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February 18, 2008

On envy

All right, so when I was twenty-one years old and had a column on the back page of my school newspaper, I once wrote an article about a certain notorious Canadian newspaper columnist which was headlined, “I hate [said newspaper columnist]”. (Please forgive the vagueness; I have no wish to incur the wrath of Google). I didn’t write the headline, and nor in the column did I actually cite any hatred. But I did outline my numerous problems with the principle of this woman’s success, and it certainly wasn’t the worst thing I ever wrote, though I also doubt it was much above the abilities of said columnist either.

The point of this being that I have a particular position, I think, on the loooong thread of comments recently unfolded on Bookninja, in response to a post about columnist (who is still columning her way through life with gusto). My particular position being that of one who did once spend innumerable hours slinging vitriol her way (as many of the commenters do) and then having subsequently grown up.

I know I’ve grown up, not because I suddenly find her columns altogether inspiring, but because I don’t really get off on being vitriolic these days. (I’ve previously acknowledged that she might have grown up a bit too). Because I understand now that she’s paid to do something, and she seems to do it well, even if it irks me. And finally because I understand now that what I felt towards this woman more than anything when I was twenty-one years old was envy.

And of course it was! She was assured, high-profile, well-paid for writing, and I was penning a column on the back of a school newspaper. Of course I couched my envy in technical terms, but I really don’t think I would have directed such reproach towards, say, a celebrity biologist or a supermodel. She was a writer, I wanted to be a writer. She had what I wanted, and life is unfair.

This all comes up on the Bookninja comments– one particularly vitriolic is accused of the deadly sin. He asks, “Why whenever someone is called out for being a public asshole, some ditz invariably appears to accuse people of envy?” Well, I guess I’m the ditz here (and I was on the Zadie Smith post two weeks back too).

It’s because nothing else could make someone that angry about something so incidental. It’s because the people who are so angry are invariably writers themselves (albeit struggling ones). Non-writers don’t give a damn about who gets allotted what column space in the Saturday paper, or which novelist gets what advance. These are just not things that normal people ever care about.

Maybe I am totally wrong, but I doubt it. I know from personal experience what an easy swing envy is to fall into, how comfortable it is to be angry instead of sad. And even if envy is not at the root, still, is the anger doing any good?

I know that for me taking a concerted step away from such mean and greasy feeling was the healthiest thing I’ve ever done, and that the only real solution to any of this is just to write harder. Hating those who’ve got what you want certainly won’t make you any better. There are plenty of words to go around, stories to make your own, and stories to share too.

2 thoughts on “On envy”

  1. patricia says:

    Ha ha. I don’t agree with you about said columnist, but I do agree that one should indeed just write harder and better.

    My feelings about said columnist were expressed by someone else on that post, I think. Like someone else stated, I don’t mind the kind of writing found in the Style section of said newspaper for the most part, but that said columnist, in my opinion, does not do that great of a job for that treasured space. I’m very sure that there are other women writers out there, who could do a much better job (I do miss Ms. Mallick).

    I don’t consider my feelings envy, because I have no desire to write on those subjects, or to be a columnist. I just have a desire to read good writing.

  2. Kerry says:

    You make a good point, Patricia, though I’m not sure you’re the rule. And then there *must* also be people who like her work, similar to how (somehow) there are actually people that enjoy the mommy books/blog of R.Eck. Actually I think I find these readers much more depressing than these writers anyway.

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