It seems to me that of the seven deadly sins, the one most disastrous to a writer is envy. After all, where would A.J. Liebling have been without gluttony, E.L. James (and the cottage industry that surrounds her) without lust,  the author blog/Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook account without  pride? The Darwinian nature of the book business selects against authors with a surfeit of greed (writing is a terrible get rich scheme) or sloth (at least inasmuch as it is a barrier to creative output) but writers, in particular, need to beware the corrosive effects of envy.  A recent funny and self deprecating piece in Salon by writer Alexander Nazaryn on the pain of multiple rejections demonstrates this.

Nazaryn, a successful journalist, spent ten years trying to sell a first novel, working with various agents—all of whom recognized his talent, and one of whom bragged that he received only six figure offers—but to no avail.  The book did not sell, and Nazaryn spirits were understandably  low.

He writes: “ I had started reviewing books, a dangerous occupation for an aspiring novelist, sort of like inviting an arsonist to join the fire department. As my own rejection letters piled up, it became unbearable to stomach the notion that others — many of whom seemed, from their biographies, to have sacrificed much less than I had — were being celebrated while I lurked in the byways of the literary world.

Consequently, the reviews I wrote came to bear a stench of bitterness, none more so than one I wrote for the Village Voice in 2008 in which I took on two debut novelists, Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich. After comparing them to James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, I proceed to snidely savage their work. It is true: I did not like their novels. But my dislike was set aflame by jealousy of young men whose profiles were similar to mine and who had managed to do what I had not. I remain more embarrassed by that piece than by any other. Keith, Nate: I am sorry.”


I imagine Keith and Nate felt just a bit vindicated. I know few authors who do not, at some level, take reviews quite personally.  It is something of a truism that savage reviews are written by frustrated writers, but in this case the truism was true.

It’s also worth pointing out that envy is not only an issue for struggling unpublished writers.  When I was an editor, I encountered a bestselling author who seemed utterly incapable of appreciating his own success.  Stuck on the book industry’s own version of the hedonic  treadmill, he was obsessed with the commercial writers who outsold him, and desperate for the praise of the literary community.

How do you guys cope with envy?

13 Responses to Envy

  1. Andrea says:

    Hmm… interesting. I guess by trying not to compare myself. I used to be a fanatic amateur badminton player, but I was so desperate to prove myself and obsessed with winning that eventually I became my own worst enemy. So I quit. Now I focus on improving myself without looking at others. Everybody is unique, has grown up and lives in unique circumstances and responds to those circumstances in their own way. So I don’t envy J.K. Rowling (for example) because I could never have written Harry Potter and I would never want to, even though I love the books. I can only write my own stories, and if those are not good enough to be published and read widely, then so be it. I tried. I’d love to write full time for a living and be read widely, but I can only do so much. The world doesn’t end and my life doesn’t end if my novels don’t get published.

  2. Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa says:

    How do I handle envy? By continuing to write.

  3. Jenni Wiltz says:

    I look at my husband and I look at where I live (in California’s gorgeous gold country). Everything else in my life is going so well. If I got what I wanted in the writing world, too, someone would have to die…or the house would burn down. To cite Bridget Jones: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.” I tell myself I’ll happily write in anonymity for the rest of my life as long as the hubby stays alive and the house payments get made. You just can’t be allowed to have everything you want. And by you, I mean me.

  4. Joelle says:

    This is one I have pretty much under control. Probably because I’m most likely to feel envious of writers I actually know, and so as soon as it flares up, I can concentrate on how much I love her or him as a person and how happy I truly am for them. I shift my attention to their joy, and away from myself, and without oxygen, the flame dies quickly.

    I sound all zen and sh^$, but this is just one of those areas where I’m lucky by nature, not particularly enlightened or anything!

  5. D.C. DaCosta says:

    No envy here.*
    I KNOW my stuff is good.
    I also know that Good doesn’t always sell when Good Enough and Junk are available, affordable, and flashily packaged.**
    C’est la vie.

    * Bewilderment, sometimes, yes.
    ** Marketing major.

  6. Kerry Gans says:

    I give myself some version of, “Grow up. Life’s not fair. Get over yourself. Keep writing.” Once the initial sting of “why them and not me?” passes, I know very well that making it in traditional publishing is largely out of my control and the only way to ever get there is to keep writing. So I do.

  7. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Realizing that the gatekeeping profession (used to editors, but now mostly on the agent end) is, as they say in all those “dear author” auto-rejects, is a subjective business in which a few bright stars shine out with brilliance, and a lot of others just cruise along on an entirely whim-driven career path with no connection whatever to the reading public. And even these accidentally pick a bestseller every once in a while. By and large, I don’t waste time envying or worrying about the writers that hit it big. Some are world-class hustlers, like our friend Mr. Patterson, (I like that) some are stone geniuses who obviously have an unlimited destiny credit card, like Isaac Beshavis Singer, (how else do you become rich and world famous by writing in Yiddish?!) and some are obviously sponsored by the Powers Of Darkness like Stephen King (good) and those writers that put those horrible books about teens in the cancer ward and kids with fashionable disabilities on the best seller list. (That collective howl you just heard is millions of kids across the country being arm-twisted into reading these masterpieces by sour-faced teachers and angry librarians who aren’t allowed to hit their charges anymore) Envy? Perish the thought…..

  8. Susanna says:

    As I’ve gotten more experienced, I feel less envy and more dread as to whether I will attain the levels of achievement that I personally desire — I.e., will my book be as good as I dream it can be so that I can complete it and move on with a quiet mind. And as I’ve matured I’ve trained myself to handle writing envy by being happy for writers who are succeeding, and championing the ones I believe in, and hoping someone will do the same for me one day. And booze.

  9. EDWARD says:

    Ahhh, the green-eyed monster which mocks the meat it feeds on. My first instinct, of course, is to claim it is under control, like the alcoholic who tells himself he can quit when he wants. I went to the same college as Karen Russell and President Obama. (Miriam Goderich went there too.) But those people have made out a tad better than me. If I told you the monster wasn’t swooping down and eating out my liver every day, I’d be lying.
    The tragedy is, I have never read any of Karen’s books, and I am probably the poorer for it. The monster is making a meal out of me. (did you know Karen is featured in the winter issue of TIN HOUSE? Haven’t read it.) The meal would only grow if I fed it with one of Karen’s books. How do I cope with this? I don’t: I succumb. On the positive side, people with a collection of well-regulated emotions tend to be boring. If I had a choice, I would ooze and slobber my feelings over everybody. I would always have that second chocolate truffle, get an extra grope during that good night kiss, scratch my dandruff instead of shampooing it away. The animal side of me, as it gets eaten by the green-eyed monster, needs to vent and graze. Such is life.

  10. Joelle says:

    Even though I already commented I had to come back because of what just happened. A book I couldn’t get past page 20 in and has a 3.03 rating on Goodreads (thousands of reviews) has FIFTEEN editions out. When I see this though, it’s not so much envy as bewilderment.

    I know, I know…just keep writing and return that library book unread and forget about it.

    • D.C. DaCosta says:

      Joelle…any idea how many copies an “edition” represents? It might be miniscule.

      I found a book in its “second edition”…. Turned out, the first was a self-published small run, and the second had all the mistakes corrected.

      It’s all “spin”.

  11. Vanessa Demasi says:

    When I’m in those black moods where my envy of others and my dejection and hopelessness at my own chances is the most deep, I read the letters of great writers (I use the phrase with the understanding that great is, of course, a subjective thing).

    There is nothing that makes me more ashamed of that envy than reading Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Flannery O’Connor or Faulkner or Robert Penn Warren write with such good humor or grace or matter-of-factness about being rejected by publishers or excoriated by critics, even while they acknowledge and applaud the success of other writers who they had to have known they were superior to.

    Rejection must have hurt them too, but the writing was of central importance, and so they kept at it. Failure can be hugely instructive, if we see it unclouded by our own envy.

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