Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Honor among writers

with 64 comments

Philip Roth

Writers, by nature, are highly competitive. In principle, writing isn’t a contest, but it certainly feels like one, and in practical terms, you find yourself competing with other contemporary writers for all sorts of things that seem available only in finite amounts: attention from editors, book sales, awards, an intangible sense of where you rank in the literary pecking order. Near the top, among the handful of great novelists in any generation, the sense of being a member of a tiny club—in which the old guard is periodically pushed out to make room for the new—can turn into a weird kind of office politics. And don’t think that the authors themselves aren’t acutely conscious of where they stand. Shortly before his death, John Updike, speaking of Philip Roth, said this to the Telegraph:

Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry, as far as I can tell…I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow.

It’s an illuminating glimpse of what Updike thought of Roth, but I also like that offhand reference to a “list of admirable novelists,” to which Updike seems to have devoted a fair amount of thought.

I found this quote in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s recent piece in The New Yorker about the friendships between Roth and his contemporaries, including Bellow, Updike, and others, with material drawn from her acclaimed new Roth biography. (At this point, Pierpont might as well legally change her name to “Claudia Roth Pierpoint, no relation.”) The picture we get from the profile is that of a circle of astoundingly talented writers who were pleased to have rivals worthy of their time, but who weren’t always entirely comfortable in one another’s company. You get a sense what it must have been like for two ambitious writers of the same age—Updike was “a year and a day” older than Roth—to rub elbows from Roth’s description of Updike’s “leaping, kangaroo-like energy” as a younger man, followed at once by the wry observation: “I was not un-kangaroo-like myself.” It’s hard for two kangaroos to share a room, especially at a New York dinner party, and for all their mutual admiration, there was also an underlying wariness. Roth referred to the two of them as “friends at a distance,” and when asked by the Telegraph if he and Roth were friends, Updike responded: “Guardedly.”

John Updike

Much the same went for Roth and Saul Bellow, at least in the early days. Ultimately, their acquaintance blossomed into a lasting friendship, but Bellow seems to have initially held the younger writer—eighteen years his junior—at arm’s length. Harold Bloom has famously written of the anxiety of influence, that almost Oedipal ambivalence with which artists regard the predecessors whom they admire and long to imitate, and when two authors are alive at the same time, it runs both ways: a literary mentorship often has less in common with Finding Forrester than with All About Eve. In time, Bellow warmed up to Roth, thanks in part to the influence of his wife, Janis Freedman Bellow, whom Roth imagines saying: “What’s the matter, this guy really likes you, he really admires you, he wants to be your friend.” Freedman Bellow demurs: “I had that conciliatory gene. But it’s not like I was kicking him under the table.” (Bellow’s guardedness toward Roth reminds me a little of how Maxim Gorky described Tolstoy and another rival: “Two bears in one den.” In Tolstoy’s case, the rival was God.)

Yet this kind of rivalry is essential for the cause of art, since it forces the writers themselves to operate at a higher level. Pierpont compares Roth and Updike, fruitfully, to Picasso and Matisse, “wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game,” and it’s a feeling to which many authors can relate. In his essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” Norman Mailer memorably recalls his feelings about James Jones, one of the few novelists he seemed willing to consider as a peer, and the failure of Jones’s novel Some Came Running:

I was in the doldrums, I needed a charge of dynamite. If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war, I would have had to get to work. It would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, and I would have had to try to win her back.

Artistic rivalry can be murder on the writers themselves—Updike and Roth eventually had a disagreement that led them to break off contact for the last ten years of Updike’s life—but it’s undeniably good for readers, even if the immediate result is what Bellow himself once observed: “Writers seldom wish other writers well.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

64 Responses

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  1. Almost feels like high school all over again. More published and experienced writers unknowingly intimidate, while those with less ink on their fingers sometimes feel disingenuous or like leeches, as if they want something you’re not comfortable giving. Updike, Roth and the others were in the same league. I think in today’s market and sphere of influences, writers prefer those who are of similar ilk. Regardless of the “pecking order,” there’s comfort in knowing one is not alone in this … journey, infatuation, obsession, compulsion … called the writer’s life.

    terzahcain

    October 21, 2013 at 10:57 am

  2. Jonathan Swift’s famous ‘Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, DSPD’ was, in his own words:

    OCCASIONED

    By reading a Maxim in Rochefoucault.

    Dans l’adversité de nos meilleurs amis nous trouvons quelque chose, qui ne nous deplaist pas.

    [In the Adversity of our best Friends, we find something that doth not displease us.]

    [....]
    We all behold with envious Eyes,
    Our Equal rais’d above our Size;
    Who wou’d not at a crowded Show,
    Stand high himself, keep others low?
    I love my Friend as well as you,
    But would not have him stop my View;
    Then let me have the higher Post;
    I ask but for an Inch at most.
    [...]

    Swift’s friends included Gay and Pope, and at times Addison and Steele. Plus ça change (though I only quote, I have no French to speak of).

    Darren

    October 22, 2013 at 1:08 am

  3. @terzacain: That’s one of the hardest parts about finding a circle of fellow writers: you want to spend time with authors who are more or less in the same boat, but the distinctions aren’t always clear.

    @Darren: It’s really funny you should post this now—I just put up a maxim from Rochefoucault as my Quote of the Day…

    nevalalee

    October 22, 2013 at 10:01 am

  4. A lovely piece. I enjoyed it, especially as I was not aware of any of the rivalries you mention. I wonder perhaps whether I may still be in the honeymoon period of writing, as I expect nothing and wish all writers well – after all, I am a reader too, and an avid one at that, so would like to have as much good material for my evening perusal as I can get my hands on.
    Thank you for a fascinating read. Look forward to the next.
    Warm regards,
    Vic

    vicbriggs

    October 23, 2013 at 11:18 am

  5. This is a great topic, thanks for posting. Artistic envy is absolutely natural. However, in the blogosphere its pretty much the elephant in the room.

    architect of the jungle

    October 23, 2013 at 11:22 am

  6. “Artistic rivalry can be murder on the writers themselves” – excellent post, thank you so much for sharing!

    imsupersaiyan

    October 23, 2013 at 11:37 am

  7. Contest won.

    jordonbaguley

    October 23, 2013 at 11:42 am

  8. Thanks, everyone!

    @vicbriggs: There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy rivalry, as long as it inspires you to do better work than you’d otherwise have done on your own. Of course, it’s all to easy for it to shade into personal envy, which can be a problem…

    @architect of the jungle: Absolutely.

    nevalalee

    October 23, 2013 at 12:07 pm

  9. I have met some writers and realize that the luck of the draw is in their favor. They were there with the right place and time in their favor. Would Star Wars today, if it just came out, win or lose?

    awax1217

    October 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm

  10. @awax1217: Luck is absolutely a huge factor. One of the hardest parts of being a writer is hanging in there long enough for luck to turn your way.

    nevalalee

    October 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm

  11. Great read! I truly do think it’s mostly luck…
    However, I also think many great stories come from competition. I just wrote a post about the Year Without a Summer in 1816 when Mary Shelley and her fiancé visited Lord Byron. The weather was so bad they decided to have a writing contest and Mary churned out Frankenstein.
    Congrats on getting pressed!!

    Midwestern Plant Girl

    October 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm

  12. Alec,

    Great read! You make an excellent point about the competitive nature of writers. I myself have often felt as if it’s something of a “me vs. the world” situation when it comes to writing. Not only am I forced to pit myself against every other writer in order to distinguish my writing from theirs, a daunting task to be sure, but also against the expectations of readers, who can often be a fickle and unforgiving bunch.

    blackwolf97e

    October 23, 2013 at 1:27 pm

  13. @Midwestern Plant Girl: The story behind the origin of Frankenstein is really fascinating, isn’t it?

    @blackwolf97e: I know the feeling!

    nevalalee

    October 23, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  14. This is an excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it. It is very common to feel this way as a writer.
    Have you done NaNoWriMo? It’s really fun. You can get more info about it on my blog. It’s also a great program to recommend to young/beginning writers. If you know of anyone, let them know!
    Thanks again,
    The Writer

  15. @amazingopportunities: Sometimes it feels like my entire life is one long NaNoWriMo…

    nevalalee

    October 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm

  16. Oh my GOD! I have NEVER in my life read something wonderful by another writer and thought anything other than, “I wish I could find more like this!!!!!” WHY would writers be competitive with one another? A good writer is the best damned thing you will EVER find FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR WRITING. Because a good writer inspires! And if you’re inspired what do you do?

    YOU WRITE!!!!!!!

    How did this happen? What insecure little twit started this whole rivalry thing cause I will personally go dig up him or her and kick their ass for doing this!

    We are ALL on the same team, people! There is no “limit” on how much unbelievably awesome work this world can handle.

    I just……I can’t deal with this….this……it’s like trying to reason with rocks sometimes.

    cristyparkersmith

    October 23, 2013 at 3:39 pm

  17. a cerebral & delightful read, thank you!

    ♔ la dauphine ♔

    October 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm

  18. Great insightful post. Definitely not a trait most writers go around wearing on their sleeves, but yes, it is obviously there, isn’t it?

    Michael Lane

    October 23, 2013 at 3:47 pm

  19. Surely this is more of a people thing rather than an exclusively writer’s thing? I dunno. I read your other article; I’d agree that writers are naturally, probably, more inclined to be insecure. But insecurity doesn’t necessarily have to translate into envy or competitiveness. Hypothetically speaking, another book doing well doesn’t mean my book will by equation do less well. We’re not playing tennis – there’s not a winner and a loser. If anything, the more people enjoying reading, and books, generally, the better it is for other writers, and other books, generally. “Oh, I had a splendid time reading ‘How to Avoid Herpes’, maybe now I’ll go and buy another book, from a different author; perhaps I’ll look into an author who’s not so obsessed with STD’s.

    Ya can still get that inspiration to better your own work without that element of rivalry. Ya know? But that’s just me; apparently everyone’s different. What do I know? I’m just a typing goat.

    Humans Are Weird

    October 23, 2013 at 4:17 pm

  20. @cristyparkersmith: That’s a remarkably healthy attitude.

    And thanks again, everyone!

    nevalalee

    October 23, 2013 at 4:17 pm

  21. Wow, a good piece of writing, and the comparison & contrast are idealize reality. I think the writing game is definitely filled with competition. Ergo all the blogs started today are unfathomably large in quantity. That said we should stay cautious not to become deterred ourselves from continuing to engage passionately in this activity!

    - Ryan

    entreprelution

    October 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm

  22. That’s an interesting thought, as a so far entirely unsuccessful author with high hopes the writing process often seems so isolating. I read old dead authors or their contemporaries living in Dynamic and untouchable spheres like the New York City literary circles and am struck never with a sense of competition but of comradery. But that is perhaps only my naive idea of the glory of an artistic enterprise; that me, Neil Cassidy and Allen Ginsberg will gather together to construct great pieces of literature not through competition but a sense of art greater than ourselves and peyote. Art for me has always felt like an escape from the jostling for competition that the rest of the corporate world embraces. It i not of course a surprise the highly successful people rank themselves against their competitors, an author who is personal feels at all times exposed and wants to know those around him who might be doing it better for fear their contribution won’t be good enough. Hell, I can hardly write a facebook status update without hoping someone likes it.

    wandersage

    October 23, 2013 at 4:42 pm

  23. I write because I love to write, not necessarily to win a competition. However, should I find myself neck-in-neck with a worthy contender, I feel I may stretch my legs into a fuller gallop and appreciate the fellow writer who gave chase to my work. We can only improve when challenged to do better.

    Nice piece, Alec!

    Natalie June Reilly

    October 23, 2013 at 5:32 pm

  24. Thanks to everyone for all the great comments—I’m really glad that this post has inspired so much thought and discussion.

    @wandersage: That’s the funny thing about competition and camaraderie: sometimes they go hand in hand.

    nevalalee

    October 23, 2013 at 6:53 pm

  25. Great read!
    sometimes artists working in different mediums can collaborate and create together without the negative challenges… A painter and a writer or a writer and a musician can often soar and inspire one another

    sketchjay

    October 23, 2013 at 7:05 pm

  26. Good to hear this discussed openly. I write for a living and have not (yet!) achieved your success, although I’ve published two NF books so far. It’s a great challenge sometimes to cheer on our competitors, but we must. Who else will cheer for us if we sit there sour-faced and resentful? It won’t speed our career.

    broadsideblog

    October 23, 2013 at 7:15 pm

  27. They all have different skills but when blended together, you see the beauty of the art coming from angles of diversity and purpose.

    bobbywrites

    October 23, 2013 at 8:01 pm

  28. Very insightful!

    Stuart M. Perkins

    October 23, 2013 at 8:06 pm

  29. I suppose you’re right, though I battle mightily against my own competitive spirit. I’m in the Hopkins writing program, and one of the things I like about it is that there is a powerful supportive spirit of cooperation and encouragement among the students. There’s a little sniping, and I’ll admit to jealousy at times. But it’s true that it only makes me work harder, even if it is with the ungracious motivation of “Lord, if SHE can do, I surely can.” Thanks for telling it like it is.
    And congrats on the Freshly Pressed!

    melanielynngriffin

    October 23, 2013 at 9:28 pm

  30. Reblogged this on From Slacker To Scribe.

    dederants

    October 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm

  31. @sketchjay: That’s an excellent point. Even writers from two different disciplines—a novelist and a journalist, say—can become close in a way that might not be possible if they were working in the same field.

    @melanielynngriffin: Thanks! I remember being tempted by the Hopkins writing program myself.

    Thanks again, everyone!

    nevalalee

    October 23, 2013 at 9:58 pm

  32. Reblogged this on Rock Thiz Magazine .

    Rock Thiz Magazine

    October 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm

  33. Reblogged this on paglayog.

    paglayog

    October 23, 2013 at 10:45 pm

  34. Interesting piece! I find I oscillate between being inspired and being intimidated by other writers. Most of the time, though, others’ success does push me to try harder. Except in the case of Eleanor Catton who’s just won the Booker and is ten years younger than I am, and I think, WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY LIFE?!! Talent is one thing, it seems, and getting on with it and writing the damned book is another.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed :)

    climbing bean

    October 24, 2013 at 12:03 am

  35. Perhaps I am blessed by being a person who writes material that nobody will ever consider great. I write because I love to write, and if somebody writes better than I do they must find their place on a long list; a great many people write better than I do! I write because I love to write and I write about what is in my life experience or in my heart. Nobody else has had my life experiences and nobody else has access to what lies in my heart, so in that sense I am unique. My ability to communicate these experiences and thoughts to the world are most certainly inferior to many, if not most, other writers, but I have the unique perspective of their being my experiences and my thoughts, so I will offer them with relish and a smile. If somebody cares enough about my story to tell it better than I can I will offer them a salute and a glass of my favorite Trader Joe’s $7 dollar wine, as long as they agree to drink that glass with me.

    gdgdurden

    October 24, 2013 at 12:03 am

  36. Great post. I really love it

    casbewi

    October 24, 2013 at 12:30 am

  37. Hard work, luck, forget the rivalries, they are exhausting!

    currankentucky

    October 24, 2013 at 6:48 am

  38. Thanks, everyone, for the great responses—really glad you liked the post.

    @climbing bean: Agreed—Eleanor Catton is the kind of writer who keeps other writers up at night.

    nevalalee

    October 24, 2013 at 6:54 am

  39. Even to the point of ‘a de facto friendship’ [at times], the hardest thing for one writer to admit is they read another’s writing- and might enjoy it or learn from it (gasp). Truth of writers prevails on this piece. LOL Great job!

    inkedvocabulary

    October 24, 2013 at 10:52 am

  40. Interesting, but it’s not good writing to open with a false premise.

  41. @Background Noise: Which premise seemed false?

    nevalalee

    October 24, 2013 at 11:38 am

  42. This is a lovely post, and inspires me to join writing communities that can potentially spark a rivalry between myself and a writer of the same stature.

    satire1982

    October 24, 2013 at 11:49 am

  43. Food for thought certainly but competition and rivalry are such ugly words and those concepts seem strange to me as a reader, I mean I read for many reasons, education, enjoyment even the love of reading itself but never for the love of the writer. Writing is such a personal expression, each writer has a voice and a style I am not sure how I could compare those with an others, it would be like comparing apples and oranges.

    What I choose to read will be different than an other chooses to read, therefore my list of esteemed writers would differ immensely from an others, no writer has universal appeal.
    Perhaps this is what Background Noise meant by false premise, it struck me as such too.

    thespiritualrebel

    October 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm

  44. Wow. This was really timely for me. Love the historical references as it takes the topic to a new level for me — less about ME and more of a universal challenge met by artists.

    Jen

    October 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm

  45. Someone wrote a funny piece of fiction not long ago. It was a lunchtime chat between Stephen King, Nick Sparks, and George R. R. Martin. It was a funny piece, but it spoke directly to the competition amongst peers you’re writing about.

    authordavidpaul

    October 24, 2013 at 2:58 pm

  46. This post is so true! Among writers, even though it’s a community, we are also competitive and want to independently succeed. We write, oftentimes, only for ourselves, and therefore crave success. When we see others becoming “better” than we are, rivalries begin. While we do offer help and feedback to other writers, in the end, our own success as a writer is most important, usually.

    Rebecca Meyer

    October 24, 2013 at 3:57 pm

  47. As a writer, I do not wish you well.

    qrparker

    October 24, 2013 at 4:52 pm

  48. I am new at this and glad that I’ve never had a competitive spirit. There is nothing wrong with a little competition but I’d like to remain a free thinker…doing my own thing and hoping to reach if only one person. In the world of writing I believe there is enough to go around. Great post!

    Tonda Mingus

    October 25, 2013 at 1:04 pm

  49. Ouch. I’d like to think we are all in this together, but I am sure this isn’t always the case.

    SJ Main

    October 26, 2013 at 9:39 pm

  50. @SJ Main: For a lot of writers, the fact that we’re all in this together feels like precisely the problem.

    nevalalee

    October 28, 2013 at 10:03 am

  51. Visit my New web site and follow me http://andreamurdaca.wordpress.com/

    andreamurdaca

    October 29, 2013 at 7:15 am

  52. I write for me, nobody else. That being said, I don’t openly celebrate the successes of other writers because in some twisted crevice in my brain doing so encourages others, and if they’re encouraged then they’ll write. If not, they’ll stop writing and there will be more space for me. It isn’t supposed to make sense, but then again, maybe it is just me competing to see who can be the most abstract.

    I Blogged Your Mom

    October 30, 2013 at 9:09 am

  53. No need to apologize: I don’t think even the most generous of literary souls can “openly celebrate” the success of other writers.

    nevalalee

    October 30, 2013 at 9:22 am

  54. Reblogged this on megandthewaves and commented:
    When honour among writers counts

    megandthewaves

    November 1, 2013 at 7:19 am

  55. Your view on writing it very interesting. Your opinion is wonderful!

    heyitsclauds

    November 1, 2013 at 5:46 pm

  56. Reblogged this on Writer's Work Lab.

    paulettemotzko

    November 2, 2013 at 3:16 am

  57. Reblogged this on kippcasters.

    kippcasters

    November 2, 2013 at 12:06 pm

  58. The reason I write is to raise awareness on Deaf issues, politics, human rights. I don’t write for myself but rather to educate. Even my fiction stories have Deaf characters that are well researched.FYI my blog is http://www.phoebetay.wordpress.com

    beefyisfeebz

    November 4, 2013 at 1:19 am

  59. Reblogged this on Wright-Wang Extreme Mystery, Inc. and commented:
    A view into the writer’s mind. Successful writers. Not mine.

    verrucavulgaris

    November 9, 2013 at 9:49 am

  60. Reblogged this on KINGreports and commented:
    “Artistic rivalry can be murder on the writers themselves” – I find this to be very, very true.

    kingreports

    November 15, 2013 at 9:51 pm

  61. I really enjoyed this post. I am one of those authors just starting out and just today feeling the pangs of jealousy at discovering a friend’s wife was being published while I am struggling at the self-publishing route. I wondered why they never said anything to me about it and after reading this I understand. You tend to band together with those who are in the same boat until you somehow manage to access a bigger and better boat. It’s a continual uphill battle even after you think you’ve made it. Good thing I love writing ;)

    cetracy

    November 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm

  62. Reblogged this on gustyadek.

    gustyadek

    November 25, 2013 at 7:13 am

  63. Reblogged this on mannixdee.

    D.Mannix

    November 28, 2013 at 3:29 am


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