Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hey Jealousy

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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Celia Hayes said...

I don't know if I am motivated so much by jealousy as I am frustration ...the frustration which comes from reading certain books in the genre that I write, and something of the same setting and period - books which were best-sellers, too - and seeing that I did and do a much better job! Seriously, I go into the big-box store, leaf through a couple of these books, and think -'you got an agent, and a publishing deal ... on the evidence of this dreck?'

Mark said...

Envy would be a more powerful motivator if you paid full price for the latest hardcover of your archenemy's latest, no?

You could prop your motivating books in a corner so the cover faces you, and use the power to blast through your next MS, burning even brighter because you're paying your nemesis to keep writing. The upside is that you can carry the hidden kernel of knowledge that people still pay for books, and someday someone will have your book propped on their own corner table of motivation.

Art Edwards said...

Celia, I've felt the same way many times.

Mark, buying the hardcover is exactly what I did with Almond's latest. It's actually been kind of cathartic.

Lloyd Lofthouse said...

Although my first novel, My Splendid Concubine, picked up a few honorable mentions and earned some good Amazon reviews along with a great comment from a Writer's Digest judge and a positive Midwest Book Review, when the one-star review arrived, it was depressing like a blow to the solar plexus.

I shouldn't have taken it like that but I did.

Then a few days later, I awoke thinking, "What about my favorite authors and some of the world's most popular novelists like Steven King (I've only read—or listened—to one of his books)?"

I checked. They all had some one-star reviews on Amazon and tons of five and four star reviews. Even National, Pulitzer and Noble Prize winners had one-star reviews.

I read and compared a few of these one-star reviews and they sounded the same.

Those one-star reviews usually had nothing to do with the actual novel. It was obvious that the one-star reviewer was criticizing the books for something that wasn't there—something he or she may have written if it had been his or her book.

My wife's latest book, Pearl of China, has a couple of those types of reviews. Maybe those one-star "cloned" reviews are reactions from "envy" from someone who doesn't have the courage to put his or her own work out there to be judged by others.

When I read a book, if it is really so horrible that it is worth one-star, I don't finish it and don't write a review about it.

Instead, the book remains closed on a table or shelf gathering dust—forgotten.

heather said...

i have found myself in these exact shoes more often than not. and sometimes it goes exactly as you described - i get to work and try to outdo whomever it is i'm scowling at. unfortunately i can defeat myself at times, though, by just slinking back into the unpublished shadow, gnashing my teeth and grumbling. great article, though! very, very insightful.