Not-so-failed Novelists: a Student Anthology Review

Oxford’s premier student writing group, The Failed Novelists, released their yearly anthology at the beginning of Trinity Term. The Failed Novelists, despite their self-effacing name (“All novelists are failed novelists, even the published ones, because no novel will ever live up to the expectations we set ourselves,” says Selena Wisnom in her introduction to the collection) have created from this alleviation of expectation-pressure an atmosphere of encouragement, collaborative creativity, and fun.

No one better described the strengths of works such as these than Anne Fadiman, when introducing the posthumous collection of her precocious student Marina Keegan.

“Many of my students sound forty years old. They are articulate but derivative, their own voices muffled by their desire to skip over their current age and experience, which they fear trivial, and land on some version of polished adulthood without passing Go. Marina was twenty-one and sounded twenty-one: a brainy twenty-one, a twenty-one who knew her way around the English language, a twenty-one who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.”

There are certainly examples in this anthology of pieces that failed to justify their stylistic excesses, verbosity or experimentation that lapses into pretention, pieces that try to be ‘older’ than they are. That just comes with the territory of student writing. But the highlights of this collection, like Keegan’s own work, are humble but hefty. They span poetry and prose, and range in tone from the tongue-in-cheek (“Sleepwalking” by Dominic Hewett) to the sincere and thought provoking, (“Where You Learn to Love” by Ishita Marwah). They cover aborted weddings, clumsy relationships, the navigation of fact and fiction, our relationships with our parents, peers, and pets. And in these pieces, there is immense sophistication as well as immense potential. Arguably the pinnacle of the collection is “The Letters” by Henrietta Mosforth. This emotionally immediate short story about a daughter’s relationship to her mother’s past and the unease of unexpected discoveries becomes a larger comment on the ways we remember those close to us and the ways in which we construct their lives in our understandings. Other highlights include the poems of Dominic Hewett, whose several contributions illustrate a skill for flexible poetic voices. “Sleepwalking” takes to task the hackneyed tropes of love poetry while simultaneously characterizing a very ‘Failed Novelist’ willingness to discuss his poetic process, ending the poem with “I’ll compare your eyes to the sea or a star,/ And promise something unrealistic./ But then I’ll get all self-conscious, put in something bizarre./ Like I’ll use the word ‘somnambulistic.’”

The strength of this anthology is not that it presents the best and most polished student work coming out of Oxford. We’re at a university where students graduate with publishing contracts, where students graduate with international accolades, or with their own publications well established. The strength in this anthology and the strength of The Failed Novelists as an institution, is the ways in which it seeks to glorify the process, create a zero-gravity environment for creation and experimentation, and in doing so to counter the pressure students face to be exceptional at all times. The fruits of such openness and energy, this anthology demonstrates, are dazzling.