Jul/Aug 2018 Nonfiction

On Envy

by Michael Milburn

"To be envious," Joseph Epstein wrote, "is to be, ipso facto, wrong." I agree up to a point, but in cases where envy doesn't harm anyone, it can serve as a motivator. For example, envying my writer friend's talent is different from envying his success, which is different from envying his accomplishment. The first two will make me miserable, as I am stuck with my existing talent and have little control over how my writing will be received, but if I work hard and use my gifts effectively, I can at least aspire to write as well as he does. Many artists undertake poems, paintings, careers, because they admire certain works of art and want to equal them—positive behavior with a potentially positive outcome. Asked about the genesis of his poem "A Flat One," W.D. Snodgrass said:

In relation to a poem like this, I'm much more moved by a desire to compete... and to write a poem that's as good as so and so's... I'm sorry to sound so unconscientious, but I have a dirty suspicion that if Robert Lowell and Tony Hecht and John Berryman weren't around I might not have wanted to re-write that poem...

Last spring a former student of mine emailed me that his poetry manuscript had won a lucrative book prize. On one hand I was surprised, as he was a weak poet who seemed more ambitious for the trappings of literary success than for his work. But mediocrity doesn't disqualify poems from being praised, and some successful writers have worked as hard at their careers as they have at their writing, which made my student a reasonable bet for advancement. When his news arrived, I greeted it with a mixture of resignation, indignation, and envy.

Envy of what? Not his talent, which I didn't recognize, nor his poems, which I didn't like. The money and prestige that accompanied his prize appealed to me, but this had less to do with his being rewarded than with my wanting to be. When submitting my writing I always hope for success and feel disappointed when it doesn't come, but this is human nature. The quality of my student's poems aside, maybe I envied him for winning recognition for what he wrote, but how can I respect the recognition if I don't respect the poems? If they had impressed me, my envy would manifest itself in a resolve to write as well as he does and reap my own deserved praise. It would only be wrong if I focused on the praise alone, not its value as a determiner of quality.

My envy in this case depends on my rival and me both writing poetry. Or, as Kathryn Chetkovich's essay "Envy" begins, "This is a story about two writers. A story, in other words, of envy." The writer that Chetkovich envies is her boyfriend, Jonathan Franzen, who over the course of the essay transforms from a relatively obscure author of two novels into a famous one thanks to his bestselling novel The Corrections, which Chetkovich reads in manuscript and loves. One would assume that Chetkovich's envy kicked in at the same time as Franzen's fame, but she actually envies him before she or anyone else has read The Corrections. Blocked in her own writing, she feels reproached as he confronts and overcomes obstacles ("struggling so agreeably" as she puts it) in the book's early stages. Later, the quality of the pages that he shows her proves that his persistence has paid off.

"There probably ought to be a word falling between envy and admiration," Epstein writes. (Kierkegaard calls envy "secret admiration.") Chetkovich's regard for Franzen's work gives her essay a generosity that belies its title. After The Corrections is published to strong reviews, Chetkovich maintains that both book and author deserve all the praise coming their way, a view that comes with its own pitfalls.

This is precisely what made it so hard. For once the gods hadn't made the stupid mistake of smiling on another no-talent, well-connected charlatan. No, this was a genuinely excellent piece of work by a man who had dedicated his life to doing such work and was now being rewarded for it. Proof that the system was not essentially corrupt and misguided, incapable of recognizing true merit, after all.

Where was the comfort in that?

Chetkovich claims to envy Franzen's talent as well as his success: "the way he could go off in the morning and come home at night with five smart pages... the fact that in airports and restaurants, strangers—readers!—would come up to him and rave about his book." But it turns out that the quality of his that she truly wants for herself predates The Corrections:

I was startled to realize that I didn't wish I'd written his book, any more than I would have wished to wake up tomorrow looking like the beauty from a magazine cover. What I envied were what his talent and success had bestowed on him, a sense of the rightness of what he was doing. I wanted what women always want: permission. But he'd had that before this book was even written; it was, after all, the first thing I'd envied about him. It was arguably what enabled him to write the book in the first place.

It's no surprise that Chetkovich doesn't wish she had written The Corrections; she never mentions working on a novel, just short fiction and plays. She seems less interested in writing like Franzen, whose work she praises without any hint of resentment, than in adopting his self-confidence and self-discipline as a way to achieve the affirmation that he enjoys. Ideally, artists who aspire to match the quality of works of art don't want to duplicate them; rather, the example motivates them to make the best art they can. Realizing that Franzen's drive gave rise to his success rather than vice versa allows Chetkovich to resume writing herself. "What else is there to do for it?" her essay concludes, "I might as well work."

Praising a new book by Richard Wilbur, Seamus Heaney wrote:

Practitioners—as Eliot liked to call the lyric tribe—constantly and more or less unconsciously apply a test to a new work by other poets. Let us call it "The Jealousy Test." It is passed when you read a poem and answer in the affirmative the question which asks, "Would you really like to have written that?"

Heaney wasn't fantasizing about taking credit for Wilbur's work, but responding as Snodgrass did to his contemporaries, with a mixture of admiration and competitiveness. Heaney describes this in an interview as "a kind of vying that's not quite rivalry, more an aspiration to outdo, pure and simple." The word rivalry calls to mind two people striving to best each other, whereas aspiration is a desire to achieve something. Heaney keeps his envy impersonal, channeling it into his poems rather than toward other poets, just as Chetkovich, happily for her relationship with Franzen, uses the latter's work ethic to get herself back to her desk.

During the 1980s, when Heaney was teaching at Harvard, I worked in the university's Woodberry Poetry Room, where he regularly gave, introduced, and attended readings. His own were standing room only affairs, and his mere appearance in the audience for another poet turned the occasion into an event. Even then, a decade before he won the Nobel Prize, Heaney couldn't walk around Cambridge without being recognized, and every poem he published in prestigious journals such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books was widely read. In person, he had a gift for disarming envy, hinting at the extravagance of his fame. Inevitably, some people groused about him being overpraised, or attributed his popularity to his personality, but he was hard to resent, unless one resented him for being so nice.

Envy, to qualify as envy, has to have a strong touch—sometimes more than a touch—of malice behind it. Malice that cannot speak its name, cold-blooded but secret hostility, impotent desire, hidden rancor, and spite all cluster at the center of envy. (Joseph Epstein, "Envy").

Heaney either counted on his likability to neutralize malice, or he hardened himself against it. Asked how he dealt with jealousy on the part of other writers, Heaney said:

That kind of thing rarely manifests itself face-to-face. When it's there, it's usually under the surface, as irrational and undeniable as sexual attraction. So when you're dealing with it, it's like a kind of reverse flirtation. The magnets are repelling rather than attracting. One way of proceeding was recommended to me years ago by John McGahern: "implacable courtesy." Another is an unspoken "Well, fuck you too, buddy."

From the beginning of his career, when Faber and Faber acquired his first full-length book, through his tenure at Harvard, to his winning the Nobel Prize, Heaney must have sensed the envy directed toward him, if not by poets who wanted to take his place, then by those who thought his work overrated. I wonder if this increased or undermined his estimate of his own ability or accomplishment. "Steeped in luck," he calls himself in one poem, presumably referring to the earliness and abundance of his success, but also planting the idea that this was more a matter of luck than ability.

Perhaps Heaney felt lucky for circumstances that enriched his poetry or advanced his career, but his farm experiences didn't write themselves, nor is there anything fortuitous about an editor admiring one's poems or a university one's teaching. He appears to have advanced largely on his merits, lucky only insofar as he possessed his talent or his work appealed to the judgments of his advancers. Any justified envy of him pertains to the quality of his poems, the envier's only recourse being the one Chetkovich chose when confronted with Franzen's drafts for The Corrections: I might as well work.

I suspect that this kind of constructive envy sparks and even sustains many artists' careers. Other factors contribute—a desire to communicate, pleasure in the process, catharsis—but without the trigger of existing art making one think "I want to do that," it seems unlikely that one would try, much less persist at improving. Even if one claims to abhor competition or to want only to do one's best or please oneself, ambition requires this point of comparison. This isn't a matter of not trusting one's judgment, but of pursuing a standard that feels invigoratingly out of reach, whether established by Yeats or Dickinson or a member of one's writing workshop.

When young writers come across a style or sensibility that they identify with, they tend to think not just "I want to do that," but "I can do that," and imitate it. For some, finding their own voice means outgrowing this affinity; for others, the imitation persists, transformed into originality. For example, many readers of Raymond Carver's stories perceive the influence of Ernest Hemingway, whom Carver calls "one of the many writers whose work I first read and admired when I was in my twenties." Yet Carver's originality is such that one can easily distinguish his prose from Hemingway's, and both men from their lesser imitators. Presumably, Carver also looked up to writers dissimilar to him, such as Tolstoy or Henry James, but Hemingway allowed him literally to put his admiration into practice.

One dissimilar writer whom Carver often mentions as an influence is his college teacher, John Gardner. He cites Gardner's guidance, editorial and otherwise, and his example as someone serious about fiction writing.

I was terrifically impressed with everything he said and did... The advice he was handing out in those days was just what I needed at that time. He was a wonderful teacher. It was a great thing to have happen to me at that period of my life, to have someone who took me seriously enough to sit down and go over a manuscript with me. I knew something crucial was happening to me, something that mattered.

A student's respect for a teacher doesn't necessarily qualify as envy, especially if the age difference makes comparing accomplishments unrealistic. But Carver was only five years younger than Gardner when they met at Chico State College in 1958, twenty to Gardner's twenty-five. He recalls Gardner as having "several unpublished novels and short stories," and may have seen him as a peer as well a mentor, one whose lack of literary success he could empathize with. Who better to measure himself against, then, as Snodgrass did with his own teachers and near contemporaries, Lowell, Berryman, and Hecht?

I think of writers as always being fueled by envy, whether the productive kind, the petty kind, or both. They feel that their work is better than someone else's, or want it to be, or take umbrage at inflated reputations or their own obscurity. Joan Didion, who wrote in the same genres as her husband John Gregory Dunne and shared drafts with him daily, claims that neither she nor Dunne "was ever jealous of the other's work," which sounds plausible given their mutual admiration and comparable success. Even so, they must have felt some competitiveness, if only in wanting to keep pace with each other's self-discipline or productivity, or to impress with the day's output.

Once a year Poets & Writers magazine profiles several authors of debut books of poems, reporting such details as their ages and how long it took for them to find a publisher. When my copy arrives I immediately tear out this section and discard it to avoid having to read about poets decades younger than I am placing their manuscripts on the first try, or being solicited by editors who saw their work in a journal. The subjects don't all get into print that easily, but few have endured years of rejection, an experience that most poets, myself included, can identify with. Not that hearing about these struggles would serve me any better than the success stories—to judge oneself against writers rather than their writing is to invite comparisons that one has no control over.

What rankles me about those profiles isn't the poets, whom I don't know, or their poems, which I have not read, but the recognition they have received. For this reason, when beginning an acclaimed piece of writing, I worry that reputation will blind me to quality, though it usually has the opposite effect. The more such a work disappoints me, the more I resent it, whereas if quality lives up to reputation, my response turns into one of competitive admiration. When I began Dave Eggers's memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius shortly after its publication, everything about the book from its youthful author's hip, innovative style to its rapturous reception made me want to hate it. After a few pages those factors ceased to bother me any more than they do in The Catcher in the Rye or James Tate's poetry collection The Lost Pilot, two other precocious, original first books that I love.

If a writer is a reader moved to emulation, as Saul Bellow wrote, does this originate in a desire to outdo or to imitate? Do readers moved instead to write criticism or teach English or join a book group lack some quality of competitiveness that writers possess, or do they simply recognize the futility of competing? In the following exchange from the 2017 film A Quiet Passion, based on the life of Emily Dickinson, the poet's sister Vinnie coaxes her to come downstairs and greet a caller.

Vinnie: He's read some of your published poems and admired them.

Emily: Admiration always masks envy.

Vinnie: What does envy mask?

Emily: Oh, that masks admiration.

I had thought myself capable of admiring purely for selfless reasons and envying purely for selfish ones, but if a poem that I admire makes me want to write one just as good that elicits the same response in a reader, then my admiration masks envy, which the dictionary defines as "the feeling that you wish you had something that someone else has." As for envy masking admiration, this makes sense because we only want for ourselves what we approve in others, "envy being best understood as empathy gone wrong" in Martin Amis's definition.

At the start of their careers, the filmmakers Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola served as one another's test audiences, "unabashedly giving opinions about each other's works," in Spielberg's words. Scorsese hints at the delicacy of these interactions: "They became like the acid test. You get some real grounding and you hope an honesty—maybe not too honest." According to De Palma, "We all had great respect for each other's work," but Lucas adds, "We were still competitive [and wanted to]... blow the other guy away. Everybody was sort of forced to do a better job to impress everybody." The fact that all five achieved artistic and commercial success at roughly the same time must have helped keep these exchanges from deteriorating into pettiness. Of sharing poems with his peers in Dublin in the 1960s, Heaney recalls that "the awkwardness or resentment set in when one was promoted over the other by publication or praise or later by the award of a prize."

According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Most philosophers who have sought to define envy agree in treating it as a form of distress experienced by the subject because he does not possess the good and the rival does, and in attributing a desire for the good to subject. Many, but not all, go on to add that envy involves a desire that the rival not have the good.

If envy requires distress and animosity, then neither a filmmaker engaged in friendly one-upmanship nor a writer motivated by superior writing qualifies. Franzen's example demoralizes Chetkovich, but she never sounds less than fond and proud of him, and Snodgrass, Carver, and Heaney give no evidence of wishing that their friends' poems had failed. If we remove envy's negative qualities, can we call it by that name? The Stanford entry continues:

There can still be cases of genuine envy in which the subject would not take steps to undermine the rival. He would not even push a button to deprive the rival in secret—because he likes the rival, or because that would be a rotten thing to do to anyone. Call such a person a "decent envier."

Given the negative view of envy held by Epstein and others (Emerson wrote that "envy equals ignorance" and Bertrand Russell called it "one of the most powerful causes of human unhappiness"), this concept of a "decent envier" is probably the most favorable characterization I will find, more "the happy infatuation of admiration" than "the unhappy infatuation of envy" in Kierkegaard's words.

I try to manage my literary envy by ranking it on a scale of usefulness. The basest kind focuses on any aspect of writing other than the product itself—reputation, talent, publishing advantages—especially in relation to work that I don't admire, like my student's, or don't know, like the debut poets'. On the positive side, a poem that I wish I had written will spur me to try to write one that pleases readers in the same way. Favorite poets such as Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell infuse me with long-term resolve to create an oeuvre comparable to theirs (a lofty goal, but less daunting than choosing Paradise Lost for a sparring partner). Coveting art rather than its accoutrements allows me to enlist my inner adversary to try to blow the other guy's poem, not him, away.


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