Poets and Writers

Hey, Jealousy



IA M HERE to tell you about the time I rage-puked with envy over another author’s success. When my first novel came out in summer 2011, I knew very few other writers, so the ones I met that year became not only my instant friends, but also—it was inevitable—the bars against which I measured myself.

While that first book, The Borrower, didn’t light the world on fire, it did respectabl­y well, and by the end of that

REBECCA MAKKAI is the author of five books, including last year’s New York Times bestseller I Have Some Questions for You (Viking), and Pulitzer finalist The Great Believers (Penguin Books, 2018). She is the artistic director at StoryStudi­o Chicago. year I was feeling pretty okay about things. Then—and no one had prepared me for this—the lists began.

That November/December onslaught of “Best Novels of the Year!” and “Twenty Best Books We Read!” lists is useful for readers and bookseller­s, and it’s wonderful exposure for the books they highlight. But for the vast majority of writers, those lists are a reminder that a select few books were chosen for glory this year, and yours is not one of them.

I made it onto one lovely list (a list of debuts) and wasn’t nearly grateful enough. I hoped this would perhaps augur more lists, more dopamine hits, but it didn’t. I’d usually learn about the existence of a list on Facebook, when one of my fellow debut authors would post something like “Shocked and humbled to be on yet another best-of-year list, this one from Publishers Weekly!” I’d give it a little blue thumbs-up and die inside. The same thing happened with prize nomination­s. I was under no delusions that my friends or I would win the Booker Prize, but then—lo and behold—a new friend was longlisted for a pretty great award, and another debut author from my imprint was nominated for a big prize, a nomination that came with a shiny gold sticker for the book cover.

But, I reminded myself, it was only a few friends and acquaintan­ces soaking up the blessings. There were a lot more people in my boat, people with overlooked books I knew to be great. Take Rowena (absolutely not her real name),

whose debut I loved, and a person I really enjoyed on the couple of occasions I’d met her. Her novel had gotten thrillingl­y positive reviews when it first appeared, but Rowena had been awfully silent lately on all this end-ofyear stuff. Rowena and I were in this together.

I checked Rowena’s Facebook page to confirm that she, too, was chilling in the land of Mildly Successful Books. Yep, here were photos of her kids, a note about her new project, and…a post that said, “Just a reminder that I’m posting all my book news over on my author page!” Oh.

Of course I clicked. What I need you to picture here is the movie montage of these links to her good fortune literally zooming out of the computer and past my head, filling the air around me. Obama loved the book! So did Oprah! The New York Times never stopped talking about it! Here was a profile of Rowena in People! Oh my God, she was so humbled to be on this illustriou­s shortlist for the Huge Deal Prize! Wheeee!

My stomach revolted, and I went into the bathroom, and, yes, I actually barfed. Out of despair and envy and helplessne­ss and anger. It was a ridiculous reaction, and I knew it. It was also, for some reason, exactly what I needed: to take my jealousy to an extreme and absurd and physical manifestat­ion. For this, at least, I could finally laugh at myself.

Four books later, I know I’ve been the Rowena for other people. I’ve had the book that pops up everywhere you look and thought (compassion­ately!), Anyone out there who hates me must be miserable about this right now. If it’s possible to be jealous of yourself, that’s what I was feeling. Where had all this attention been, back when my fragile ego needed it most?

There’s a well-known phenomenon regarding economic class: When you earn a little more money, you start hanging out with people in your new income bracket, where someone has more money than you and better vacations and a better car. If you finally catch up to them, it doesn’t matter, because now you know people with second homes and boats. And on it goes and goes until you’re one of the two richest people on the planet and apparently you still have to compete with the other one by building a bigger rocket.

It’s the same, of course, in the world of artistic ambition. At first you compare yourself to the best writer in your workshop, and then if you find an agent (joy!) you compare yourself to that agent’s most successful writers and you forget that it was once your greatest hope to find an agent. And so on, all the way up to the top. I’d imagine that the day after you win the Nobel Prize, you start comparing yourself negatively to the other writers who’ve won the Nobel Prize.

On some level I knew all this already. You probably know it already too. But I needed that rock-bottom bathroom moment to remind me of it, of the utter absurdity of it all.

It became clear in following years, and over subsequent books, that there’s a fine line between jealousy and resentment. Jealousy might be aspiration­al; we might look at where someone else is and work a little harder to get there. Resentment, though, is the bile in your stomach. It’s nothing but bitterness directed at the world and at yourself. It’s utterly useless. The best thing you can do is let it out of your system.

My envy of other authors can still sometimes slide into resentment— especially when seemingly every accolade lands on the lap of a debut author who doesn’t seem to realize how much of their success is luck—but I know a lot more now about how fortunes rise and fall. I know, for instance, that it’s a tough road if your first book is your biggest success. The career in which it’s all downhill from that first splashy triumph that you didn’t even fully appreciate at the time—it’s a sad one. The career in which things start out slow and you appreciate every little recognitio­n along the way, maybe (maybe!) building to a breakout moment—I recommend it highly.

And then there’s this: Every single time I meet someone I’ve resented, even one of those fairy-dust-sprinkled debut authors, they turn out to be such a delightful person that I end up rooting for them hard. And I’ve had people tell me the same: that they felt a certain way about me and then met me and realized I’m just a friendly dork who loves books. If you’re a writer, then writers are your people. The guy with the seven-figure book deal and the woman scribbling her first short story in a blank journal—they’re both your people. A rising tide lifts all boats, and, listen, if Colleen Hoover’s stratosphe­ric success means even one independen­t bookstore managed to stay in business this year, that success belongs to all of us. If the guy who was once rude to you at a conference wins the Pulitzer next year, at least it’s sending readers into bookstores to fetch that novel—and maybe as they wait to check out, another book will catch their eye, some deserving and under-loved debut.

Out of a perverse sense of guilt, as if I somehow harmed Rowena through my envy, I now push her books on people at every opportunit­y. Because she’s my people, and I adore her. And because they’re damn good books. Don’t we want to live in a world full of those?

And then there’s this: Every single time I meet someone I’ve resented, even one of those fairydust-sprinkled debut authors, they turn out to be such a delightful person that I end up rooting for them hard.

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