Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Creative Jealousy

How many times have we heard some say -- or said ourselves -- that we were jealous of a successful writer? A blogpost on The Rumpus begins:

I’m jealous of people who succeed at what I do (write literary fiction). I’m jealous of them even if I love them or like them or respect them. Even when I pretend to be happy when my writer friends get good news, the truth is I feel like I swallowed a spoonful of battery acid. For days afterwards I go around feeling queasy and sad, silently thinking why not me?   

I have several problems with this. One is how destructive it is -- to our relationships, to our peace of mind, even to our creativity. (Yes, I recognize that the writer above knows this and is demonstrating a fair amount of courage in admitting to jealousy so frankly.) It focuses our attention on something utterly beyond our control and puts enormous pressure on us to write for a certain result...instead of to write what is in our hearts, the very best and most authentic stories we can tell. By concentrating on another writer's success as an indication of our own failure, we are comparing their "outsides" -- what the world thinks of them -- with our "insides" -- how we see ourselves. We may never know what it is like to be them inside, to struggle with their doubts, their disappointments and self-inflicted agonies. All we see is the face they show to the world, and by judging them on that basis, we risk losing compassion not only for them but for ourselves.

It helps me to think of envy rather than jealousy. Envy is wishing I were like another person, that I might receive something another person has. Jealousy is wanting that thing instead of them. It's based on the notion of scarcity. In literary success, certainly, artificial measurements create and strengthen that illusion. After all, if the NYTimes Bestseller list consists of x books, that's all that will be included, regardless of quality. We get caught in the belief that there are only so many books that can be published and if someone else's book gets picked, then there's no room for ours. Ultimately, this may be true, but it's not helpful to us as individuals to see the pie as limited in size.

This is one area where the internet is indeed changing the game. I think we're in a period of sorting-though wheat from chaff, that is, developing structures and processes to connect readers with the books they want to read. The old limitations of distribution and the budgets of publishers' sales departments no longer apply. An eternal optimist, I like to think that eventually, the hype and the gaming-the-internet will give way to new ways for readers to find well-written, rewarding stories.*

Even if we restrict our consideration to print publication, I think it's much healthier to imagine the pie as expandable. On the scale of a single book sale or ten books or any number we ourselves are likely to be marketing at any one time, the more good books there are, the more we all benefit. I have found this attitude over and over again in the science fiction-fantasy community, where writers are enthusiastic readers and fans of one another's work. I also find that when I can shift my attitude just a little from "there are not enough publishing slots for everyone, so that person has taken mine" to "Wow, another great book for me to enjoy!" I am much more likely to step away from resentful comparisons and value my own work, my own creative voice.

One of the high points of my early literary career was meeting Poul Anderson at one of Marion's "Fantasy Worlds" conventions. I found him standing alone at the reception for the guests and got up my nerve to introduce myself. He listened and then asked, with immense kindness and sincerity, "And what are you working on now?" He conveyed by tone and expression that he saw me not as a competitor but as a fellow writer of wonderful new stories for him to discover and enjoy. I want to be part of a community that offers that kind of support to one another -- and it begins here, with me.

So... what are you working on now?

*And now a word... Check out Book View Cafe as an example of how established pro writers can work together to offer great ebooks.


  1. A very thoughtful post. I hadn't considered the relationship between the changes in the publishing industry and how writers might view the spectre of professional jealousy/envy.

    One of the things I've always loved about the SF field is that camaraderie and helping each other out seems to far, far outweigh competition. There's a large supply of empathy and cooperative spirit. I get inspired by other writers all the time, not just by their novels and stories, but also by their willingness to share their insights and experience.

    And I'm working in a novel right now, for the record. ;-)

  2. Hi Cliff! Good for you, for working on a novel! (Is it the "steampunk on Mars"? I love that idea!)

    Writing is at best a complicated business -- I mean not only in the financial sense but in all the ways we torture ourselves, our relationships with our creative muses and one another, the vicissitudes of the market -- and now the sweeping changes in publishing. We're all in free fall, nobody knows for sure how it's all going to turn out or what the best survival strategy is, and it's far too easy to claw at one another when we could and should become allies.