Writerly Envy

On the very morning that I vowed to write about the worst affliction to befall a writer – Envy – I logged on to Facebook and found this:

The brilliant —— has given me the privilege of covering —— for their new series of cultures and cuisines around the world.

If I’d looked in the mirror at that moment, I’m sure my reflection would have matched the green gleam of a young magnolia leaf.

Envy sits on my left shoulder every day. That snake whispers in my ear, “Why aren’t YOU the one doing these things?”

Yet Envy is a word that one dares not speak aloud. It’s an ugly little secret too shameful to be confessed. That’s why Envy is enshrined in the pantheon of the Seven Deadly sins, flanked by Lust and Gluttony. That’s why Martin Amis’s satirical novel, The Information, which trolls the depths of writer Envy, bursts open like a rotten melon, spewing a foulness that causes most readers to recoil.

The Babylonian Talmud declares, “Jealousy among writers increases wisdom,” and that can be a good thing, propelling a writer forward, if he or she uses the emotion to sit down and tackle the issues that demand the writing. Otherwise, Envy gnaws away at mental flesh, consuming the energy that a writer might use for work, much as dreamy Pharaoh’s seven emaciated, hungry cows scavenged the corpulent tissue of the seven healthy cows.

Envy is so destructive that left unbridled it can kill a writer’s soul altogether. The negativity and anger wrought by Envy seeps out into the world where, as most writers know from personal experience, the venom pollutes every word written or spoken about another writer’s work. Even Will Shakespeare alluded to Envy of his contemporary, the prolific Gervase Markham. And so in “Love’s Labour Lost,” Shakespeare created Don Adriano de Armado, a figure of fun, a boor of a braggart prone to speeches redolent with excessive verbiage.

To allow Envy to sink its fangs into your heart is to give up power, the power to create. Behind Envy lies the desire for success. Cynthia Ozick, a stellar writer if there ever was one, said this, referring to this insidious force, ”One must avoid ambition in order to write. Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language.”

The poison of Envy slithered into my life when someone reviewed my book in scathing, condescending language. Of course, the author, as the editor of a journal, certainly appeared to have some literary chops, but he never had published a book, unless you count a self-published travel book. But his review colored my sense of self-worth for months, and even years, leading me to hate my book and feeling nauseated if I ever caught a glimpse of it sitting on the shelf. One day, though, I realized the truth of what an editor once said to me about a bad review, “Well, how many books has he or she published?” I wondered if Envy played a role at all in his nastiness?

If a reviewer skewers a book, or any other piece of artistic work, could it not be that Envy gripped the reviewer? Perhaps. Granted, a reviewer must remain impartial. Ideally … . But a reviewer is only human. And Envy rears its evil head all too often, even if the reviewer happens to have published many books or held numerous one-person art shows.

The best foil against Envy is to do the work. Leave Facebook behind. Forget ambition. Permit the Muse to settle back in, kicking Envy off its perch on your shoulder.

Let the serpent slink away into the darkness.

© 2017 C. Bertelsen


  1. For me, the worst writing problem I have is the writer’s block that has seized me now for a couple of years. I don’t know if envy is a bi-product of this, or vice-versa. I do know there are other contributing factors — perhaps I’ll have to consider envy as part and parcel of it all.

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