Why Are Writers So Prone to Jealousy?

We asked some emerging Australian writers to tell us about their battles with insecurity.

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08 June 2016, 12:00am

Writer and editor Khalid Warsame

Everyone knows that writers are ego-driven navel-gazers. We're selfish and competitive, and would like nothing better than to see ourselves nominated for the Man Booker Prize three years in a row while our enemies fail. Wait, just me?

While it's true that writing communities can be endlessly supportive, tension is always bubbling beneath the surface. There are only so many grant opportunities, prizes, and lucrative publishing deals to go around, after all.

In an effort to foster a sense of competitiveness and hostility before the literary lovefest that is Melbourne's Emerging Writers' Festival opens next week, I contacted some of my favourite young writers to talk about jealousy.

Khalid Warsame

Brisbane's Khalid Warsame edits fiction for alt literary mag The Lifted Brow. His Twitter bio reads "dont @ me unless u got a seven figure book deal for me." He's speaking on an Emerging Writers Festival panel about writing and jealousy, so he seemed like a good person to consult on the topic.

VICE: Hey Kalid, why do you think writers so susceptible to feeling jealous?
Khalid Warsame: Writing is a lonely, difficult endeavour. Nothing worth dedicating one's creative life to is easy, but with writing you're on the precipice more often than not. Most of the time, you're smarting from the sting of dozens of small, contained failures: sentences that collapse in on each other, paragraphs that don't go anywhere, words that disappear from your mind at the moment of composition. I suspect it's the same for other writers, but I'm constantly reeling from failures of all kinds. It's not a healthy state of mind to be in.

The Australian writing scene is small and funding is limited—does that make people competitive?
Lately there's a real sense of coming together. You know, nothing really unites a crowd like an external enemy and the massive funding cuts to arts organisations by the Liberal government has brought people together in a real and, I hope, lasting way. The unanimity of opposition to this blind folly is deepening the sense of community instead of dividing us. And that's a silver lining, I suppose.

Have you ever felt jealousy directed your way from other writers?
I once had another writer diminish something I had worked very hard on to a friend of mine, and when I heard about it second-hand, I was more overcome with bewilderment than anything else. To be honest I felt some sympathy towards them because I knew the person well enough to know that they felt stymied with their own practice, and another part of me was slightly taken aback.

Can jealousy be motivating?
Absolutely! I don't think I'd ever really improve as a writer if I weren't constantly measuring myself against other writers.

Who are some writers you're jealous of?
There's this sentence in William Gaddis' novel JR that I've long been in awe of. It's the type of sentence that's hardest to get right: very rarely do writers escape cliché when adjusting the focus of a scene from the weather or the landscape to the character's inner lives and actions. I've actually memorised it. It goes like this, "Sunlight, pocketed in a cloud, spilled suddenly broken across the floor through the leaves of the trees outside."

Patrick Lenton

Patrick Lenton is a Sydney-based author, blogger and playwright. He wrote a book called A Man Entirely Made of Bats, and a series of his tweets about adopting a dog on the video game Skyrim that recently went viral. He is too nice to be jealous of anyone, but I tried to get him to talk about it anyway.

Have fellow writers treated you differently since you started getting work published?
I don't think so—honestly I've either not noticed or don't hang around anyone who would be impressed by having a book of short fiction out via indie press.

So modest. Who are you jealous of on the Australian literary scene?
I don't think I'm actually jealous of anyone—I think jealousy comes from the belief that someone has achieved something they don't deserve, or is actually better than me at writing and I resent that, and I don't believe either of those things about anyone. Someone who I am perhaps envious of is Benjamin Law, but envious in the sense that he's a talented writer, is massively professional, motivated, a snappy dresser and a babe, and I want to be all those things too.

Do you see the Australian writing scene as competitive or supportive or both?
Definitely both, and I think that's ok. There are parts of the scene that I know are supportive of me, and I try to be supportive in response. There are also people who are actively hostile and would perhaps privately gloat if I failed.

Can a bit of jealousy be good?
Definitely, I have a motivational background on my computer which just says the word "spite." I believe that spite and jealousy are spurs to get shit done.

Emma Marie Jones

Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based poet, fiction writer, and critic. She's appearing on an Emerging Writers Festival panel called Amazing Babes, and last year was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. We spoke over email, because it's 2016.

Who are you jealous of in the Australian poetry scene?
Banjo Paterson. Why does he get to be on the $10 note and not me?

Can jealousy be a bit motivating?
Sometimes when I read a really fucking sick poem I have a dual response that's like YEAH I LOVE THIS but also like WHY CAN'T I WRITE LIKE THIS OMG, so there can be a competitive jealousy, a kind of insecure one.

Do you think the internet feeds into writer jealousy? Like, I see so much good writing every day, just on Twitter.
FOMO. I'm heaps broke so I get FOMO all the time. Also I get really jealous of Twitter likes, it's my shameful secret.

Have you had fellow writers treat you differently after you've experienced success?
My mates in the writing scene haven't changed the way they treat me, they've been as thrilled at my success as I've been at theirs. There are people in the scene though who ignored me at events before I was published in a journal or shortlisted for a prize but now go out of their way to say hi. I think I even got namedropped once. It's weird and disingenuous.

Have you ever had to fight the urge to let jealousy get in the way of a friendship?
Nah. I'm such an insecure person so it's like, if I feel jealous that feeling is coming from something I need to address within myself – or from something systemic we need to address as friends together, maybe through collaborating and making some work about it. I've learned that I shouldn't worry that I'm not good enough for my friendships. It's so much more important that I just enjoy them!

Jennifer Down

Melbourne-based writer, editor and translator Jennifer Down's first novel, Our Magic Hour, was released earlier this year. She's been published places like The Age, the Saturday Paper, the Australian Book Review, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, and Best Australian Stories.

Is the Australian writing scene friendly?
From my perspective, it's pretty supportive. There's plenty more work to be done —I'd like to see much greater diversity and support for marginalised voices, for instance —but I think overall, there's a generosity of spirit between writers and literary organisations. I think the reactions to arts funding cuts is indicative of that.

Is a supportive group of writer friends essential to being a writer?
To be honest, very few of my close friends are writers, which I quite like. As a writer I have a very interior mode of living, and it's good to pull your head out of your bum and be a bit cognisant of everything else that's happening in the world. That said, I have a wonderful group of friends I workshop with, and I feel very lucky to know them.

Are you jealous of any fellow writers?
It's ugly, but sometimes I feel jealous of writers who have the means to write more than I do. Mostly established authors, I guess, who make enough money to buy themselves a bit of time. It's hard to summon the cognitive and emotional energy for writing after a 9 or 10 hour work day.

Ellena Savage

Photo by Ruth O'Leary

With Gillian Terzis, essayist and critic Ellena Savage is the co-editor of The Lifted Brow. She's also undertaking a PhD in literary studies at Monash University, and was named one of Melbourne Writers Festival's "30 Under 30" last year.

Do you see young Australian writing communities as competitive or supportive or both?
I guess this depends on what your aspirations are. I find the insistence on having a writing community a bit weird, because for me writing is the endpoint of an eclectic and fairly solitary way of living, reading, traveling, and cultivating obsessive-level taste alone in my bedroom. Coming together with other people who share only a predilection for spending hours alone in their bedrooms and following their baser instincts isn't always going to make magic, socially speaking.

So maybe there is no actual "writing scene."
I think a lot of emerging writers come up believing in the "scene" and trying to find their place in it, and when they realise it's part of a broader system that is designed around exploiting their dreams and work, they get stung. There's not enough money to go around, so most of the work in the industry is traded on cultural capital, and cultural capital doesn't go far in terms of rent. To keep up the motivation you need in order to keep working, you have to find a reason to do it other than institutional support.

Does it sting to see someone experience overnight success?
Like any success that's marked by external, institutional trends, literary prestige is fickle. Whoever's getting the overnight success is just getting a leg up in that minute, and that's ok, everyone deserves a leg up at some point.

Can jealousy be useful?
I'm going to call on Lady Gaga here, something she said in an interview I read 10 years ago. She said she wanted to be the person she was jealous of. She'd seen some hot singer perform in lingerie, and thought, I want to be her. So instead of being paralysed by that feeling, she took it back to her studio and threaded it into her work. That sort of changed my relationship to other people's amazing lives, I started to think about them as models I could learn from rather than distant objects to fear and detest.

Who are you jealous of in the literary world?
Ummmm. I am jealous of Zadie Smith. While of course I would love to have her talent and her discipline, I'm mainly in awe of her self-respect. Because of the fact that it's so hard to find a place as a writer or artist, self-respect seems to be lacking across the arts, but I don't think good art happens without it.

The Emerging Writers Festival runs from June 14 to 24 in Melbourne. You can view the whole programme here. We're also giving away tickets to three of our favourite events here.

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