Monday, July 9, 2012

On Jealousy

There are two things that I'm currently jealous about. The success of Fifty Shades of Gray and the writing ability of one Patrick Rothfuss. Those may appear unconnected, but there is likely a tenuous thread we can weed out.

Is is odd for a writer to admit to bright green, raging jealousy? We all are prone to weakness, right? And I didn't say that I reveled in the jealousy. It's just there. All day. Like a giant, feral, slobbering dog, breathing heavily over my shoulder, tugging at the chain-link leash staked into the ground. Perhaps I'm hoping that lending the beast a few strong barks will exorcise him.

I'll be any writer could explain, in great detail, how fruitless that ideas is. Jealousy is simply a natural part of the human condition, and writers are no exception. Especially in such a competitive environment.

But let me 'splain.

First, with Fifty Shades. I visited my mom over the 4th. She happily informed me that she'd started reading a new book (after my latest, of course). If you guessed that it turned out to be Fifty Shades, you'd be correct.

There's a weird confluence of emotions when you find out that your mother is reading Fifty Shades. Mind you, my prejudice is purely based on hearsay. I've not read the books m'self. I don't plan to. It's not really my genre. And I've never been one to read something just because it's "popular." (Though, with the Harry Potter series, I wish I would have caved soon. I think book seven was out before I finally caved to peer pressure. I don't believe I'm in danger of that sort of staying power with Fifty Shades. Still, it wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong.)

So my mother informed me of her latest choice in literature, and I of course asked the automatic: "How is it?"  It was already out before I realized that I might not want the answer. Like most children, I generally prefer to keep any sexual tendencies related to my mother properly sanitized. I am not a prude, but neither do I wish any potential mental imagery to involve leather. Not where my mother is concerned, anyway.

Mercifully, she answers: "It's good" with a non-committal shrug. And this is where the writer began to war with the child. I wanted to know details. How does this book work? How did it rise so high, so quickly? What is the appeal? How could someone like my mother have been sucked into the hype? (Because surely she's just reading because of the hype... those dozens of romance paperbacks in her room weren't indicate of taste.)

On the other hand, I'm good. Don't need to know more. In fact, I'll probably be pouring myself a drink in the kitchen if you need me.

Somewhere in there, I realized that I was perturbed by my mother's reading choice, outside of the usual child/parent discomforts. Here's an author that gets to live the dream... sell a whole bunch of books and write full time. Not have to put up with the dread Day Job. I'm totally, completely, jealous.

I'd love to pass judgement on the books. To be grossed out. To dismiss them as "smut" or some other label. But the fact is... they sell. And that's ultimately the goal for all of us. Furthermore, just because she's selling doesn't mean I'm not selling. Fifty Shades has no bearing on my sales. If anything, it could help them as folks are encourage to try new things. She succeeded in the same arena I want to succeed, namely writing what you enjoy and then selling it.

So yeah, I'm jealous. I have to take care that I don't express it in a mean way, because that's always the danger. And I've seen plenty of that recently.

On the other hand, I've been listening to (via Audible) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. The story is fantastic. The writing is unique and vibrant. Rothfuss is one of the current acknowledged Big Names in the fantasy genre, so I can't really begrudge him any success. It's not really a surprise like Fifty Shades. They come from completely different publishing paths.

Still, the same cloud of jealousy plagues me while listening to the story. Only here, instead of manifesting as morbid curiosity, it takes the black form of despair. Despair that I could never write that well. Despair that my lines aren't as witty, my world not as alive, my characters not as deep. Despair that I will never make it in a genre that houses such greatness.

But it's the same thing. Jealousy. Plain and simple. I want what they have. I want success, and I want mastery of the craft. It's the literary equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. But what good is cake without eating?

Dream big, they say. Well this is my dream: To influence readers as I've been influenced. To be awed by both story and success. To "make it," but make it by doing things the "right" way.

A big part of this dream is using jealousy properly. It would be easy to let it cripple me or become bitter. Instead, I need to turn it into fuel. I'd not be the first writer to ask, "Why them and not me? Why are they so lucky?" But that's just the jealousy speaking. And there is only one way to make jealousy work for you: Learn From It.


The lesson I've been able to distill is this: The writers I love, and the writers I love to hate, they both have one thing in common. They stayed true to themselves. They wrote what they loved, loved what they wrote, and the rest follows. There are a plethora of "Writing Truths" out there, but the strongest, most absolute has to be this: Love Sells. In fact, the same could probably be said of any line of work. We love love. And when a person captures their love in their work... they can move mountains.

Or pocketbooks. Those are good, too.

2 comments:

Hannah @ Once Upon A Time said...

Agh.. Fifty Shades. As a woman, I can maybe make you feel better? I do not have an ounce of desire to read that book. Perhaps maybe so I can quote it and make people feel uncomfortable with it's absolute awfulness, but other than that: nothanksnotachancepleasedontwavethatuglythinginmyface. It's hard to work out what will be the next big thing and how it gets there, but it's safe to say a lot of them do end up being utter tripe.

And as for the Pat Rothfuss jealousy, join the queue but at least understand the hours of revisions and edits that man goes through to adapt his novels' readability! That makes me feel better. You know, knowing that he's human and all. :)

Matt said...

Right. I think this displayed two sides of the same jealousy coin. One with (to put it nicely) controversial success. The other with pretty universally agreed success.

On one hand, it helps to know that you don't have to as good as Rothfuss to sell books successfully. If I thought I had to compete against Sanderson, Rothfuss, Martin, and others... I'd hide in a corner and cry. Maybe someday my craft could rival theirs, but I'm at a vastly different point in the journey. (Also, I agree they work their butts off and it shows.)

As far as 50 Shades goes... I have to believe my writing is up to par (if not better) than a good number of currently on-sale books. I hesitate to disparage anyone that's completed a novel, since I know how much work it takes, but I think most could agree (likely including Ms. James, herself) that there's a big different in craft between what she wrote and some of the greats out there. It is not my cup of tea, but obviously it did something right.

It would be easy to decry the sales as pure "luck," and in doing so give room for jealousy to grow. The analytic part of me chimes in: what I should take from the success is that I don't have to be a Rothfuss to sell books that people enjoy reading. It can be a confidence boost.

Sometimes I need a reminder of that. If people simply enjoy my books, then mission accomplished. As long as I stay true to the mission, the sales will follow. Aim for enjoyment, work toward mastery... not the other way around.

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