A Brief Saturday Rumpus History Lesson on Envy


I can’t stay here long today as some other pressing obligations call. But there’s been a higher than average amount of chatter about writerly jealousy this week. I assure you if you think I’m being vague to cover for that one thing you read, I’m not; I saw at least three unrelated items go by. It doesn’t really matter who writes these things, and who their targets are.

That writers are envious of each other is not news. Sylvia Plath was desperately jealous of Adrienne Rich, complained about her all the time in her diaries, and wrote of being sure that her fame would one day eclipse Rich’s. (Arguably, I suppose that’s true, she did, though not I’d imagine in the way her younger self might have hoped.)

Robert Frost wasn’t able to keep his concerns quite as private, though to be fair he was a rather notorious jerk. In the late 1930s, Archibald MacLeish happened to read at a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference that Frost was attending. Frost heckled throughout, and when that wasn’t enough to get MacLeish to stop reading, he lit some papers on fire. When people asked Frost to knock it off, he stalked out of the room, aggrieved at what I guess he perceived as a slight. 

And then of course there’s David Foster Wallace, in a 1990 letter to Jonathan Franzen quoted in D.T. Max’s “The Unfinished”:

Right now, I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28 who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and [William] Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David fuckwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live, and even approving them off some base clause of conviction about the enterprise’s meaning and end.

My point is Sugar’s: we are all savages inside. And it’s possibly true that you can’t totally repress jealousy. It’ll just be like a pot still heating on the stove; covering it only ensures it will boil over. And writing takes self-confidence, of course, and the self-confident believe that what they have to save is worth hearing.

But like Tom Bissell told us in an interview here at The Rumpus:

How you respond to failure is the real measure of an artist, and this means nurturing the violently arrogant and overly confident monster that lurks deep inside all of us. But you have to keep that maniacal bastard out of all polite company. You feed him and nurture him and draw strength from him, but you never, ever let him out, get water on him, or feed him after midnight.

This is my advice to all the people frustrated by the lack of recognition of their talents. Treat that stuff like it is your own private Mogwai.

I’ll be back next week.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →