Last week I wrote an essay for the The Nervous Breakdown that was pretty much about my envy of Steve Almond, someone whose work I like and respect, and who also seems to get my goat.
I believe this is a common trait of writers. We spend a great deal of time in our heads, dreaming up ideal worlds. Often, we dream of an ideal world that involves our success as writers, and there's nothing worse than someone coming along and playing a role in real life that you've concocted for yourself in your head.
Damn it, that was mine.
Well, there is an upside to envy, as a few have pointed out since my essay was published last week. Envy, they said, is a terrific motivator. It makes the writer redouble her efforts to squash the puss out of the interloper, and the only way to do that is to out-write him.
That asshole. Where's my word processing program?
So, there is something to be said for envy.
But I still think, in a different way, envy is detrimental to the support and fostering of good writing.
Let's say some guy like Steve Almond comes along in the year 2000 or so and writes a book of short stories called--oh, I don't know--My Life in Heavy Metal. Then another writer--let's say me--hears about this book, sees the cover, notices the publisher, reads the reviews, and is struck by a massive wave of envy for this book, this writer, this success. What would this writer--me, in this hypothetical case--do?
Well, I'd get to work--which is what I've been doing for the past decade or so--in an effort to show Mr. Perfect he's not so Mr. Perfect after all.
But what else would I do? Or more to the point, what else would I not do?
Well, I wouldn't buy his book, that's for sure.
And that's fine. This is America. No one has to support anything they don't want to support, and reading My Life in Heavy Metal at its release might have been counter-productive for me. Almond's prose might have been so blindingly good at the time it could have overwhelmed me, pushed me away from writing toward some other preoccupation, perhaps never to return. Skipping it might have been the exact right thing to do.
So, where does that leave us?
That leaves us with writers doing exemplary work and not selling as many books as they would otherwise because of the green-eyed monster.
Now, am I proposing we eradicate envy in the name of book sales? No. A more imposing windmill has never been chased, and I probably wouldn't want to get rid of it even if I could.
I am suggesting we become more aware of the role envy plays in our decisions to support or not support other writers, to read or not read others' works, and what the likely outcome of this envy is for the future of good writing. Because in the end, we want to support those who merit it. If for no other reason, it might be us someday.
Yours in laying down the law,
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