Here’s an interesting article by the former girlfriend of Jonathan Franzen, the now-famous writer of The Corrections, and of other books I haven’t read but which I am told are very good (and not just because Oprah thinks so). It’s mostly about her observing herself observing her ex-boyfriend’s literary fame, which is a matter of personal import since she is herself a writer, and simply put, it’s not usually a very good thing when the person who you are with does the same thing you do and does better (in terms of finances and fame) than you do. This is especially true of writers, who live much of their lives internally and therefore have more time (and ability of expression) to stew and envy and plot and pick.

One should never generalize about these things, but I personally think that a real good recipe for misery would be two writers in a romantic relationship with each other. Others may disagree: They may say that a spouse who writes understands what you’re going through, might be able to offer perspective and guidance and assistance, and all that happy crap. But as valuable as those things might be, there’s another far more detrimental dynamic, which is that unless they are writing wholly disparate things — say, one writes fiction and one writes science textbooks, and neither has the ambition to dabble in the other’s area — two writers under the same roof are always competing with each other, for the cleverest lines, the most sales, for the most raw talent.

And what’s more, the happy couple are competing with each other in a medium that encourages the author to digest the minutiae of personal life and disgorge it onto the page. The two authors will soon be feeding on each other for material, and if that isn’t incestuous and recursive enough, when one of them becomes more successful than the other, the other will hate them for it. Not all — some writers are secure enough in what they’re doing (or relish their indie cred enough) that they don’t see the success of their spouse or lover as a negative commentary on their own work. I even know a couple. But, shall we say, they’re remarkably secure people in a field filled with twitchy types.

One of the things that I have always been relieved about regarding my own marriage is that Krissy and I have no cause to compete on a professional level. She has no ambitions to write for a living, and I have no desire to do what she does, and that leaves the both of us to be wholeheartedly supportive of each other without even the slightest hint of envy or unhappiness. I want my wife to be madly successful, and she me. If she manages one day to become a VP or CEO, I’m not going to sit around wondering if I should be at the same place in my own career; if I write a bestselling book one day, she’s not going to wonder why I was doing so well when her book of short stories was being remaindered. Marriage is work enough without having to define your success relative to your spouse.

Success is a funny thing anyway, especially for creative types. You have to train yourself not to begrudge it to others, and indeed to want others to succeed in your field. Writers are supremely passive-aggressive (again part and parcel of that whole spending too much time in your own head thing), and it’s an effort not to wonder what someone else’s success means for your own or your own lack thereof. Eventually you have to realize that success is not a zero-sum game (well, technically it is, because there’s a finite number of publishers with a finite amount of resources, publishing a finite amount of books every year — but all those numbers are large enough that for the individual author, the point is moot). Despite what you may think, the success of others is not a referendum on you.

Eventually you realize there’s a positive value in the success of others, especially if you know them or are connected to them in some way. I am tickled six kinds of pink that Pamie’s book has been flying off the shelves and that my friend Naomi’s fantasy series has been so well received. I know Cory Doctrow only through the “Six Degrees of Separation” group-hug that’s known as the blog world, but I feel invested in the fine performance of his novel because it’s proof that you can put your work online and people will still choose to shell out for it in traditional form. Everyone who succeeds shows that success is possible; I’ve also found that those who have success usually want their friends to succeed as well. I know in my own case that I can name a couple of writers who I can’t wait to be “next” — I want them in the same club I’m in because I like being with my friends.

But I’ll also note I’m not married to any of these people, and although I like to think of myself as genially secure in the success of these other writers, I’m also pleased not to be in a position where I have to worry about how my dealing with their success affects our mortgage and children. As I said, romantic relations are complicated enough. The possibility of envying the success of the one you love shouldn’t be a part of it. I’m glad in my case it’s not.

8 Comments on “Envy”

  1. Pamie’s book is flying off the shelves because, as I told John, it’s fabulous. You should all go buy it and read it.

    Well? What are you waiting for?

  2. I wonder what to make of Gore Vidal’s comment that “It’s not enough to succeed, others must fail.”

    The competitive urge also comes with other family connections. The most famous is between Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt. One of them recently wrote a book in which one of the characters is based on mom, and the other was quoted in the press being offended. “I would rather that people didn’t read someone else’s version of my mother,” she said.

  3. I don’t believe in Freudian slips, but this was too priceless to overlook:

    “I am ticked six kinds of pink that Pamie’s book has been flying off the shelves”


  4. Oh, yeah. I write science fiction professionally; my husband writes erotic noir adventure stories (it’s the best way I can describe them, truly) for fun and the internet. Our writing doesn’t really overlap, but we still had a couple of major snipefests in the early days before ground rules were laid down about discussing stories, et al.

    Interestingly enough, we just wrote our first SF story together, and it was the smoothest collaboration experience I’ve ever had. Go figure.

  5. I completely agree about the writers not getting involved with each other thing. Even serious blogging can get in the way.

  6. Consider the Shelleys. He’s considered one of the Great Writers and Poets of All Time, and yet Mary’s “Frankenstein” outsold (?) him and made her a household name.

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