Twitter and the Writer Scorned

Posted on Dec 5, 2014 | 0 comments

scornedSo a bestselling author is angry that the New York Times did not include her latest novel on its list of 100 Notable Books of 2014. Ayelet Waldman’s extended rant on Twitter, in which she lavishly praised her own book, scorned those that edged her out and f-bombed the Times (even as she cited its positive review of her novel), launched a thousand snarky tweets, essays and blog posts – mostly from other writers.

I have to admit, I enjoyed the spectacle. And I don’t feel too badly for Waldman, who has since deleted her tweets and posted an explanation of sorts on Facebook. If you’ve read her essays you will know that provocation is part of her M.I., so I’ve got to imagine that in the end, she’s not unhappy with all of the noise. After all, isn’t all publicity good publicity?

But I do want to take a closer look at my own unseemly reaction: why did I take so much pleasure in the collective scolding of this talented, if shrill, writer?

There’s a word for it, of course: Schadenfreude. Malicious pleasure in observing someone else’s misfortune. It’s not very nice. But we all have it, to some degree. Yet I think writing as a profession produces more than its share.

I recently attended a talk by the author Jonathan Franzen at a local art college. He said he would ask and answer the questions he is never asked in interviews. “Mr Franzen,” the National Book Award-winning novelist, who was once featured on the cover of TIME magazine, asked himself. “What role do envy and jealousy play in your work?”

“A surprisingly large role,” he answered. He then went on to recount how, after he received a glowing review in the NYT Book Review for his novel The Corrections, he found himself viewing every positive review that followed for other writers’ novels as somehow detracting from his own victory. It was as if he wanted the book review to close its doors and stop publication until he had another book ready for its praise, he said, with refreshing, if somewhat mind-boggling, candor.

If Jonathan effing Franzen is jealous of other writers, where does that leave someone like me, whose first novel struggles to retain a ranking higher than a million on Amazon, despite excellent reviews and a national (if little-known) award?

The thing about writing is, we’re supposed to love it. To write for the sheer pleasure of writing. That is the common narrative about writers: we write because we have to. It’s what we love to do. It’s as natural to us as breathing.

And really, the chances of gaining recognition or riches as a result of our writing are so slim that we’d better love it. Otherwise, it’s a very poor gamble.

Truth? I do love it, when it’s going well. That’s about 10 percent of the time. The rest of the time, it’s a festival of pain, procrastination, frustration and self-loathing. (In fact, I’m writing this right now to avoid the challenge of trying to figure out how to fix a novel that’s not quite working.)

There are lots of things that come more easily to me than writing fiction, and some of them would earn me decent pay. Some of them I even enjoy. So I’m not writing only for the love of it. I’m writing because I want to put a story out there that people will enjoy. I want my writing to be read. I want it to be admired and well-reviewed, too, dammit!

And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

The real reason I’m smirking and gloating over Waldman’s public humiliation is that I know, in my deepest, darkest heart, I’ve had thoughts like hers. (Albeit with a tad less entitlement.) Not about the New York Times Notable Books, since I’m not on that playing field (yet!). But about other awards and fellowships I’ve not received; publishers who’ve turned me down; reviewers who’ve passed over my work.

What writer hasn’t?

We don’t write just to write. We write to be read. And the decisions that determine which books get a chance at being read, such as notable book lists, awards, grants, and reviews, sometimes seem wrong. Not always, but sometimes. Groupthink, randomness, laziness and the challenge of selecting among the sheer number of books published can all play a role. We writers, sitting in our quiet spaces with our laptops and our dreams, have to live with this, all while keeping our bitterest thoughts to ourselves. After all, we chose this torture! When another writer breaks ranks and vents her spleen, we can feel superior. We would never behave so badly. So ungraciously. So stupidly.

But was it stupid? Before this “story” broke, I didn’t even know Waldman had a novel out this year. Lots of people are talking about her today who yesterday had not even heard of her. She has 3,400 Twitter followers to my 215.

Could just a little bit of bad behavior be in order?

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