Discover more from Juvenescence
a conversation with the writer Stephen Marche
"We are living through the most chaotic period in the history of text -- most writers are jumping from ice floe to ice floe. If David Mamet woke up in the body of a millennial, he'd kill himself."
Stephen Marche is truly an all purpose writer. An accomplished novelist, journalist and a brilliant commentator on American culture and politics. He’s also a podcast host and a self-taught parenting and relationships expert, a former Esquire columnist, a long time contributor to the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired and the Guardian, among others. Plus he’s a Man of Letters, a bonafide Shakespeare scholar, a self-taught AI art project collaborator and the author of a stack of diverse books including (in the last year alone!) The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American future, On Writing and Failure, Death of an Author (a literary collaboration with AI for Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries) and The Last Election, an upcoming political thriller co-authored with American politician Andrew Yang.
Those are the facts of his CV. But Steve is also, in my view, a brilliant and underrated humorist as well as a high-minded formal innovator. He’s irascible, an optimist, a potty-mouthed speaker of unvarnished truths. As you will see in the video, he’s highly entertaining and super intense.
As you know, I’m also super intense. I’m chatty! And in light of this fact, I would like to APOLOGISE IN ADVANCE for interrupting him here and there — basically for interjecting too much. I’m still getting used to doing audio/visual interviews where it’s important to just “give the subject air.” I’m learning, I promise, but it’s slow-going, old habits die hard, so bear with me. The problem, I’ve come come to realise, is that I was trained to do interviews as a print newspaper journalist which means I tend to press a line of inquiry rather than letting the person free associate. (Also I’m chatty.) So we end up talking over each other, which is my fault. On the upside, we also go off on funny tangents and trade lots of embarrassing stories.
I promise you it’s worth it just to watch Steve’s big brain in action. And if you don’t have time to watch the video I’ll be posting the transcript as well as the audio for paid subscribers later this week. He delights his audience almost as much as he pisses people off, which something I deeply identify with as a writer Steve is just a great conversationalist — the kind of guy you spot in the crowd at at a tedious literary event and think, Phew! What I mean is that he’s a clever, upbeat sort of guy who also loves a good old fashioned bitch session.
I’ve known Steve since my Toronto days. We’ve both been scrap-scrounging freelance alley cats for the better part of our adult lives. His new book-length essay On Failure and Writing: Or on the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure Life as a Writer, is a refreshing antidote to the false hope offered by the ever-expanding genre I think of as “self-help creativity” — the plethora of books and creativefluencer-types who trade in inspiration, cheerleading aspiring writers toward the mirage of success instead of telling it like it is: which is bloody hard. In the essay, he demonstrates why writing and rejection go hand in hand and why today, this central truth is not something to be brushed aside but embraced and even celebrated: “The first job of a writer is to write. The second job is to persevere. If you want to write, or if you want to know what’s it’s like to write, you’re going to have to walk away from the paths of glory into the dark wilderness. Because that’s where it is.”
He’s not talking about cultivating wide-eyed self-belief but a much starker and chilling truth: No matter how talented and productive a writer might be, our respective success or failure is largely beyond our control. Economic market forces, life circumstances, timing, dumb luck, etc. — these are the key factors that shape both our lives and in turn our ability to write as well and be remunerated in turn. The sooner a writer accepts this, the better, in Steve’s jaundiced view. After that, the only thing to be done is throw yourself at the door over and over again until something gives, or doesn’t, as the case may be.
“The principle question of the life of the mind,” he observes, “has become how to make a living at the life of the mind. It is unfathomably anxiety-making and boring.” (Yep.)
The central struggle in Steve’s view is not about ideas or craft, so much as the struggle to lay the ground work to be able to practice your craft without fear of starving and/or losing your mind in the process. “All creative careers demand persistence because all creative careers require luck. Persistence is the siege you lay on fortune.”
We talked about how both our careers started off swimmingly in the early 2000s and have since then felt like (in the words of George Orwell) “a series of defeats, seen from the inside.” We also trade hilarious stories of how we both got fired as columnists for the name newspaper (!) Other topics include: politics, parenting, the market economy, literary survival in the age of the internet, the rise of AI (and why in Steve’s view writers and shrinks have nothing to worry about), peer envy, patronage vs. professionalism, whither Substack, mudlarking on the River Thames, truckers, haters, violins and their masters, wonder and flow states, the rise of identity politics, the death of the academy, why the great generation of ‘muscular’ post war American writers like Bellow and Roth were in fact a bunch of spoilt pussies, electoral politics, journalism, the academy, the limitations of the human attention span and why he’s never worn glasses (my bad).
This author interview is free but if you haven’t yet bought a subscription, there’s a special offer on, so do consider it. Every single subscription sold makes a real difference. It’s an investment in my writing and work I do here so not only does it pay the bills, it means a lot.