Writer Envy

by Kerry Cohen

About four years ago, I went to my young-adult book’s Amazon page to check on sales and to see if anyone had posted more reviews. Indeed, there was a new review. I scrolled down. Thus far, I’d received nine reviews in all—not many. The last review I had gotten was from a teenage girl who said, “This book is a little fast paced and goes into quite a bit of detail on the sexual scenes. Its [sic] a fast read but wont [sic] make much of an impression on you. It teaches a moral lesson but its [sic] not good enough to make you want to re-read it.” Because Easy was written for teens, this review broke my heart, and I was eager to see something more approving.

What I found surprised me. A new review, posted by one “Anne Pennington,” was rich with insult. My book was “uninspired,” “trite,” “glib” and “saccharine.” I stared at the screen, horrified. Someone out there thought my writing was truly wretched.

After a brief period of shock, I wrote a good friend who is also a writer and asked her the question I needed to know the answer to: Is my book really that bad? She responded quickly, adamant that this reviewer had either not read my book or had a few screws loose. We strategized about what I should do, if anything, and then I went to bed, too full of self-doubt to sleep.

The next day, still obsessed, I went back to the review and clicked on the reviewer’s profile. Anne Pennington was from the South. She was a gardener, a cook and a “frustrated writer.” She longed to live in Portland, Ore. Slowly, she was looking familiar. My eyes traveled to the nickname, and suddenly I knew who this was. This was not someone named Anne Pennington; this was my ex-tenant who had just moved out of my house in Portland. We had had some hefty arguments about what we owed her and what she owed us, and, in the end, we had won and she was upset.

I moved quickly to get the review removed, and I wrote her an e-mail letting her know I was aware of what she’d done. Then she changed her profile, further proof that she’d written the review to get back at me. I told the story to friends and family, and we all gasped and clucked.

But this woman’s actions continue to haunt me. I’m not stuck on the fact that she posted the review out of spite, although this idea does bother me. I’m stuck instead on the idea that she defamed my book because of envy. She’s a struggling writer. I remember when we first met, and she discovered I had authored a book. She didn’t congratulate me. She didn’t seem pleased at all. She told me she was jealous. That line, spoken in her Southern accent, lingers for me. This, I believe, is the real reason she wrote that review.

My rogue reviewer is not the first to unleash her envy on me. Others have suggested I had connections in the industry and this is how I published the book (I didn’t). Some have even intimated, considering the subject matter of my books, that perhaps I used my sexual prowess (I didn’t, in case I need to say so). Sometimes, since publishing books, I’ve felt I’ve had to keep my head ducked and eyes averted to avoid random fury.

Yet, I also know what it’s like to feel green with envy as a writer, to feel envy worm its way through my consciousness, slippery and unforgiving. Let’s face it: Most of us know this feeling. No need to remind anyone that envy is one of the seven deadly sins—with good reason. It makes us act in terrible, irrational ways.

Martin Amis wrote about the bad choices a person can make in the midst of literary envy in The Information, his dark, somewhat disturbing tale of an unsuccessful writer gone mad over his friend’s success. Most readers appreciated the honest, albeit exaggerated, approach to the subject. Others gasped with horror. Envy is so rampant among writers—it doesn’t matter whether they are just starting out or are deep into their careers—that it’s
surprising there isn’t more written about it, and that Amis’ brutal, satirical take is one of the few out there.

Envy is one of those emotions no one wants to admit to. It’s taboo, like shame and regret. It’s ugly, as feelings go. Western culture has many flaws, but perhaps its biggest is our absolute refusal to be anything less than perfect, perhaps because if we admitted to being—dare I say it—human, this means we must be worthless. Interesting, because it’s these feelings of worthlessness that seem to hold the reins of envy.

Many years ago, I had a friend in my MFA program who was probably the only writer I have ever known—still to this day—who believed without reserve that she was worthy of all the writing industry had to offer. She had been wined and dined to join our MFA program, and as far as I knew, none of the rest of us had been treated with such desire.
After she graduated, she was offered representation from one of the most sought-after agents in the business, but my friend, whom I will call Priya, was so sure of her talents, that she actually turned down the offer and instead found another agent.

Priya knew exactly what she needed to do to meet the right people. She finagled a meeting with Bharati Mukherjee and became friendly with her. She laughed with Po Bronson about politics. She glided from famous writer to admiring teacher. She had an almost regal air to her, as though she were indeed royalty. When she walked by—her whole being statuesque, guarded and inaccessible—it was hard not to turn and look. Although she was small, she held herself like a model. She was certainly beautiful enough to be one.

Priya and I were good friends. She had, in fact, invited me to be the maid of honor at her wedding. We connected in many ways. First, we were both writers. We also liked to laugh about relationships and examine them. We shared a boldness, and we told each other secrets. But I found myself struggling with our friendship. The bottom line was that the writer in me was envious of her—fiercely, desperately envious.

There were many things about Priya for which I didn’t need to be envious. She had suffered an abusive marriage, and now intimacy was a challenge. She had few friends. She protected herself to the point that hardly any people were allowed in. I could relate. I, too, had a painful past. I, too, was afraid to let people all the way in, afraid they would see what I believed above all else about myself, that I wasn’t worthy of love. Envy has a comfy home in these truths. All of us—every one of us—has endured some amount of hardship and pain. Literary success is wonderful, of course. But no success will erase the rest of our lives, or our pasts, or the quiet losses that continue to live in our hearts.

Priya once said to me, “I hate it when writers are jealous of me. The way I see it, we all earn our own accomplishments. Mine has no bearing on yours. Why should people be jealous?” I sensed she was pointedly trying to tell me something I needed to hear. Also, she was right. If Priya didn’t get her book published, would this somehow make it more likely for me to publish mine? Of course not. The truth was that if Priya got her book published, I’d have a connection.

But envy is not a reasonable beast. Perhaps for writers especially, envy comes from a refusal to fully see other people. It’s about being caught up in all the ways we were wronged in our lives, or all the things we haven’t yet gotten. It keeps us from compassion and honesty, and from genuine connection. Yet there I stayed, paralyzed with envy.

Priya and I could not maintain our friendship, and it ended badly, in a way I still regret. A number of years later, I read that she did indeed publish her book and received a million-dollar, two-book deal. None of this surprised me. She was always going to succeed in this
exceptional way.

At the time, I was taking a hiatus from writing. I had grown sick to death of the niggling critics I carried around inside me, left over from the MFA program—the same internal critics, I imagine, that led to all that envy. My writing had begun to feel like a chore rather than an avocation. I worked on another degree and became a psychotherapist.

But when I learned of Priya’s achievement, I was thrown. I knew I had it in me to succeed, just like Priya had. Lit by Priya’s success, I decided to write the book I had been afraid to write. I sold Easy, my first young-adult novel, less than a year later, and then sold Loose Girl, a memoir on the same theme, a year after that. In this roundabout way, envy served me, but only because I had finally used it the right way.

I used to think envy was an emotion that had no purpose. Like guilt or regret, envy sits stagnant, boring a nasty hole beneath your skin. It eats at you. Or else, if you don’t manage to control it, it lashes its tentacles about, spraying others with sharp remarks or mean reviews.

Since my books’ sales, I see that envy comes from the part of the self that believes we sit at the center of the world. It comes from that childlike self we carry with us into adulthood. But it’s not the emotion that harms. The harm comes only in how we choose to act on that feeling.

I chose to let envy crumble a friendship that might have otherwise lasted. I don’t know if Priya and I were suited for long-lasting friendship, but I do know that I never gave us a chance to find out. Later, however, envy stirred in me the energy I needed to complete my book. I let envy guide me toward myself, to my inner workings, where I discovered that I, like Priya, was worthy of accolade.

The Babylonian Talmud has a saying, “Jealousy among writers increases wisdom.” It means that jealousy leads writers and thinkers to greater achievements and heights. Perhaps this is jealousy’s true purpose if we choose it to be.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.