A few years back I went to Bread Loaf as a fellow, having at last published a book of stories. Another of the fellows that year was Adam Haslett, whose collection You Are Not a Stranger Here had just been called a masterpiece by the New York Times Book Review and selected as a book of the month by The Today Show.
How did I cope with this? Publicly, I was friendly enough. But privately, I sat around stewing, trying to figure out why he was getting all the acclaim. (This was particularly pathological because, after all, I was getting more than my share.) I devoted a shameful hour to reading through his stories, underlining the sentences I deemed substandard. I blew off his reading. In short, I behaved like the jealous little turd I was.
Why is it that writers are so insufferably and transparently envious of one another?
My theory goes something like this: most writers are both narcissistic and insecure. They write to connect with readers and, to a greater extent than anyone ever admits, to be admired. But because so few people read, these wishes are rarely fulfilled. We eat rejection for breakfast, and disregard for lunch.
Even the books that do get accepted and published make very little cultural impact outside literary circles. Simply put: our most famous writers mean less to most people than the stars of minor sitcoms.
The entire setup reminds me, more than anything, of a family with too many ambitious children and not enough attention to go around. At a certain point, the weaker kids—the ones who cannot bear the thought of going unheard—turn on each other. The other night, I was standing around in my favorite independent bookstore after a reading. It had been a lovely time: a good crowd, a good reading.
A friend introduced me to a guy who did some freelancing for the same magazine I did. We talked for a few minutes, did the required whining about pay, deadlines, all that. Then he stepped behind a row of books, away from the author, and beckoned me to follow.
"What did you think of that story?" he whispered. "Wasn't it awful?"
Later, I told my friend about this episode. He nodded sadly, and explained that this ad hoc critic had gone to grad school with the author who'd read, and that he was an aspiring novelist who—surprise, surprise—had yet to publish his own book.
I see the same impulses in my students. A few years back, a group of them complained to me bitterly about one of the stories in the New YorkerDebut Fiction issue. I spent a long time defending the story, and reminding them, gently, that such whining was a distraction from their own work.
But I understood where they were coming from—all too well. Heck, I'd spent a solid decade dreaming that I might someday be anointed by the New York slicks. I still dream about such things. And I still feel like a loser because they haven't happened yet.
That's the thing about writers: even the ones who have enjoyed some success find ways to feel unsuccessful. I myself focus almost exclusively on my failures: I've failed to write a novel, I've failed to place a story in the Best American anthologies and so on. It may be true that my memoir Candyfreak enjoyed some commercial success—it was on the bestseller list for about four seconds—and it's certainly true that I've had my share of critics, but it still seems laughable to me that less established writers might envy me, precisely because I've got a whole set of writers that I'm busy envying.
I don't know that I'll ever rid myself of envy. What I am trying to do is manage these feelings, so they don't infect the pleasure I might take in the work of others.
My point isn't that all writers should love and praise the work of other writers. It's that we're all members of the same family. We all face the same fundamental struggle, which is to build a larger community of readers, not tear each other down.