One of the Most Difficult Things About This Career. . .

Robin Black

Feb 12, 2015

. . . is. . . The Success Gap.

I have learned to avoid absolutes, so I won’t say that I don’t know a single writer who isn’t fully aware of who among their social circle has achieved more than they, but I will say, I have met precious few who don’t have easy access to a quick mental inventory of how their own accomplishments and disappointments stack up when compared to those of their friends. And I don’t think that’s because writers are inherently petty or ungenerous. It’s very possible, even common, to feel happy for a sky-rocketing friend while also feeling the sting of an unflattering comparison. Noticing successes one hasn’t had is arguably the next thing to inevitable in a career in which there is no logical, manageable, remotely controllable professional pathway to success, no common measure of success, no socially acceptable way to express one’s hopes for oneself without sounding – god forbid – ambitious, and a whole additional shit-ton of factors influencing accomplishment, a state that can seem  - rightly or wrongly – to have only a glancing relationship to anything one might call a meritocracy.

I personally know a dozen or more authors whom I believe deserve a kind of success and fame that has eluded them. In some cases, I can trace their not having hit it big to the nature of the work – quiet in an era that favors splash; lacking a “high concept” in an era that favors hooks; writing short stories when novels get all the juice. Sometimes, I have no idea why a certain book or author didn’t catch on when their work seems so – to me – superior to so much of what does. But the fact is that I, and probably all of us, know people whom we believe deserve better and more attention than they have received.

And then, oh dear. Then there are the inexplicable hits. . .

But whatever the rhyme, reason, or lack thereof of certain conspicuous forms of success, these discrepancies can lead to social landmines. I have made some stunning mistakes, I know, in bragging to friends about having reached goals that are not yet within sight for them. Though it didn’t feel like bragging at the time. It felt more like expressing my amazement, like using friends to confirm for me that these wonderful things had truly happened. It felt like exuberance. But looking back now, I can see that at times I was at best not particularly sensitive and at worst a bit of a douche. That phrase “using friends” – that’s pretty much the crux of the problem right there. Friends don’t use friends – especially to make them feel better about grasping a brass ring that the friend has barely glimpsed.

Some time ago, a man who had won a big award asked me why so few people he knew were bringing it up and congratulating him. In that case, it not being my ego that needed the recognition, it was easy for me to see and even to say, that it is not the job of the people who are struggling in this career to reassure and go out of their way to celebrate the successes of those who have surged ahead. It is, if anything, the responsibility of the surging one to take time to show genuine interest in what’s happening with the ones who are struggling still.

This is a complicated subject though – and a touchy one. I have written before about my efforts to handle jealousy and comparison and self-doubt; and in every case I have heard from some people taking me to task for my pitiable if not contemptible inability to rise above my pettiness. These communications often include the claim: “I’m not jealous of my friends. I’m happy for them.” It’s a claim to which I have two reactions: The first is “How lovely and how lucky for you.” The second is, “I am often envious of friends and I am also happy for them.” It is a mistake to believe that envy is necessarily or even commonly an ungenerous response. In fact, in my experience, it rarely has much at all to do with what one wishes for one’s friend or colleague, and everything to do with one’s own doubts and anxieties about oneself. Maybe envy isn’t even the best word for the stomach-churning one can feel at a friend’s good news. Maybe the better word is fear.

Most of us can handle a little jealousy now and then. What threatens us far more powerfully is the notion that the gods of who deserves to write have spoken, and they haven’t spoken to us. And in a way, I think, it makes it easier for the newly crowned to be sensitive if the goal is to protect friends from paralyzing self-doubt, not from jealousy.

The other response I have heard in response to my thoughts on this subject is: “That’s why you have to make it about the work.” I’ve been guilty of saying this myself, and it’s taken me a while to understand why it’s very close to a non-sequitor. When a lawyer is disappointed at not making partner, we don’t say, “You can’t get hung up in that stuff. You have to make it about the work.” Ditto, when a professor fails to get tenure, when a pre-med doesn’t get into med school, and so on. Having goals and being anxious about meeting them, or disappointed when one doesn’t meet them, feeling hurt by a lack of recognition, none of this means that one’s commitment to the quality and importance of one’s work is somehow shaky. Ambition for success and a passion for excellence are not in some kind of conflict. I suppose they can be, but more often they are not. And it seems unfair to me to take a perfectly natural response like envy – or the fear discussed above -  and imply that it indicates a lack of seriousness about one’s work. Yes, it can be a helpful distraction and even a temporary cure for envy to refocus on one’s own work, but that’s different from the not so subtle suggestions that if you feel envy, your priorities must be wrong.

We don’t say to bummed out football players who have just lost the Super Bowl, “That’s why it has to be all about the work.” We say, “That really sucks.” (or we say, “Suck it, losers!” But that’s a whole nuther thing.)

Again, I don’t think the majority of the burden for lessening the thorniness of these comparisons lies with the person who feels jealous, or for whom the success of a friend evokes all kinds of self-doubt, anxiety, and yes, envy. I think the burden of these dynamics lies mostly with the writers for whom great things are happening. And I say this as someone who like many writers has been and is still in both roles. I have had some wonderful unanticipated “triumphs” and I have had my share of frustrations too. For people who can’t get books accepted or have never been nominated for an award, my career may well look enviable. For people who have won tons of awards and sold hundreds of thousands of books, my career doubtless looks modest. But, most importantly – and I freely admit I don’t do this well all the time – I need to be aware of whom I am speaking to when I whine about what I haven’t accomplished and when I brag about what I have been fortunate enough to achieve.

Oddly, even though Facebook can be a veritable snake pit of other people’s accomplishments, enough so that for those feeling shaky about their own work it’s not such a bad idea to take breaks, it’s also got some nice features when it comes to this stuff. For one thing, you can block people from your news feed, without blocking them as friends. And for another, to view it from the other perspective, if you are in a period of multiple successes, you can share that news somewhat impersonally, using a tone which is not, for want of a better word, icky – and knowing that anyone out there can silence your feed if it’s getting to them. No one has captured or will ever capture the peculiar unpleasantness of the humblebrag as did Rebecca Makkai in her piece on the Ploughshares blog, but it’s almost never a good idea to express confusion about why you  have won an award or been given a stellar review. The whole, “Golly, I can’t imagine why NPR has seen fit to pay any attention to my silly little book, but they seem to have named it the book of the century” approach is just a bad idea, reeking of disingenuousness. “Thrilled and grateful that NPR gave me this wonderful award” is, to my ears anyway, the better way to go. No one needs you to feel undeserving – or worse yet to seem to be pretending to.

But Facebook for all its seeming ubiquity isn’t really what I’m addressing here. I’m addressing the emails I have sent to friends whom I know to be struggling or to have been disappointed in their own books’ receptions, unable to contain my excitement over something I have achieved. I’m addressing complaining about my disappointment about something that didn’t pan out – but that is miles from what they are still trying to achieve. Simply put, they are emails I should never have sent, phone calls I should not have made.

And yes – to anticipate the next critique – there is of course a danger in seeming patronizing by protecting one’s friends. And yes, there are friends who don’t need that kind of protection. But, when in doubt, it’s probably better to avoid the personal request for a personal response. 

There is of course something serious and unfixable underlying all of this need for so much thought: the chaotic fuckedupedness of the profession itself. The elements that go into success of any kind are strange, unpredictable, not always related to quality – a concept over which there is rarely anything resembling consensus. Working hard is certainly a good plan, but it guarantees nothing. Having talent sounds promising if only one knew what that meant. Social connections to powerful people, even just the power-monger-of-the-month can play a too evident role in recognition. One’s ethnic identity, one’s gender, one’s sexual orientation, one’s economic status, one’s social habits, one’s appearance, one’s city of residence, one’s age, one’s luck, one’s luck, one’s luck. . . those and a million more factors all interact, all play roles, for better and for worse. There is simply no way to control this thing. Not even to the extent that one can in many other careers.

We are murky beings, we humans and this for sure is a murky career. As I say, I have given up on absolutes, just as I have given up on expecting perfect sensitivity from anyone; or perfect generosity of spirit. And in many ways, I know, I am saying nothing new here – or, anyway, little that is new. Much has been written about this subject, but then there are excellent reasons for that. Envy, self-doubt, the desire to blow one’s horn, these emotions, many rooted in insecurities, aren’t going anywhere. So, doubtless I’ll keep writing about the subject from time to time - just another sometimes envious, sometimes insensitive, often anxious writer, not necessarily breaking any new ground, just trying to show that we are each of us far from alone in the murk and in this mess, these mixed feelings, these missteps, and even these joys.