This week the Debs are talking about envy – struggling with it, learning from it.
In ancient Rome, Invidia was the name for the goddess of retribution and envy, whom the Greeks called Nemesis. The ancients described her as a witch with a poison tongue and green eyes with double pupils. The word itself, invidia, comes from the Latin word invidere, or “too look too closely.” The ancients believed that envy originated from the eyes and the idea of the evil eye was directly attributed to Invidia. In later Renaissance paintings, artists harkened back to the ancienttexts for a description and depicted her as a hideous, wiry, sometimes emaciated witch with swinging pendulous breasts. In some paintings she is shown eating her own heart. We still talk about the green-eyed goddess today. Modern artists have sexed up Invidia, showing her as the sexy one to be jealous of, not the one with the terrible body that is envious of others.
In the world of books it is easy to be envious. There are so many incredible novels out in the world. For me, I’m less likely to be envious of the authors with clear talent that make a name for themselves. Usually, it’s all the rest, the ones with mediocre writing that manage to get ahead with their questionable prose.
Last summer a book came out that garnered a lot of attention, Stephanie Danler’s Sweet Bitter. I personally enjoyed the book a great deal, having many friends in the restaurant industry. I had no clue what she looked like when I picked up the book. I glanced at the author photo but didn’t really think too much of it at the time. Then I came across this article on Vox, about the “controversy” about how she got the deal and the huge advance for the book. This so-called controversy was about how she looked–beautiful. The Vox article didn’t play into the hype and didn’t include a photo. Compelled, I decided to do a search to see how beautiful she is.
That’s when Invidia reared her ugly head. She is beautiful. There is no doubt that she has a leg-up in the world because of her looks. That’s how our world works. The human race has been forever obsessed with beauty. We are forever looking for it, envious of it. Looking at a photo of Danler you can easily imagine Invidia sitting across the pool, across the restaurant, across the crowded room, staring at her, pointed daggers in her green eyes, desperate hatred wishing to make a meal of her. There is a small, and quite petty, part of me that is that embodiment of Invidia. I felt that jealous pang when I saw those beautiful photos.
Then I remind myself how completely unfair and unproductive that is. Regardless of her looks, Danler wrote a book, an interesting one, and one that thousands of people have enjoyed. Writing a book is HARD. Plus she did her research in the school of hard knocks, working in an extraordinarily busy restaurant, likely with a healthy dash of extreme sexism thrown into it all. Maybe she got noticed because of her looks, but she probably also was equally discounted as someone without substance along the way.
The Vox article quotes a Vogue article (and I’m going to triple quote it here) that I found to be very compelling.
Did Danler just coast her way to fame and fortune on the strength of a pretty face?
Vogue more or less asked her as much in an interview:
Q: There’s been some noise on Twitter about your attractiveness and how that figured into your book advance. What do you make of it?
A: I find it so disappointing. There are so many ways in which people trivialize or discount women writers, and one of the ways is talking about the way that they look. I wish I could say that it shocked me more.
But of course it wouldn’t shock Danler, because Sweetbitter is about navigating life while knowing that people will conflate your worth — your professional, intellectual, and ontological worth — with your appearance.
The last two lines say everything. It is the bleeding heart that Invidia eats, blood running down her pallid skin. She brings out my own insecurities, which interestingly enough, are the polar opposite of this beauty “problem” that Danler seems to have. I’m not an ugly person, but I’m not a thin one. I know that I’ve been discriminated against because I’m not a skinny girl. I’m not a big fan of myself on video. I try not to see the images of myself after I give talks (I never worry when I’m in front of people…it’s after). I worry that people may look at me and discount what I have to say. To top it off, I write about food. What sort of assumptions (likely wrong) will people make about me? Logically, I know that all of this is ridiculous to concern myself with. But envy and insecurity don’t work on logic, now, do they?
Invidia is powerful. She is a wicked witch, worming her way under our skin and breaking us into little pieces. It’s no wonder the ancients had amulets (flying penises, actually, but that’s another story entirely) to guard against the evil eye.