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August 22, 2007



I'll bet you're talking about Joyce Carol Oates. Cos she's the one who grates my nerves.


A provocative and interesting post. I've been guilty of a different specific sort of envy, the kind that accompanies reading an astonishing work that I know I can never hope to complete with. Oddly, I don't necessarily feel that with, say, Banville, perhaps because he strikes me as sui generis. But, for example, I feel a certain degree of envy whenever I read (here comes another obsession) James Wood - envy at the depth of his learning and his ability to draw connections and reach some awfully deep conclusions; thinking about literature in a way that feels hopelessly beyond my reach - almost four dimensional. I also envy the courage of someone like Zadie Smith, willing to indulge her exuberance in print, whereas sometimes I worry I'm too damned careful. I expect I'll experience more in this vein next May - especially when Andrew Sean Greer's new novel comes out the same month as mine!

David Leavitt

In fact it isn't Joyce Carol Oates I was thinking of, though I understand what you're saying. I have to say that I've often wondered whether she would get as much flack (for publishing so much) if she were a man. Trollope must have published at least as much as JCO has!


I'm so guilty of Schadenfreude, and was in fact just writing about it today in a story I'm writing, that even airing my dirty laundry out in the blogosphere makes me feel cheap and obvious, and I don't want to be that--I want to be subtle and rise above and be exemplary. As if! Because I know a lot of writers and a lot of successful ones, and know I'm no worse than them on this issue, I enjoy the hell out of it whenever someone of note and acclaim admits to it, too. Add to that my puzzlement and superiority that few of the people I call friends see the genius I see in Joy Williams, the elegance and oblique sophistication of her hushed staccato, and I'm (very proudly) ready to be fitted for a hairshirt. That said, I've ben (of course) enjoy following this forum. Also, to TEV, I love James Wood for mostly agreeing with me and being the one who's paid to say what he says about the overexuberant young things, and the older head-scratcher choices of so many in the know. And I love David Leavitt's humility and quiet talent.

David Leavitt

I too love Joy Williams!


Something funny (in an Oz kind of way) about writerly schadenfreude, here. (The post,rather than the comments.)

Can I just say that I appreciate your pointer to Penelope Fitzgerald, above, David. Someone else to look for...

Matt McCoy

There can be only one. Toni Morrison.

Michael O'D

I'm sure I experience all these feelings too, but at the risk of sounding--what was it?--cheezy, I'd rather share a sort of quasi-admiration, quasi-appreciation I feel for TEV's own proprietorissimo as he shares with us his own writing adventures and successes. Watching Mr. Sarvas, who seems like an ordinary guy--talented, no doubt, but down to earth--finish a manuscript, grab a great agent, sell a novel, work his revisions, gives me a sort of panicky butterflies jealousy I-can-do-it-too joy. I wish him every success and congratulate him at each turn; I certainly will read (and enjoy) his novel. But I am also grateful that he's willing to go through it all publicly, for our benefit as it were. Because it's nice to see someone else's dreams come true, especially when they happen also to be your dreams. So thanks.

David Leavitt

Note to Genevieve: the post from the Sarsaparilla blog is hilarious. FYI, I'm leaving on Sunday for Australia to take part in the Melbourne Writers' Festival. If you're there, say hello!


I am a crazy grande dame in terms of which authors I am jealous of and which I decide are worthy of success--whose success, in fact, I wish for. You, but not you. Yes, I think you're worthy. No, you're all wrong. All wrong. Please leave my sight.


Well, I am sure that you must realize that your success at an early age led a lot of people -- writers and would-be writers -- to envy you. There seemed to be a time in the 1980s when you turned up everywhere: in the New York Times commenting on the Challenger disaster (or am imagining this?), in various columns, on NPR, etc.

But, you know, it is hard to envy someone when you really admire that person's work. I read Family Dancing and really, really liked it. It didn't quite stop the feelings of envy of a guy who felt he was totally out of things in Gainesville while you seemed to be everywhere -- but certainly, it's very hard to envy someone whose work you admire deeply. I think I've read "The Term Paper Artist" half a dozen times and it's my favorite of your stories, speaking more than just about anything of its time on the life of the writer.

We all try to remember Emerson's saying that eventually smart people realize that envy is ignorance, and some of us eventually do come to believe it.


The impending Ralph Ellison novel. The big one. The big boy. The fat boy. The bad boy. The long looked-for boy.

I just know it's gonna sit on my head.

And I'll be forced to bring out the big guns. Bam Bam Bam! Bam Bam!

Another masterpiece inspired by a rival. Ain't life grand.

David Leavitt

Thanks, Richard, for your comment. One question: are you from Gainesville? Odd that you, here in Gainesville, should have envied my being everywhere. And now my here is your former here. Or at least I think that's right.

Seriously, I love Gainesville, especially since the 2nd Street Bakery opened.


When FAMILY DANCING came out I envied David Leavitt. I thought "How could someone so young write something so good?!!"

Patrick M

So now it has to be Toni Morrison. DL said it wasn't Joyce Carol Oates, and didn't (couldn't?) respond to the Morrison post. So now he either has to deny it, and announce he will not respond to any further guesses - or else he's stuck with it.

Also had extreme literary envy of DL around the time of the "Lost Language of Cranes" and "Family Dancing" - in a positive way...


Is there something special about _literary_ envy, as distinct from other sorts of professional or in-group jealousy? Is it more acute, more tormented, more devious? If so, is that because, in many cases, the stakes are so small? Or because the need to write and, above all, to publish is so often bound up with self-seeking? Or are writers simply better at observing and anatomizing their own hankerings?

David Leavitt

Funny, it hadn't even occurred to me that anyone would think I was talking about Toni Morrison.

I'm going to be discreet here but I will say that the writer in question is not nearly so famous as either JCO or TM. Envy is not always in proportion to the degree of success achieved by its object. Yet another irrational emotion.


Actually, it's the great dead who stir up the greatest envy. Pick up Dante's Comedy and you think, "Hmmm. Why even try?" Or Melville. Or Homer. Or Shakespeare. Or Whitman. But then you cry a bit - if only on the inside - and remember what they offer you. (Especially daddy Whitman who wanted/waited for/counted on his sons and daughters to justify him.) You remember how much you enjoy and need them. You try because that's why you're alive: to do your work. And maybe you remember the line from Tennyson's "Ulysses": "He works his work; I mine" - and you sit your ass in the chair again and pick up the pen.

Jimmy Beck

Two questions: 1) Is she a book group favorite? 2) Jane Smiley?

Jack Pendarvis

That A. A. Milne really gets under my skin! I'd like to give him such a pinch! But he's dead. And you know, that's what makes me so jealous.


Not JCO, not TM, not nearly as famous as either--but someone who has to be ubiquitous: I'm thinking Francine Prose.


David, I love Gainesville, too, but I left a decade ago and have moved around since. I'm glad you are happy there. I am currently dividing myself between Brooklyn and Phoenix.

I do remember (literally) sitting at your feet (because of an overflow crowd) at a very rainy night at a reading at Three Lives & Company sometime in the late '80s, though, as I did spend summers in Manhattan.

NK Shapiro

I think more than envying others' success directly, I'm caught up--to the extent I let myself deal in envy, which I try to keep a lid on--with envying other writers' ability to get noticed and well-published. My experiencing with publishing a novel was that some kind of promotional parade for writers was going by but I had no clue how to get into it myself. Everyone told me I had to do my own promotion if I wanted my book to be noticed but no one was able to tell me HOW, starting from zero, to do it. It seemed like writers who were getting reviewed and plugged everywhere must've been somehow anointed by some secret process I wasn't in on.

I keep on writing but am still wondering how to make that transition from merely being published to being able to command some attention.


I confess that whenever I read a certain author's glowing blurbs on the book jackets of his cronies (blurbs imply that he is in a position to give his blessing to untested writers... a position of power that is mucho annoying to me), I almost want to barf with irritation. The pompous self-regard that shows through in the blurb language, the souring offness of the language itself... (I find his lack of control over language more obnoxious for all the praise that's heaped on him as a "master" of this or that.) And, like, gag me with this guy's author photo!

The bottom line is, though, that I just don't know why I find this guy so irritating, other than his career has been (undeservedly?) handed to him on a platter while I've had to claw for mine, at the same time that I see nothing much special in his work. The whole thing wouldn't bother me nearly as much if he didn't strike me as such an opportunitst, or a hack. It's like watching that one girl in high school whose only talent is for being popular--you know, the one you know has no compunction about taking more than her share of public attention (or of claiming her full privileges as queen of the beehive) because, you suspect, she knows she'd better grab while the grabbing's good--get all the breaks handed to her without having to break a sweat, basking in the glow of her popularity and reaping its rewards, while you toil away in nerdy obscurity, aceing all your math tests, writing computer programs in your spare time and tutoring your underachieving peers after school--without so much as a drop of glory being showered on you. You can dream that queen bee'll be over the hill, complete with four kids and a cheating husband by the time she's thirty-five, but twenty years is an awful long time to wait for the ground to level under both of you.

Obviously I am unmitigatingly--meanly--hoping that his every new book fails. And yes, I do feel ashamed and guilty about it.


NK Shapiro, Terry McMillan has a short essay about self-promotioning her first book. She breaks it down point by point about what she did and how she did it. I'm sure if you google it you can find it.

Also, you should be able to find helpful advice in bookstores and through writer's groups and writer's publications. There's no magic bullet, but there is advice available about doing whatever you can do to help yourself if you're willing to search it out.

Good luck to you.

Brady Westwater

I don't sufer from the envy part (as I instead sufer from far too much totally misplaced self-conidence in my DNA) - but when it comes to the deadly, flat prose of so many New Yorker-style 'literary' fiction writers... give me any Victorian pot boiler to curl up with instead.

Someone in London

I bet it's J.K. Rowling. Or is that too obvious ?

Joe Beese

Zadie Smith. It's got to be.


Nothing wrong with literary envy. I dreamed my whole life of publishing a novel, and when I saw other writers my age doing it, I researched how they got noticed and where they sent their work, and it led to a lot of hard work and ultimately publication. Three cheers for literary envy!

Gideon Tropez

Sue Miller?

Barbara Kingsolver?

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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