The Inevitability Of Creative Jealousy

By Noah Berlatsky


MTV just announced a whole new slate of exciting, hip, awesome culture writers, including Hazel Cillis and Jessica Hopper. They did not announce me as one of their hip, new, exciting, awesome culture writers because they did not hire me. Admittedly, I didn’t apply, but still, you’d have thought they would have looked across the Internet and been blinded by my radiant digital hipness and snapped me up. But they didn’t.

Their loss. No, really, they’ve totally lost out, and are steeped in loserness. MTV, pfft, I didn’t want to be on staff for them anyway, at all, not even a little bit. This is me, not caring.

Gore Vidal said, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies,” but that seems overly circumscribed. As a writer, a little something in me dies whenever anyone succeeds at writing, be they friend, foe, professional acquaintance (like Jessica Hopper), or stranger. I look at the writing of George Will, and I say to myself (and to anyone who will listen), Hey, I could spew out incoherent idiocy on a regular basis, why can’t I have a syndicated column? I look at the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates and I say, I can’t really write like that, and I am bitter about it.

Less talented people than me succeed, and why shouldn’t I succeed instead? More talented people than me succeed, and why shouldn’t I have been granted more talent than them? Life is unfair, no one appreciates me, and even those who appreciate me don’t appreciate me enough.

For writers and artists, jealousy isn’t so much a vice as a baseline default. As a writer, my job is to put my special suchness out there in the world, to awe the reading public and inspire them to sing my praises and give me money. When you’re in the business of marketing your soul, it’s natural to resent everyone else’s soul, and to want to stomp on all of them.

Hark, here is Norman Mailer declaring that J.D. Salinger “was the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school” (stomp!). Here is D.H. Lawrence describing Ulysses as composed entirely of “old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations” (stomp! stomp!). Even sibling love cannot interfere with the mean-spirited descent of these boots. Charlotte Bronte famously hated her sister Anne’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, stating that it was “hardly . . . desirable to preserve” it, and going out of her way to prevent its continued publication after her sister’s death.

You’d think that celebrated Charlotte would be above the petty jealousy of torpedoing her own sister’s literary acclaim, but really it doesn’t matter how famous or inconsequential you are. Petty ante freelancers and bestsellers alike are all joined in the conviction that we are not sufficiently praised. Even Stephen King, one of the single most successful living authors, showered with praises and gobs of cash from morning till night — even he is consumed with a sense of wrongs done to him. His massive 1986 novel It takes a long detour away from evil clowns and murdered children to sneer at creative writing programs and all those literary fiction snobs who Don’t Understand the True Artistry of pulp horror. Yes, OK, Stephen King has enough money to literally bury a mid-sized writing workshop in twenty-dollar bills, but he is still not happy. Those buried creative writing instructors, choking out their final words, still declare, “scary clown . . . gasp . . . clichéd . . . ack . . . lowbrow . . . rattle.” The bitterness lingers.

And indeed the bitterness intensifies. Back in the 1980s, King didn’t have social media, and so was not constantly confronted as I am with a timeline full of people flagrantly praising the work of other, lesser writers when they should clearly be praising me instead. A 2014 study found that 60% of users felt that social media made them feel jealous and inadequate. Of that 60%, approximately every single one was a writer or would-be writer, according to a statistic that I just made up, because writers can do that sort of thing. Honor my wit.

So, what is to be done? How can you, as a writer, get through the day without being consumed by your own unpleasantness and/or without alienating all the people who don’t love you the way they should, but who you still need to talk to because of networking, and also because of that inconvenient need for occasional human contact? Well, first of all, of course, you just need to bite your tongue all day everyday, waiting for that moment when you succeed beyond your wildest dreams and can include a diatribe against all your detractors in your 1,000-page bestseller about evil clowns who are actually extraterrestrial spider monsters.

But short term, you can also just tell people you’re jealous of them. What successful person isn’t pleased to hear that others are plunged into despair by their accomplishments? It’s always nice to take a moment out of being jealous to bask in the bitter jealousy of others. Don’t hoard your envy; share it. Then at least in addition to being miserable about each other’s successes, we can also be joyful about each other’s misery. If you, dear reader, cannot love my writing, I beg you to at least resent it.


Lead image: Gordon Ednie