It was Patrick Henry who said that jealousy is the vice that gives no pleasure. Another oft-quoted definition was coined by the late Fulton J. Sheen, a bishop who gained prominence as a writer and broadcaster: Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.
I began thinking about jealousy a week or two ago when I noted a spurt in the number of “BSP” labels (or should it be warnings) on writing loops I read. Many of the posts passed beyond the realm of blatant self-promotion into the nastier neighborhood of self-congratulatory bragging. They trumpeted fast-growing Amazon sales… recent award wins… new contracts… even an impressive number of blog page “hits.” When one or two of the posts tickled my jealousy bone (I guess I do have at least one jealous bone in my body), I thought about a project I’d tackled back in 2006.
The director of a writers’ conference had asked me to develop a workshop about the “dark side” of writing fiction. He told me that a handful of recent conferees had complained (on their evaluation forms) that different aspects of the conference — in the words of the loudest complainer — “encouraged jealousy by making a fuss over a few participants at the expense of many.” This person singled out the “writing contest that seems to have arbitrary criteria” and “faculty members who clearly pick favorites.”
The director believed that jealousy is a common plague among aspiring novelists, although most are reluctant to talk about it. “We need a workshop that squarely addresses the problem.”
I quietly polled several experienced novelists I knew and asked a simple question: “Have you been “seriously jealous” of another author?
I offered the following definition: “Jealousy has been described as envy plus ill will. Envy merely ‘wants’ what someone else has. Jealousy combines “want” with the hope that the other person loses what they’ve achieved.” I didn’t explain what I meant by “serious,” but most folks immediately understood what I meant.
The novelists hemmed and hawed a bit — probably because it’s embarrassing to admit being simultaneously envious and resentful of another writer’s accomplishments — but I learned (anecdotally, but not surprisingly) that jealousy can:
- Cause sufficient inner turmoil to slow down one’s fiction writing process.
- End friendships among hopeful novelists.
- Tear a fiction critique group apart.
- Trigger spiteful behavior (for example, the posting of bad reviews on Amazon and B&N).
Novelists of all age can become jealous, but we late-bloomers may have a stronger propensity. Here are three tentative explanations I ran across:
- Many (most?) of us worked hard and built successful careers before we started writing fiction. It’s tough to remain magnanimous about other novelists when the hard work of building a novel hasn’t yet paid off for us. (We don’t mind when genius succeeds, but we are especially galled by someone else’s “dumb luck” success.)
- Because we know that we don’t have unlimited time to publish a successful novel, we become “overly sensitive” to success by others.
- Late-blooming novelists are more likely to treat writing fiction as a kind of zero-sum game, where one author’s success comes at the expense of other authors’ failure.
One fascinating aspect of my unscientific study is that the group of authors who fessed up about their pangs of jealousy includes successful novelists who’ve achieved significant prominence. This raises an obvious question: Why would writers who’ve “made it” ever feel jealous?
Robert Heinlein, a successful author himself, had an unhappy answer: “A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity.”
Whew! I don’t know much about psychology, but I think that Bob ignored a reality that I heard expressed again and again by the respondents of my little survey: Comparison drives jealousy.
Comparison has long been rampant in the novel writing game. The inhabitants of the traditional publishing paradigm — agents, editors, reviewers, booksellers, contest judges, and readers — all held yardsticks up against novels and their authors.
The new publishing paradigm has actually increased the opportunities for an author to compare him- or herself with fellow novelists. These days we have new measures of success (e.g. Amazon Ranking), fully empowered reader-reviewers, and powerful new communications media (e.g. social media sites, reader/writer loops, and blogs).
IMO, novelists stand on a metaphorical ladder. There’s always someone on a higher rung: someone who’s a better writer, someone who wrote more books, someone who received better reviews, someone who have won more and better awards (so many organizations give awards these days that not to have one or two must mean something), someone with more Kindle sales, someone who benefited from an Amazon special promotion, someone whose latest book is being turned into a movie, someone who sprays BSP with a fire hose, ultimately someone who earns lots more money — even though his/her novels belong several rungs down.
It’s no surprise to me that well-adjusted novelists at all stages of their career occasionally become jealous.