Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 25th, 2013

Survival of the envious

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Gore Vidal

“I believe that nothing completely satisfies an imaginative writer,” wrote Frederick Locker-Lampson, “but copious and continuous amounts of unmitigated praise, always provided it is accompanied by a large and increasing sale of his works.” I’d like to say that this is a humorous exaggeration, but really, it’s pretty much the truth. Writers, by nature, are insecure creatures: they’ve chosen a trade that offers few visible rewards for years on end, often in the face of justified skepticism from their family and friends, and even those who make it into print generally only do so after much rejection. Once they’ve been published, they’re likely to find themselves confronted with an entirely different set of problems: the fact that their work is freely available to public opinion leaves them perpetually skinless, to use Walter Murch’s memorable phrase, and these days, a writer who wants to obsess over sales figures and reviews can do so in real time, a prospect that might have made even Locker-Lampson’s head explode.

And the amount of information available to contemporary writers only magnifies their natural tendency to emphasize bad news over good. No matter how well things might be going in other respects, there’s always a lukewarm reader review, a dip in sales rank, or a list of award nominees that glaringly omits the writer’s own name. Worst of all is what I like to think of as the Colonel Cathcart complex, in which a writer can’t be altogether happy if there’s another author out there somewhere, his age or younger, who is doing ever so slightly better in the same general field. Few writers, no matter how emotionally healthy they might be in other respects, can bring themselves to view their own success in absolute terms: it’s always the relative measure that stings. Which is really just a particularly ingenious way of guaranteeing that no writer can ever be entirely content. “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” Saul Bellow says, in a slightly softened version of Gore Vidal’s more pointed observation: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

Philip Roth

None of these observations are new, of course; even if they hadn’t been confirmed by other writers, they’re facts that any writer can verify just by consulting his own feelings whenever another record-breaking advance or movie deal is announced. And all the evidence implies that such dissatisfaction is a permanent part of the writing life. If you had a laboratory in which you could assemble a perfect writer, one whose career followed a perfect trajectory—early acclaim yielding to massive mainstream success and a second golden period in old age—you’d end up with Philip Roth, whose unhappiness with his own life’s work is a matter of record. But the most terrifying truth of all is that these feelings aren’t an undesirable side effect of a writer’s existence, but an essential element of it. Any writer who survives to produce more than a few good books is a creature who has been forced to evolve under considerable environmental pressure, and the one common trait that lies beneath all great careers is the refusal to be satisfied.

In an ideal world, this kind of professional envy would concentrate solely on matters of art: it’s natural and presumably healthy to want to write better books than any of one’s peers. (Like most writers, I’d like to believe that if the books I wrote already existed, I’d be content just to read them, and leave the hard work to someone else.) Yet this obsession with the quality of one’s craft shades naturally into the less positive characteristics that are equally central to a writer’s identity. A writer is like a show dog who has been bred for certain desirable characteristics that happen to go hand in hand with chronic, sometimes crippling problems, like a pekingese whose flat face leads to trouble breathing, or a great dane with hip dysplasia. For writers, the desirable qualities are perfectionism and obsession with craft; the side effects, sadly, are insecurity and jealousy. As far as treating the condition goes, a steady drip of praise and good sales is one answer; drugs and alcohol are another; but the best cure, inevitably, is work, as Norman Mailer once said with regard to his own bad reviews:

[They] put iron into my heart again, and rage…and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

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March 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

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Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

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