Picture it: you’re at a gathering packed with writerly types, all doing the usual drinking and complaining, when someone arrives bursting with good news – an award, a publishing deal, sales in excess of E.L. James and the Bible put together. Now look around the room. What’s the reaction? Smiles and congratulations, of course. But while some of these smiles are genuine, others may seem a bit forced – maybe closer to grimaces of pain. ‘Oh,’ they all say, ‘I’m so happy for you!’ Then everyone runs for the bathroom to have a good cry.
I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,’ said Gore Vidal, and you’ll note that it wasn’t a plumber or a skiing instructor who came up with this. Literary begrudgery is something all writers have to deal with if they’re going to be happy, especially in this age of social media where you spend so much of your time online ‘liking’ and congratulating others.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m truly pleased when my friends do well. But I’ll confess that along with the uplift of knowing that one of the good guys won, there’s often a mysterious little plunge downwards as well. I’m not proud of it. It feels as involuntary as a weird digestive noise blatting out after a meal, and about as attractive. And I’m never thrilled to encounter it in others. ‘I’ve been thinking about this,’ a good friend wrote to me, after hearing that my novel had been accepted for publication, ‘and I don’t hate you.’ Okay. Nice to know.
I suppose part of it is simple sibling rivalry. Someone else has something shiny, and so you want it, even if it’s an award for the best portrayal of dentistry in a science fiction series. Or it could be a result of the natural shock that occurs when instincts for self-preservation bump up against reality. If you put your heart and soul into a project, you have to believe that there is something unique and wonderful about it. But the world may not always agree with you. Instead they’ll shower praise on something less deserving – and let’s face it: every book is less deserving if it isn’t yours. Imagine you’re watching your child on a school playground. Would you ever be able to say to yourself, ‘Yeah, those other kids are much smarter and better looking than my daughter. I can see why she’s not doing as well.’ You want everyone on earth to love your work as much as you do, and if they don’t, life just seems unfair.
Then there’s the culture of competition hanging over writing – the odds against being taken on by a publisher, the odds against getting reviewed, the odds against being remembered this time next year. People seem to love waving these statistics around. I once heard a representative from a major imprint tell a room packed with hopeful writers that it was likely that only one of us would ever be published. Fine, I thought. Why not give us all broadswords and let us go at it? Last one standing gets a book deal. And we did – more than one of us!
Still, even if begrudgery is understandable, it isn’t much fun, in fact it can be a nightmare. What can we do about it?
Well, first of all, be supportive and mean it. It’s easier than being competitive and it often means that other writers will support you in turn. No need for broadswords, just peace, love, and flowers. Turn that gladiatorial arena into Woodstock. You’ll live longer. Plus you can claim the credit for your friend’s success later. It all happened because of the time you clicked ‘like’ next to a picture of their novel on Facebook. Of course.
And as a part-time teacher, I can really get behind this one: keep your eyes on your own work. I find I’m only overly concerned with other writers’ success stories during times of boredom and blahs, and these are also times when I’m not doing much writing myself. If I’m deeply involved in a project, then suddenly I’ve got the gift of perspective. Yes, it is good that someone else is doing well. Now it’s time to get back to work; I’m busy.
Also, of course, we all have to realise that begrudgery is, at its core, bonkers. There is always going to be someone better and more successful. J.K.’s got the money, but not the Booker. Julian Barnes has the respect but not the triple movie deal. Just accept that you won’t ever be first in line and do the best you can.
So at the end of the day, there’s competition, begrudgery, and all the other neuroses you’d associate with people who spend large chunks of time in small rooms with imaginary friends. But we don’t have to give in to it. Begrudgery is natural, but then not every natural impulse is good – I would’ve eaten myself into a coma years ago if I’d followed my every spontaneous leaning. Everyone’s voice is unique, and every author has as much chance of getting published as anyone else, if they put in the effort. And, Gore Vidal notwithstanding, those who have been lucky are usually very generous with their time and experience. Overall, it’s not a bad business to be in.
Now, all together, say it and mean it. ‘I’m so happy for you!’
(c) Janet E Cameron
A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com