AUGUST 25, 2012
Giotto: The Seven Vices – Envy (1306, Fresco, 120 x 55 cm, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy)
PRAISE THE GODDESS, things can certainly get heated on Facebook. A recent posting by a friend of mine, a writer, garnered some very angry words from Facebookers she had never met. She had written about her envy of a very Successful Author. The Successful Author’s cyber-pals took umbrage and spewed comments, not only attacking my friend for slights she did and didn’t make, but for being envious at all.
Envy is human. The early Christians named it one of the Seven Deadly Sins; that must mean everybody has it. Like lust. And gluttony. And lying on the couch watching back-to-back episodes of Say Yes to the Dress. There has been personal nonfiction ad infinitum about overeating, promiscuity, and inappropriate anger. Why is it so scary to talk about our ambition, our wants, our desire to be flavor of the month? It doesn’t make us the Kardashians. Come on, Sisterhood — the guys have been measuring their dicks for centuries.
The comment thread was lengthy — 67 at last count — and read like small essays. People had a lot to say. They wrote about their own work and how the Successful Author’s work had changed their lives. They said that no one should even think to say one bad thing about this person who was so important to them. No one did any actual name-calling. I was once called a “pernicious cunt” by an anonymous commenter, but there was nothing like that here, just scolding and hand-wringing. Still, I know my friend felt attacked and misunderstood.
Finally, the Successful Author herself chimed in. First she said it pained her to think the “positive attention” her book received had made anyone else “feel like shit” and she goes on, “many worthy writers do not receive the attention they deserve.” Very nice. Very humble. Later she says she wishes “you’d left my ten extra pounds and shoddy clothes out of it.” She postulates those lines are what made her friends rally to her defense so strongly. Really? Is that the ultimate Sisterhood taboo: our appearance? Say whatever you like about my book, but don’t mention the size of my ass. That puts the Sisterhood back about 50 years. Then, the Successful Author and my friend, the At-The-Moment Less Successful Author, had a private chat off-line somewhere. They came back and told everyone all was well.
Sort of. It left me with a gritty feeling in the back of my throat, a post-nasal drip of Schadenfreude. Every writer I knew was talking about the post and the comments. Most said they would never comment, but they loved to read what others wrote. They liked the essay because it revealed something they would never admit. I wondered after all these comments and discussions, did we get anywhere? Did anybody feel better? Did anyone admit — even to themselves — why this essay makes us so uncomfortable? Of course we would never write this, it was so desperate, so raw, and while we felt superior, we couldn’t look away. Want is so unattractive. Like the older single woman sitting alone at the bar, like Henderson the Rain King’s voice within chanting, “I want. I want. I want. I want” until it drove him crazy. Not pretty. But just as most of us pick our noses, don’t most of us want our writing to be celebrated?
Of course we do. I can tell you something about envy. Right after my first novel was published another dear friend’s novel, White Oleander, was chosen by Oprah. Just a few years later, I did a reading — from my second novel — with Alice Sebold. She was reading from The Lovely Bones. I know about Envy. I’m guilty, guilty, guilty. Unlike the Facebook commenter who said, “There are plenty of us aspiring writers out here in the hinterlands and most of us either have the good grace to not begrudge someone like [the Successful Author] her success, or have a thick enough skin not to let it bother us,” I had my moments when I wished both Janet and Alice boils, or plague, or at least computer malfunctions. You — whoever you are in the hinterlands — are a better man than I.
What really fascinated me about the comments and the piece in the first place was what wasn’t said. No one took that envy another step and said yeah, so, what do we do with it? What do we learn from it? How does it serve us? My friend didn’t say — because maybe it wasn’t true — her envy of the Successful Author inspired her to work harder and to write more. The purpose of envy has to be to learn what we love, see what we want, and then try to achieve it. Writing isn’t the Olympics, it doesn’t happen once every four years, there is no single gold medal for the Fastest Book Over 300 Pages, but the Olympians can teach us writers something. Michael Phelps didn’t give up when he missed his medal in the first race. He worked harder. That little gymnast who cried like a superstar didn’t quit when she couldn’t compete in the individual events, she went on to do a personal best performing as one of many in the team competition. That voice, “I want, I want,” and that pain in our guts, “I wish it was me on the New York Times bestseller list” should spur us on, make us work harder. We should spend more time doing laps, lifting weights, turning cartwheels, doing whatever makes us better. But first we need to admit that we want to succeed, we want to be noticed, we want to do our personal best.
The Successful Author (and mind you, I know success is fleeting — if it’s her book today, it will be someone else’s tomorrow) wrote into the comment thread and said she would have written her book no matter what. Even if no one bought it, liked it, cared to read it, it was a story she had to write. I was impressed. To me, that’s being a successful writer. To write no matter what. To truly not care — at least for some moments of every day — whether anyone else will ever read a word. To write because you have to. That’s being a writer. And the best thing happens when I write from that place: all envy falls away.
Of course, it doesn’t last. Maybe in the hinterlands — on top of a mountain, without media of any kind — that pure altruistic focus would be possible 24/7. Here in the real world it’s hard to maintain. Sometimes it seems every friend and colleague is winning an award or getting a great teaching job, to say nothing of publishing here, there, and everywhere. I don’t write to put it in my bottom drawer. I want to be read. I want my work to be loved. I want to win the goddamn Pulitzer Prize before I die. While he was writing The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen said, proudly, that he was working on “The Great American Novel.” He was not in the least ashamed of his ambition. If he had announced he was training to run a marathon under two hours we would have cheered him on.
I think my friend wrote her piece with both honesty and despair. In it she talks about a walk she took with three other writers, and how they collectively bemoaned not being Successful and how we wished we were the Successful Author. I was on that walk. I went home and wrote about it too; I just wasn’t brave enough to show it to anyone. I have to admire my friend for saying exactly what she felt and offering no apology.
What she got in return was vitriol. The commenters almost pathologically identified with the Successful Author, even when they didn’t know her and, in one case, had not even read her book. Well, of course. No one wants to identify — in public — with the At The Moment Less Successful Author. One commenter wrote, “women who hate on other women hurt my heart like no other haters. Please don’t use the same cheap yardstick you use to measure yourself and your petty friends on all of us.” She goes on to talk about the literary “sisterhood” that the Successful Author belongs to and how women have to support each other and “not tear each other down.” Present company excluded, apparently — the commenter was doing her best to tear my friend apart. The fact that my friend doesn’t have a penis obviously doesn’t automatically make her part of the Sisterhood. I know, from personal experience, from elementary school on, out of fear, fascination, and yes, usually envy, groups of women can be vicious to those who step outside the circle. I don’t want my gender used like a cheap yardstick to define me, whether it’s for purposes of inclusion or exclusion. I have four biological sisters and believe me, Sisterhood is often a synonym for bitchiness, and that’s what it is here. “We have a club and you’re not in it.”
The bigger question is: can we accept our occasional envy and use it to see more about ourselves and our desires? Is it possible to admit we wish we were a whole lot more successful without being embarrassed? I believe we do what we do because it is our way of searching for the truth. I believe truth is what writing is really about. I believe we — as writers — need to be more honest than other people. My friend told the truth. Her truth. And sometimes the truth is ugly and complicated. Sometimes it gets a surprising response.
I hope the Successful Author continues to be successful. I hope my friend finishes her new book and finds a publisher and does well. As long as they put in the hours, do the work, run through the routine one more time, they have a chance. And I will sometimes be envious of their hair, their shoes, and especially their work. At the same time, with all my heart, I wish for them both what I wish for myself: the joy of writing a perfect sentence and the wisdom to appreciate it.