The Unbearable Envy of the Published Author

From a New York Times guest essay by Lynn Steger Strong headlined “The Unbearable Envy of the Published Author”:

I’m a novelist with a book out this week. I’ve been lucky with this new book, but the lead-up is still terrible: nerves, anxiety, impossible hopes, a lot of fear. I joke with friends that I’m positivity Teflon: I don’t trust the good reviews; the bad reviews feel affirming in some strange, sick way. I’ve been through this twice before but this one’s different, easier somehow, and not just because I’m older and more well adjusted. It’s because of Kevin Wilson, a writer I’ve never spoken to.

Kevin is a novelist and short-story writer who has written six books to my three. We’ve never met in person, but I’ve admired his work and clocked his success. His new book, appropriately titled “Now Is Not the Time to Panic,” is also out this week. Some important context we’ll return to: The average number of books that Americans read in 2021, based on a Gallup poll, was 13.

Writers, or at least most of us, are specific types of monsters. We have the hubris to think we have something to say, that someone might read our work. We also have an extra underlayer of shame for thinking this way. (At least I do.) Sometimes I hear from readers, and that’s always a thrill. But we have many fewer concrete markers of success than most professions. Sometimes we yearn for a clear sign that we’re making progress, that things are going well.

Part of how I’ve gotten through the publication process before is to make it a competition, to pick another book that’s out around the same time as mine and channel my frustration and hope and fear into watching that book succeed, watching it “beat” mine. Blame capitalism, scarcity, two decades of competitive athletics, being the second of four children, but I find it difficult not to feel that I’ve failed somehow if I don’t “win.” The paradox of beating myself in order to feel I’m winning is not lost on me.

The facts of publication are often stark: Your publicist emails to say a review has been assigned. You check and check your email. You wake up at 2 a.m. and search yourself online. You are one of 572 books X publication recommends this year. One of 10 on another list for fall. My older sister’s reply the last time I asked her about books: “I just read Facebook now.”

Most books don’t succeed either in terms of sales or critical unanimity. Most writers don’t earn a living wage from their writing. Tenure-track appointments (I teach college writing) are rare as unicorns. But being a writer is not a sentence handed down, it’s a choice I’ve made. I love other writers and do not want to root against them (some of my closest friends, et cetera), but there’s a desperation inherent in the state of publishing that sometimes makes this difficult.

Everything in publishing is categories: fall books! Summer reads! Family novels! This time, months before publication, I looked for whichever book might function most explicitly to drown out whatever snippets of attention mine might get. “Oh no,” I said out loud to no one. “I can’t beat Kevin Wilson! I love Kevin Wilson’s novels!” I emailed my agent: “He seems so lovely!” (I’ve never met Kevin but had started following him on Instagram.) I am not physically capable of hating him!

I began to keep track of Kevin’s placement on the lists, his starred trade reviews (a designation that connotes, well, only that a prepublication review outlet enjoyed your book) and other good reviews. It felt exciting to see another book succeed. When I got emails about my own book’s position on various lists, I began to look to make sure Kevin’s was there too. Yay, Kev! (No idea if that’s his nickname.) I’d email back, ignoring whatever nice thing they’d said about my own book. “Kev must be so thrilled,” I’d say instead. He seems like a good dad too! I told my husband (my poor husband) one of those nights I couldn’t sleep and was scrolling through Kevin’s Instagram. Do you think he’d want to be my friend?

Often we were on the lists together, the cover of his book right next to mine. A few times I was on a list and he was not, and I felt sad. The one big thing I’d really wanted and did not get: an NPR interview. The day before I sent this essay off, in the car with my family, there was Kevin, talking to Scott Simon. “He does sound really nice,” my husband said.

I felt better almost immediately. Significantly less awful. These small, good things could not feel good for me because none of them would be sufficient to confirm that I’ll feel safe and sure forever, that it was not patently absurd for me to keep writing. For Kevin, I was able to see them as just a nice thing for a nice person; a small gift to be briefly, happily enjoyed.

I began to understand more clearly the ridiculousness of thinking about what writers or any artists do as competition. Insofar as my book’s success or failure was contingent on so many arbitrary, unseen forces, none of it, of course, was Kevin’s fault. I imagined Kevin might also be made a little queasy by all these made-up-feeling wins and losses too.

And here too is the thing about any external markers of success or failure: I write for reasons that have nothing to do with them. That’s the beauty of it. But also, that’s what makes a review in the paper of record, a prize listing, a repost on Instagram so impossible to hold onto.

The world has told us that they matter. They do matter! We have to live. I need enough “success” with each book to secure another book contract. But also, nothing will ever be as powerful as whatever it is inside of us that got us writing to begin with, that keeps us writing, when everyone’s forgotten all those lists, when we’re broke and underemployed again.

Which is all to say: Buy my book, but also, buy Kevin’s! Buy 16 (18?!) books this year instead of 13, but not none at all.

Lynn Steger Strong is the author of “Flight,” among others.

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