shops, flea markets, literary agents and others – he has pieced together the stories of people whose work was never recognized in their lifetimes, much less for posterity.

Rose does an admirable job of providing condensed biographies of Frunzio and fifty-one others who strove to leave their mark on the literary world but fell far short of having any impact. If these stories are presumed to be true, many of the authors featured have a “truth is stranger than fiction” vibe to them – the writer who came up with more than 1,900 opening lines to stories but could never churn out a single follow-up sentence [1], the New Yorker whose first “novel” consisted of a single page and a single letter (“I”) and whose follow-up (ongoing) is a manuscript several hundred pages long made up of the same word typed over and over [2], or the genius-level cryptographer who worked for the British spy service during World War II but whose books were written in a cipher nobody can decode. [3]

Dedicated readers will make short work of the BDLF, which clocks in at a modest 168 pages, but will be left to ponder whether the literary canon has been denied valuable additions to its corpus or if history’s judgment has been validated by their absence.


1. Chad Sheehan, Entry Number 36. 
2. Virgil Haack, Entry Number 16. It is also worth noting that Rose does not disclose what word Haack is typing over and over again.
3. Veronica Vass, Entry Number 44.  

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