Is it… Writer Envy? Sort of

There’s a lot out there about writer envy: how to spot it, how to cull it, how to deconstruct it, how to rise above it. I’ve found some of it, like Leslie Greffenius’s witty take, very helpful. The consensus seems to be that the writers we envy (sometimes the really big/acclaimed/popular ones, sometimes our friends who get publishing deals or make it onto bestseller lists before we do) are writers we also secretly admire or aspire to be like. We may grumble at their successes when they surpass our own, but, on some level, we recognize that they are worthy of their successes and that any knee-jerk desire to say otherwise is just our envy talking.

Envy is a littleness of soul, which cannot see beyond a certain point, and if it does not occupy the whole space feels itself excluded. ~William Hazlitt

(Lotus Carroll via Compfight)

Except, sometimes there is more to it. There are times when our envy is coupled with a strong belief that the work is just not that good. We ask ourselves: Why did a publisher ever choose to take a risk on this junk? Why did this piece of trash make it onto the bestseller list? How can people read and enjoy this? And, of course, How come this [expletive] gets published, while my brilliant, perfect, life-altering masterpiece sits in slush piles at 27 different agencies and publishing houses?

When, as readers, we think a book is bad (dull writing or silly plot or boring characters or implausible scenarios), our envy as writers is exacerbated. When envy is coupled with a genuine dislike of someone’s work, it’s harder to swallow and get past.

The Fifty Shades and the Twilight series, two of the most popular multi-novel sagas of the past decade, have also met with much derision and hate from readers, critics and other writers who felt the books were not very good at all. So, they’re semi-frequently panned and hugely successful, and probably the bane of many-a writer who believes they can do better. (I haven’t gotten through the Twilight series — because I wasn’t captivated by the first book and because of spoilers — and haven’t read any of the Fifty Shades book, so I am not throwing my own opinions or non-opinions in here. I mentioned these series because they’re recognizable and therefore accessible for discussion.)

So, when we think something is awful and curse the fact that it’s published, or has rave reviews, or is a huge success, what do we do?

Zinnia

(Robert Mitchem via Compfight)

Account for taste. Accept the fact that different readers gravitate toward, relate with, look for, different elements in the books they choose and enjoy. It sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true. Some readers may not mind clunky wording or lackluster characters, as long as the story (the action, the plot, whatever you want to call it) is entertaining or thrilling or in some other way engaging. Some readers don’t mind slow plots, and actually revel in three-page-long in-depth descriptions of meadows.

This is probably true of people in the publishing business, as well. Yes, they’re looking at manuscripts with a keen eye for sales, but there’s a reason why most manuscripts get rejected multiple times before they’re accepted. Publishing people are, like the rest of us, people with preferences. Reading is, by its nature, a very personal endeavor and so it is impossible to ever be completely objective about a piece of writing.

Dig deeper to understand reasons underlying the hype. Literature (and other art) often taps into something below the surface, perhaps even something archetypal, something deeply rooted in our collective psyche. Like the vampire. Or the recurrent “women like bad boys” idea. Both Twilight and its distant descendent Fifty Shades, for instance, are built on the good/innocent-girl-helplessly-attracted-to-the-dangerous-man premise. Twilight, of course, also presents a ballsily — some would say blasphemously — re-imagined kind of vampire. Of course, the success of these two series can’t be attributed solely to and explained away solely by their use of archetypes; that’s only a small part of the mixture.

Learn from it. This is the toughest, but I believe the most important, thing we can do when a book we feel doesn’t deserve publication, accolades or success gets one or more of those things. We should ask ourselves — not cynically and not rhetorically — and try to honestly answer questions like:

  • What does this book offer?
  • What does this author do right?
  • What about this book might appeal to a different reader?

Perhaps the story we were ready to dismiss as poorly written has an air-tight, no thread left un-tied, plot. Or the character we found really boring, upon closer inspection, is by virtue of not being overtly quirky or troubled or unique, extremely relatable. Perhaps the 500 page tome with overindulgent language actually serves up some of the most beautiful images and turns of phrase ever written down. Or that novel about vapid, spoiled rich girls cheating on their boyfriends has some really punchy and entertaining dialogue. Maybe the mystery novel detective who embodies all the old tropes is overshadowed by the intricacy of the actual mystery.

The point is that most works of fiction, even those we despise and see no merit in, have at least a few redeeming qualities. Most writers will do some things, if not many things, well. And even the best writers won’t do all things to every reader’s desires or standards.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, we can, begrudgingly, answer the above questions in a way that might help us in our own writing. It’s important for us to be able to identify the many aspects of fiction that might draw readers in, even those that aren’t our particular focus, and pinpoint when they’re executed well. Because when we write, we write not just for ourselves or people who have the exact same tastes as we do. We write for people we’ve never met, whose own narratives vary from our own, who might love books we hate and appreciate elements of fiction that we don’t find important as readers.

What are your thoughts on swallowing the success of books and authors you don’t personally like? Please share.

  4 comments for “Is it… Writer Envy? Sort of

  1. April 8, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks for the awesome post, Cornelia. I,too, am sometimes flustered by the books that make it big. Yet at the end of the day I try to believe (sometimes not so successfully, I might add) that any book making it big is a good thing for writers, because it means that people are still reading, and that there exists the potential of crafting a product that will sell well. However, I am not certain there is something to be learned from every bestseller, because the popularity of any given book might be indicative of a fad that will soon pass.

    • Cornelia_LO
      April 8, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      Matthew, those are really great points. I agree that any book “making it” is a boon for more than just that book’s writer, certainly if it widens the landscape of fiction so that more books can be included. Even fads (or fad-starting books), I think, can be great boons to certain writers (for example, Twilight opened the door for many other teen vampire romances to be published and seen by readers).

  2. Chris
    April 8, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    I love Matthew’s positive spin. Reading good! Another thing I try and think about: “Holy crap! Someone did amazing market research!” In that sense, these kinds of successes are inspiring. And for me, at least, once I realized how much work goes into writing a book, and revising it, and revising again (etc.), and doing agent/editor research, and revising yet again, I can’t help but admire anyone who has successfully gone through that process. I might not love the book, but I can sure admire the work ethic.

    The other thing — and I may just be lucky in this regard, but I doubt it — is that other writers I’ve met in all kinds of situations, whether they’re published or not, have been amazingly supportive. And that really means a lot. They may not write what I like to read, or read what I like to write, but that hasn’t stopped them from helping me every step of the way. I can only hope that I’ll get some chances to repay that debt of gratitude.

    • Cornelia_LO
      April 9, 2014 at 9:04 am

      Chris, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I agree that most of the writers I’ve met have been very supportive and it’s great to see the succeed (even if what they write isn’t my cup of tea). I guess my experience of vehemently disliking books has been more with those I come across in stores, those not by people I’ve actually encountered.

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