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It’s also worth pointing out that envy is not only an issue for struggling unpublished writers.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?