This isn't working
Or: out with success, in with queer failure
It's been a hot minute since I wrote to you properly. My debut novel, Dear Neighbour, was published in June, and I got sucked into a whirlwind of shouting about it and then recovering. As part of that process, I even got to host my home Pride event, Stockport Pride, at the end of last month, a day that ended in torrential downpours but was no less beautiful for it. To be honest, there was something incredibly Mancunian about everyone dancing in the rain in their plastic ponchos that felt even more poignant than the glorious sunshine earlier that day.
Over these past few weeks, I've been grateful to be given the opportunity to talk to a few people about Dear Neighbour, including a couple of radio and podcast interviews. And as part of that conversation, I've started steeling myself for that inevitable question: so what's next? Meaning: what are you writing, what are you working on, when's your next book coming out? And the thing is, I haven't got the answer. I mean, I've got answers I can stitch together and make sound sincere. Some of it's even the truth. I am writing, though what form that writing will eventually be and what it's about are far more tangled things for me to be able to unravel just yet. And to be honest, for now I want this part of the process to be just for me. I don't want to give those answers. But more than that: I'm starting to feel that these aren't even the right questions.
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Maybe I'm more sensitive now my novel is out there in the world, and I'm visible (vulnerable) in way I wasn't before. But I get this sense that – conscious or unconscious, intentional or not – what people are asking when they ask what's next is a question about success. About being able to repeat a process, about getting past gatekeepers again, about legitimacy and professionalism and all those words like market, and reach, and building an audience.
And – because we live in the shitshow of late-stage capitalism and have essentially been living in austerity under an oppressive government for over a decade – all of that shit, however essential and valid it might sometimes be, just makes me incredibly tired.
Earlier this week, The White Pube – a brilliant artistic duo here in the UK that champion working-class creatives and host a directory of resources for navigating the often-incomprehensible-and-downright-inaccessible funding landscape – shared this post on their Instagram account. And it made me think about the research released at the end of 2022 into authors' earnings. The survey, conducted by CREATe and funded by ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society) did a deep-dive into the earnings of more than 60,000 authors in the UK, across a spectrum of age, race, gender, location and career. Not gonna lie, babes, it's a heartbreaker of a read. Because, what do you know: the majority of authors earn less than minimum wage. Not only that, but instead of getting better, it's actually getting worse.
The median annual earnings for self-employed writers was £12.3k in 2006.
In 2022, it was down to just £7k.
Most writers rely on having someone else in their household who earns enough to cover their lack of income. Women, black and mixed-race authors, along with the youngest and oldest authors, all earn less than their respective counterparts. All of which to say: this system is absolutely, well and truly fucked.
It's not like I was oblivious to this. After graduating, I only lasted a couple of years in 'normal' jobs before I went self-employed, and it's been that way for the entire time since. Trying to stitch together a sustainable income from freelance work and creative projects has always been a scrappy, threadbare patchwork quilt. But somewhere in the dark depths of my subconscious, I'd bought into the most seductive lie capitalism and my working-class conditioning has imprinted on me since the beginning: the idea that if I just worked hard and smart enough, I could somehow wangle a way to make this stacked system work in my favour.
That apparently gilded palace I've been hurling myself against the gates of for the past twenty years? I'm in, sort of. Blagged it, mate. And some of you probably knew this from outside the castle walls, but I didn't, not in the same way, not until now. This place is an optical illusion. A haunted house. A house of cards built with a trick deck, so that even when the entire precarious thing comes crashing down, there will still only be one winner.
So where do we go from here?
My answer is the only answer that has ever given me a pathway through rage, hurt and grief and back to hope: we get queer about it.
I've written before about my belief in queer utopia. But until recently, I didn't have the language for something I now recognise as being absolutely crucial, more so now than ever before: queer failure.
At the end of June, less than a fortnight into my existence as a traditionally published novelist,'s consistently brilliant newsletter, published an excerpt of [Im]possible Business by .
It started like this:
We tend to think of businesses as enterprises that need to last, sustain, grow, and grow some more. If you view a business as an asset—an entity that can grow and sustain value, with a primary purpose of building wealth—then it’s impossible to square temporality or failure as positive possibilities. But if, as I’ve been exploring, the purpose and logic are defiantly not about the creation of a wealth-building asset, then can we reorient around a more temporal, experimental, and ultimately failure-oriented model of business?
By failure-oriented, I mean businesses that are around while they make sense.
While they bring joy. While they create community. While they serve their (non-capitalist) purpose. And then, when they no longer serve a joyful purpose, turn into compost to feed something new.
The essay explores the possibilities of rejecting the classic capitalist metrics of success, and putting other priorities – like community value – first. And acknowledging that might not last forever, but that there might still be beauty, joy and meaning in it while it lasts. And obviously I love the idea of that.
But the phrase that stuck in my mind long after my first read of that essay was a more furious and decisive one, from a section about how sometimes we need to let entire industries crumble:
Let it die
Referencing a piece written about the restaurant industry during the pandemic by Tunde Wey, those three words are an important invitation: to imagine what it might be like to not cling to a system which has become (and maybe always, inherently was) exploitative and unsustainable, and instead invite uncertainty and failure. Maybe if we move through our collective denial about how broken this system is, we could welcome its inevitable self-destruction with hope for what might evolve in its place.
The day after reading that essay, with the phrase let it die still echoing around my head, I moved a magazine in my little box room office, and this never-before-seen piece of paper fell out from between its pages and fluttered to the floor:
Alright, universe. I'm listening. And – with my mental health practitioner hat on – I'm thinking about collective denial and grief, and the function that they serve. About how denial is a temporary strategy to cling onto a facsimile of safety. And even when we know, deep down, that all we're chasing is a ghost, sometimes that feels less raw and terrifying than facing down a rupture in reality with who-the-hell-knows-what waiting for us on the other side.
In an insight so concise but electric it zapped through me like a lightning bolt, Kate Tyson put it like this: “the opposite of failure isn't success. It's control.”
And what is a resistance to grief but an attempt to be in control?
In so many situations, it can feel like our survival depends on our being in control. I could write an entire other essay on the theme of control, but for now, let's just simplify it to this: it's another form of work, isn't it? Another lie that keeps us exhausted.
I am tired of banging my body against the walls of castles that are actually ruins. I am tired of tapdancing for gatekeepers and burning myself out chasing a reward which – as far as the data shows – is getting less rather than more likely to come. I want to rage against and grieve that. I want to honour this sense of betrayal. And yet.
I also want hope. I hunger for hope, and for change. I want to explore, discover and create new ways to honour, evolve and share my stories and creativity. I want to be courageous, and let die what must die (and I'll be pinning up that mysterious piece of paper somewhere visible as a constant reminder of that). I want something better to evolve in its place, even if I've no clue yet what form that might take. I want to be open to and part of that evolution. So for now, that's my answer when I get asked, what's next?
I don't yet know what other answers might evolve from here. And I'm embracing that not knowing. That lack of control. But as I explore and discover what that might be for me, this is where I'll share it. Failure, but make it queer seems like the kind of chaotic, messy punk strategy I can practice embracing. Who's with me?
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I acknowledge the subjective bias of this piece, and its specificity to my personal experience and politics – although it echoes and parallels my partner's experience in the art world. It is not a condemnation of the passionate individuals working in traditional publishing — many of whom are doing so under incredibly difficult conditions and contexts — or of any traditionally-published authors. These issues are systemic, institutionalised, and go far beyond my personal ecosystem of access or influence. Please take this writing for what it is – nothing more and nothing less.