Ah, envy. What a complicated topic, especially for writers. And now comes my turn to examine the green eyed monster.
First I have to distinguish envy from jealousy (sorry; writers are word nerds). Envy is when you covet what someone else has. For example, when I go to Book Passage to hear debut novelist Garth Risk Hallberg read from CITY ON FIRE as part of his publisher-funded national book tour and glare meanly at the cashmere sweater I’m convinced he bought with his million-dollar advance, envy is what I feel.
Jealousy is when you’re afraid someone will take something you covet. When Louise wrote on Monday about how she felt when her friend got the fellowship she’d applied for, she called it jealousy, because that’s what it was.
I’ve never felt jealous of other writers. I’ve never applied for a fellowship or a grant or an award, and other than when writers compete with one another for things like that, writing is not a zero-sum game. So even though Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, who went to the same MFA program I did, sold her debut novel for seven figures and it’s garnering tons of advanced buzz (THE NEST, coming in February), I’m not jealous of her. The success of her book doesn’t make it any less likely that my own book will do well. In fact, the more books people buy, whether they’re mine or not, the better it is for the industry as a whole, and that redounds to me.
Most writers I’ve met get this. As a result, unlike lawyers (my first career), who compete for clients, wins, partnerships, and corner offices, writers are generous with one another. They freely promote each other’s books, offer advice, and share their contacts because they understand they aren’t acting against their own self-interest when they do. In fact, they’re helping themselves, because writers remember favors and repay them with great enthusiasm. I love this about the writing community.
But that doesn’t mean I’m never envious of other writers. I am so envious of other writers! I want the national book tour! I want the million dollar advance! I want my book to be on the 2016 buzz-book lists! All the lists! I’m so envious of the writers who have these things that sometimes it feels like my intestines are curdling.
This is a terrible feeling. What do I do to stop it? Well, I try my best to stay in my own lane. I avoid looking at the Porsches and Corvettes zipping past in the other lanes, or the chugging VW buses I sometimes pass, and drive straight ahead in my little used Fiat. I tell myself it doesn’t matter how fast I’m going so long as I’m still going forward, because moving forward is its own reward. This isn’t even a lie, so most of the time it works.
The bigger problem comes from what my envy is rooted in, which isn’t covetousness or greed or delusions of grandeur but insecurity. Whenever I see someone else’s book getting rave reviews and huge marketing budgets, I don’t think, “Hey, I should have that stuff, too! My book is as good as that book!” I think, “Of course I don’t have that stuff, because that other book is a work of genius, and mine is mere pedestrian drivel.” When I see Garth Risk Hallberg faffing about on his national book tour [Note: That’s envy talking. Garth does not faff about, he’s a lovely person.] while my book tour consists only of places I can drive in my Fiat, I feel like The Vast Literary Cognoscenti has decided my book is qualitatively less good than his is.
This a terrible feeling, too, and my management of it is a bit more complicated. It involves reminding myself that I have a book deal, which is an amazing piece of good fortune and means at least two people (my agent and my editor) thought my novel was worthy of being published. It also means I will be part of the conversation in a way I wouldn’t be otherwise. Being part of the conversation — that unending human discourse on life and morality and love and sadness that takes place through art — is a true privilege, even if my part happens in a corner of the party and is only heard by three people. Because here’s the thing: if only a few people read my book, but those people love it and are moved by it and see the world a little bit differently after they put it down, I will have contributed to the conversation. That will make me happy. And that’s not even a lie, either.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still envy Garth Risk Hallberg and Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney. I’m not a saint, people.
But I will also be happy.