In an article for Salon, Nathan Rabin — a journalist and author who’s worked for The A.V. Club and The Dissolve, while publishing four books ranging from a memoir to a Weird Al coffee table book — confesses that he has a raging case of jealousy regarding young adult superstar John Green. Ten years ago, Rabin and Green were knocking around Chicago at the same time, in the same dopey place in their lives, both occasionally appearing at a reading series called Funny Ha Ha. Green would, as Rabin noted, read the same essay about getting a colonoscopy, and once he was done reading, he’d sit right up front and laugh at everything Rabin would read, whether it was good or not. Green was generous.
So why is Rabin jealous? He’s a working writer, an ink-stained wretch, but John Green is on the other side: he’s a name, a brand, a man whose books have sold in the millions, becoming films in the process. That fact stirs up some feelings in Rabin:
My spirit, if you will, was gracious and happy for John, but my ego, the infernal ego, cried out, ‘Why not me? Haven’t I paid my dues? Haven’t I written lots of books? Why can’t I be even a fraction that successful? And why doesn’t he use his enormous power and visibility to help me, despite the terrible job I did keeping in touch?’
This piece is good humored; hell, it’s even nice. Rabin talks about how Green is warm and wonderful, and in his head their friendship was pretty good, until “the ugly poison” of jealousy seeped in. His muttering about his ego is the most brutal turn that it takes. But a piece like Rabin’s feels terrifically familiar (especially for Salon), where a writer who had a passing acquaintance with someone bound for glory settles in and discusses their lives together, how they were from the same background of sorts, and how this person became a star and the other person is writing a tell-all. “Joshua Ferris Is My Nemesis,” written by Ferris’ MFA classmate, a story that starts with mutual animosity established in their workshop (which happens), and then ends, somewhat, with the writer noting that he’s working on his next book (which would end up being the Man Booker finalist To Rise Again at a Decent Hour), and she’s writing, too. The essay about the woman who was married to the drummer of the Black Keys was in a similar register, but jealousy was just one part of what was also a well-written essay about the end of a marriage. (And yes, an essay about being jealous of Lena Dunham exists in this world, but it’s on xoJane instead of Salon.)
In Rabin’s article, he cites the recent New York Times Book Review “Bookends” column titled, “What writer’s career do you envy?,” where Zoe Heller and Daniel Mendelsohn answer, “George Eliot, Shakespeare” and “the Greeks, Sophocles,” respectively. It is, perhaps, the most boring reply in the world to a question that’s loaded with possibility. (Salon also published a piece called, “Kill the Bookends column,” and they were right.) There is, as has been written before, a complete niceness epidemic in the literary world — especially America — a clubby and obsequious kindness in response to a literary wilderness where the world’s most basic reader can comment on anyone’s book as long as they have an account on GoodReads and Amazon. A world where our raconteurs are the likes of Jonathan Franzen, at the most. Nobody can hold a candle to Martin Amis’ surly legend.
Because of that niceness, it makes exploring envy and jealousy, a revealing emotion, completely toothless. Even though Salon, for example, will pull out the name “Joshua Ferris” for the sake of clickbait (although, really, is it baiting that many clicks?), the results still aren’t in the muck, wrestling with the ugly and true, the result of when luck and opportunity alights on the guy next to you.
And why is envy so dry these days? It’s a topic that’s had resonance in the history of 19th- and early-20th-century literature — the works of Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth in particular; Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; even Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and her specific brutality in depicting the dynamic between Jo and the youngest March, Amy. It’s the driver for so many great literary plots.
But in a world where writers need to be able to sell a piece with celebrity, yet don’t want to totally piss off people who are more successful, it just leads to awkward reminiscences of the time when they were in the same place at the same time. (It also appears to be a genre that is largely comprised of female writers talking about male writers.) It feels significant that the only great piece that I’ve read on envy in recent memory emerged from different and knottier circumstances, resulting in a fine work published in Granta and The Guardian.
“Envy” by Kathryn Chetkovich is a marvelous essay about “two writers. A story, in other words, about envy.” Chetkovich talks about falling for a man in her 40s, a man on the precipice of extraordinary success as a writer. She is open about what his success does for her feelings and drive around her own writing career:
What I envied were what his talent and success had bestowed on him, a sense of the rightness of what he was doing. I wanted what women always want: permission… Whatever else it has done, my envy of the man has helped me see the difference between what I was raised to want, what I wish I could want, and what I do want.
She is, of course, the longtime partner of Jonathan Franzen. “Envy” is a whole essay about being jealous of Franzen’s extraordinary talent and success. But what makes it work is its intimate scope; Chetkovich is not afraid to look herself in the eye and to see the ugly span of her feelings, and to see her envy as a lighthouse, showing her what she really wants in the world. Chetkovich is first on the firing line in this piece, and that’s why her messy, inchoate feelings stick with me; I’ve been there, I will be there, and her words give me a little bit of wisdom about how to deal with it. If only more people these days could step away from envy-related clickbait and really muck around in the dirt.