During my PhD candidature, I tutored in creative writing for two semesters at Monash University. I taught two classes a term, and acted as consulting editor on the annual student anthology, which provided an opportunity for students to learn about the process of editing and publishing a book. The anthology was also an incentive, in that it showcased the best writers in the year.
Sarah was on that editorial committee. She was bubbly and bright, and a very good writer. I got to know her through the process of editing the anthology, and her enthusiasm was as genuine as it was unspoilt. Journalists, trade writers, even novelists – anyone who has spent years turning in copy to make ends meet tends to a kind of tortured cynicism about the writing and publishing process. But Sarah had no such history to taint her. She positively beamed when she talked about writing.
I was only a few years older than most of my students, and my relationship with many of them was less like a teacher and more like a big sister. I sat on the edge of the table to take my classes. I had coffee with my students in the hollow of the Menzies Building after lectures. One Thursday night we went on a pub crawl together to scope out venues for the anthology launch, and almost certainly drank too much. When Sarah began to show interest in Tim, one of the other editors, and he blithely took pleasure in it without any apparent interest in returning the sentiment, I told him off for stringing her along. A couple of years later, they invited me to their engagement party.
If Sarah had trouble with procrastination, she certainly didn’t show it. She produced well above what was required of her for class. She wrote drafts of novels and reams of stories, and left them in drawers. She worked for a non-profit, using creative writing to help former addicts. She won the competition we ran to promote the anthology, with a story about familial abuse, written through the eyes of a child in lucid, controlled prose.
Later, when she excitedly announced on Facebook the bidding war over her novel to hundreds of likes and praise-packed comments, I was going through a crisis of confidence. I was nearly thirty, and the unexpectedly prompt approval of my PhD and an agent’s acceptance of me on her books had failed utterly to compensate, in my mind, for my novel running aground before it even got out of the harbour.
I knew the book was going to be a hard sell (I was a white writer writing Indigenous characters), but hadn’t expected it to be rejected everywhere. All the advantages I’d had as a young PhD candidate tackling a tough and topical issue; all the opportunities I’d taken not simply to publish but also to go along to the right parties, talk to the right people, put myself in the right circles; all the momentum I had built for myself as a literary writer in an industry that was getting harder and harder to break into – I felt like it had all amounted to nothing.
So when the choruses of congratulation sounded for Sarah’s international book deal, I couldn’t help but think how unfair it was. I was supposed to be senior to my students: I had more experience, a higher degree, greater exposure to the industry. Watching one of them skyrocket past me only minutes after finishing her undergraduate studies just brought bile to my throat and jabs of resentment in my guts.
I was jealous.
There is nothing edifying about it. Of all human emotions, jealousy is the ugliest, the least dignified, the most destructive. It is inferiority, weakness and hostility. It is distress and anger and powerlessness. It is the desire to destroy, fuelled by deprivation. It is the urge to ‘rob and spoil’ in the face of happiness and privilege. It is a conflation of material circumstances, inward and outward projections, and a keen sense of desire and loss.
Psychologists and philosophers make a distinction between jealousy and envy. In his recent book Jealousy, Canadian academic Peter Toohey argues for an understanding of envy as ‘material jealousy’. There is always a triad involved in this emotion, he claims: ‘It is you and a rival (even if the rival doesn’t know they’re a rival) and some object, “a mighty state, a rich treasure”.’
Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein is clear about the distinction between the two: ‘Jealousy fears to lose what it has; envy is pained at seeing another have that which it wants for itself.’
Klein’s work on the psychology of envy, influenced by but deviating from Freud, significantly shaped contemporary understandings of the phenomenon. Her 1957 paper ‘Envy and Gratitude’ argues that envy is an essential part of human nature: an expression of destructive impulses present from birth and directly related to the relationship between infant and mother. Klein’s hypothesis identifies envy as a primitive manifestation of the death instinct focused primarily on the mother’s breast, an argument which placed the emotion at the very centre of the human experience. Indeed, some contemporary psychologists argue that the commonly understood dichotomy of love/hate would be more accurately represented as love/envy.
By these definitions, the feelings I harboured towards my student would be more correctly identified as envy. I wanted what she had – in this case, an international three-book publication deal, preferably before the age of thirty.
The idea that jealousy is intrinsic to human life would appear to be supported by the wealth of cultural artefacts examining the emotion. From Ovid to Austen, Aristotle to Adam Smith, innumerable writers, philosophers, artists, spiritual leaders and even medical professionals have attempted to represent, define and understand jealousy.
Evolutionary psychologists, not exactly renowned for their progressive gender politics, argue that jealousy exists as a product of the ‘selfish gene’ – that it works within relationships to keep philandering at bay and promote the ‘ideal’ circumstances for reproduction. Jealousy, in this account, has developed out of biological necessity.
But human psychological identity is not fixed; it is a construction that is essentially a combination of internal and external factors. Paul Verhaeghe, in his 2014 book What about Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society, explains in terms of hardware and software: genetics may determine the scope of physical and mental potential, but it is environment that shapes its content. Culture and society teach us how to understand the world, how to behave and how to interpret the actions of others. So while jealousy may be a ‘natural’ feeling, a capability drawn into the blueprint of our being, our expressions of jealousy, the way we understand it and how we respond to it are cultivated and shaped by the culture in which we live.
Jealousy among creative people is nothing new. Writing is a singular pursuit, dominated – almost by definition – by people who spend so much time in their own heads that they are forever in danger of tipping altogether into social dysfunction. The relationships we build with others in the industry are always tenuous – there are too many of us plying our trade for anyone to ever feel wholly comfortable of sure-fire success, and yet too few of us for it to be worth putting in an effort towards making enemies. The need to self-promote and network in order to publish, coupled with the human desire for a community of peers, results in a social dynamic that is never entirely professional and never quite friendly. The consequences are intrigues, open secrets and a collection of tight little cliques, with every conversation filtered through what and when and with whom you published, how much you sold or how well-known your name is.
In literature, jealousy most often manifests as the compelling force behind hideous acts of vengeance. From Shakespeare: suspicion that Othello had slept with his wife, Emilia – ‘the thought whereof / Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards’ – drives Iago to conspire against his master, whose rage at Desdemona’s own alleged affair results in his wrath and her death. From Euripides: Medea, ‘scorned and shamed’, murders her own children in response to her husband’s infidelity. From Dumas: Danglars and Fernand loathe Edmond Dantès for his career success and his prospective marriage and send him, innocent and ignorant, to the Château d’If on his wedding day. After fourteen years of imprisonment, he escapes and sets upon orchestrating revenge.
If we are to learn anything from these classics, it is that jealousy has severe and brutal consequences. Though harboured in one person’s heart, its effects nevertheless pass through a community like an infection. Even if it doesn’t necessarily always work this way in real life, the power of our cultural narratives about jealousy make it is very difficult to admit to the feeling.
Some writers, however, have tried.
In 2012, Abby Mims, a columnist for Nervous Breakdown, wrote about her experience in the same creative writing class as Joshua Ferris, a Man Booker-nominated novelist and short-story writer credited in Granta, the New Yorker and the Iowa Review. The narrative she tells is one of a lecturer playing favourites, and a soon-to-be literary star of the young-white-male-genius type whose apparent dearth of insecurity and ‘maddeningly superior’ attitude drove her to outburst in the middle of their shared MFA workshop.
‘[H]e’s gone on to become wildly successful and rich and well-known and I have not,’ she wrote. ‘It’s a lesson in humility I do not wish on anyone, and it’s taken me years to get past my pettiness in order to write about it with any semblance of perspective.’
Nathan Rabin, film and music critic and former head writer for A.V. Club, covered similar ground in a piece for Slate in September 2014. The target of his jealousy was his friend John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, a young adult novel that catapulted its writer to the top of the Amazon bestseller lists, and that was made into a blockbuster film that, in Rabin’s words, ‘[wiped] the floor, box-office-wise, with a $200 million Tom Cruise science-fiction extravaganza’. But Green was no self-aggrandising narcissist. He was ‘a wonderful guy to drink with, and a wonderful guy to read with, and a wonderful guy to hang out with, and a wonderful guy in general.’ Naturally, that only made Rabin’s feelings more conflicted.
My spirit, if you will, was gracious and happy for John, but my ego, the infernal ego, cried out, ‘Why not me? Haven’t I paid my dues? Haven’t I written lots of books? Why can’t I be even a fraction that successful? And why doesn’t he use his enormous power and visibility to help me, despite the terrible job I did keeping in touch?’
In 2003, a remarkably candid essay simply titled ‘Envy’ appeared in Granta magazine. The by-line credited Kathryn Chetkovich, a relatively unknown writer of short fiction. The story she told was about her envy of a man she met at an artists’ colony. He was ‘handsome in a shy, arrogant way’, and also a writer, although she had never heard of his books. The long-term romantic relationship that developed out of their meeting began on a relatively even keel, in spite of her envy of the man’s work ethic and his prose. His next book, however, exploded onto the public consciousness, and he became ‘that rare thing, a writer whom people (not just other writers) have heard of’. This newfound fame and fortune did little to alleviate the ‘pitched battle’ Chetkovich had been waging with herself throughout their relationship.
‘I have met the circumstances that are larger than my capacity to be gracious,’ she writes. ‘Someone I love has what I want, and he probably always will.’
The taboo around speaking frankly about jealousy is so great that perhaps the only way to properly alleviate the burden is by admitting to it publicly. Neither Rabin nor Mims write from the perspective of having overcome their envy by achieving dizzying heights of fame and fortune comparable to that of their frenemies; rather, their confessions have the dual effect of appearing to be both a method of catharsis and public atonement – naming and shaming themselves – and, inevitably, trading off their previous relationship with, and the current fame of, the object of their envy. Much as we might seek each other’s camaraderie and support, literary types love gossip as much as any Hollywood hanger-on. Similarly, as well-written as Chetkovich’s piece was, one wonders what its fate might have been were it not widely circulated that she is the long-term partner of Jonathan Franzen.
It might be easy to conclude that writers are naturally horrible people. But perhaps there is another way to approach the issue. If our environment shapes how we express, interpret and respond to jealousy, then surely it must also play a role in generating it. By the same token, it seems obvious that a competitive culture – one in which there are substantial material rewards for those at the top and serious consequences for those at the bottom – would be innately likely to inspire the feelings of neglect, injustice and resentment that characterise jealousy.
Consider the proliferation of tertiary creative writing courses. The vaguely interested are lumped together with the determined few, the talented and untalented alike encouraged to provide feedback and critical responses to each other’s work as a central part of each semester’s assessment. Honest camaraderie may be produced in that environment when the stakes are low, the playing field is relatively level and the pressures of the market are kept at a respectable distance. It’s hard to maintain, though, when the ultimate goal is vocational – when publication, rather than the literary art for its own sake, is pursued with vigour, and someone in the circle begins to have real industry success.
When Chetkovich writes about her sense of her own inadequacy, it becomes clear that at least part of her insecurity lies in her sense that work is ‘a job you were paid to do, necessary labour that someone else depended on’, and thus fundamentally different to her writing. Her partner’s commitment to his writing, his dogged determination, his seemingly unshakeable conviction that ‘he knew what his work was’ made him enviable, but also undoubtedly contributed to his success. What Franzen understood, what allows him to be prolific – but what also makes him kind of an arsehole – is that in order to write, the writing must come first. The question around which all other questions must revolve is not ‘When will I spend time with my lover?’ or ‘How can I be the best friend I can?’ but ‘When and how will I be able to write?’
We are used to thinking this way about our paid employment, about the things that keep us clothed or provide a roof over our heads (even high-powered workaholics who are at their desk by 7:30 am and religiously stay past 6 pm are granted some kind of social reprieve for their actions), but not about creativity. The social consequences are as significant as the practical outcomes.
Even the most base and dehumanising paid labour affords us at least some understanding and respect from family and friends for the allocation of our time. But tell someone you can’t help them out or attend their birthday party or mind their children because you have to write your novel and they will not be quite so forgiving – particularly if you are not and do not ever expect (quite a different thing from wishing, fervently praying or desperately hoping) to be as financially successful and culturally renowned as Jonathan Franzen. (I strongly suspect that gender matters here: that it is easier – which is not to say easy – for men to be ruthless with their time, to set aside romantic and familial and social obligations to sequester themselves so that literary creativity can occur. Men are socialised in discipline and dominance; women are disciplined into self-sacrifice, and one of the first things to meet the executioner is female creative practice. But that is another argument.)
In a market-driven culture, it would be easy to see jealousy as a result of pure greed: petty resentment, a misplaced sense of entitlement based on overindulgence, the inevitable repercussion of wanting things one has not earned. But to reduce jealousy to simply an expression of expected privilege is a fundamental misunderstanding. Jealousy is an outwardly directed hostility due to inward suffering. Self-love, argue psychologists, regulates envious self-suffering, because the root of jealousy is not expectation or greed or mollycoddling but insecurity. Only the deeply insecure relate to the achievements and positions of others through fear and anger and frustration.
To be a writer under late capitalism is to be perpetually insecure: to forever feel as if you are compromising your art for the sake of fiscal responsibility (or driving yourself into permanent poverty for the sake of your art). As the arts become increasingly administered, discussed and evaluated on market terms, so the identity of the writer becomes dependent on market mechanisms. What does that mean, then, for those of us who have known nothing other than a neoliberal society?
Verhaeghe argues that our identities have been shaped inextricably by the experience: no longer the individual as citizen, but ‘the individual-as-entrepreneur’, an agent within the market competing against other agents. Our sense of identity, our sense of ourselves, thus our sense of ourselves as writers, is bound up in the codes and cultural phenomena of the market.
Psychologists argue that the cure for envy is self-esteem, but for most of us, writing won’t lead to popularity. It won’t reward us with riches. It probably won’t even pay for groceries. What writing will mean is getting up hours before work every morning to type, trying to prop your eyes open with black tea and admonitions, or staring at your computer screen late into the night and sleeping through your alarm the next morning. It will mean spending long hours alone, deliberating on the products of your own mind, to the point where you find the presence of another person in your space an unwelcome intrusion. It will mean saying no to weekend brunch dates, to weekday excursions, to late nights out with friends so many times that they will eventually stop asking.
How do you keep going in the face of that?
To my mind, there is really only one answer: change the terms by which you measure the worth of what you are doing. In the market, I barely register, but I didn’t begin writing as a kid because I wanted to make stacks of money; I wrote because I found joy in stories, and I felt an urgent imperative to work through problems and communicate what I discovered. And I keep writing now because I believe that writing matters beyond its capacity to sell – that it reflects the world back to us anew and allows us to explore the possibilities for a different world, a better world. I believe that there is value in beauty for its own sake, and that it can be found in the most unexpected places. And I believe that I am not alone in my faith in these things, and that they make the hard slog of creativity worthwhile.
Find reasons to keep writing. Find your community. Make time for your work and take it seriously. And if you still get jealous? Put a harness on that demon, and use it to make some amazing art.