Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Ten Affirmations for Fiction Writers for Today

NO, IT ISI was quite struck by the headline "20 Young Writers Earn the Envy of Many Others," which is how the New York Times announced the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list of fiction writers last night. Two things: hooray, "under 40" is young now! I mean, "being in the first or early stage of life or growth"? Our culture has delayed adolescence so extraordinarily far that 39 is young! Fine by me, selfishly. But also: envy? Oh, no! No, no. No, my lambs!

There's nothing to envy about being on a list. Absolutely, it's quite understandable that a number of fiction writers have spent the last month or two in a state of extreme irritation-a number of people were encouraged to drop everything and produce new short fiction for review by the New Yorker. So, there are more than a couple agents getting yelled at right now! And the annoyance is understandable. But also: that's business, folks. Part of "work" these days is writing things on spec, or for free, or as an audition. It often blows! Let's woman up about it though.

Here's a few things to remember today.

1. No one took anything away from you. ONLY YOU (and the state! And your children!) CAN TAKE THINGS AWAY FROM YOU.

2. Some people being "elevated" (dubious usage) or singled out doesn't harm anyone else.

3. If you're lucky, you're like me, and impulses towards envy are motivational to you. I have a competitive streak and when someone shows some "success" (which, by the way, never feels much or for long like success when it's you), that means it's time to get to work.

4. Who wants to be on a list? I mean, first there were HUAC lists, and now this? No list ever comes to any good!

5. Besides, in five and ten years, annoying bloggers (are there any other kind?) are going to do the "look back" on this list and they're going to be like "Oof, five of these writers were never heard from again and one drank himself to death and two got divorced hideously and wow, that one was sort of a flash in the pan!" Who wants to be subject to that?

6. You look really pretty today! I mean, probably not as pretty as Joe O'Neill, but he's not on this list either, because he's like, 45 or 46 now.

7. Some of the people on that list are, believe it or not, still poor. And probably have terrible, awful apartments. How many wonderfully too-long books of crazy alternative mixed-genre fiction do you think Chris Adrian has to write before he pays off his med school loans? I would estimate 6000 of them.

8. Maybe you should act out over this and start a revelatory blog! Or a fun Tumblr! Just think of how many more people would buy your books if they were reading your bloggings. (Nineteen? Twenty?)

9. We return again and again to the issues of "false leveling." (This syndrome needs a better name! A catchier one.) But what happens is, someone gets some "attention," and suddenly, in our monkey minds, they're elevated from us. And sure, a list like this brings some cash. But, for starters, get your head out of the publishing bubble. Yes, the agents will be working this. But most of the payment these people will get is actually of the attention variety-within the publishing industry. So they'll sell another book. Great! Still, you know what attention does for one, on a daily basis? NOT SO MUCH. Nothing, at least, that you can't do without being on such a list. You know who doesn't really care much? Actual book readers.

10. The New Yorker has a million subscribers. That's great! And we wish it had even more! I am one! But, you know, eh, a million. Twice that many Americans are in jail. Sarah Brown's Twitter has 1.12 million subscribers. (Who? Yes: Gordon Brown's wife.) You, just like the New Yorker, could have a million subscribers by the end of the month, if you wanted to. So get cracking, buddy.

43 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

Listeria. Listerine.

B-listering heat?

Miles Klee (#3,657)


saythatscool (#101)

Where ya been Miles?

Miles Klee (#3,657)

rebooting my brain following sasquatch music festival

cool, sasquatch was fun!

saythatscool (#101)

Re #1: Spoken like a man who's not allowed to get married.

Re #2: Tell that to the people of New Orleans.

Re #3: Envy only brings out my homiside.

Re #4: Tell that to Oscar Schindler's friends.

Re #5: Brian Moylan should do that listicle.

Re #6: Thank you! I shaved my back last night.

Re #7: I'm still poor. This is still about me.

Re #8: I think picking random fights at the OTB after Arlington Heights finishes the 6th is a better way for me to act out.

Re #9: Current actual book readers in America: 12.

Re # 10: Fine.

oudemia (#177)

Re: Re: #6: Itchy! You should wax.

lawyergay (#220)


I come from a long line of "content producers," and I can honestly say that envying some young writer who's getting attention when you think you deserve it is a terrible feeling. If you have something to say, then you naturally want other people to hear it.

There were a few years there in the late-1990s when I couldn't open a New Yorker without seeing someone I knew as the featured fiction writer or poet(s). I wrote to one of my old professors about this envy I was feeling, and he basically said: "Get over it, ya dick." It's vanity, ultimately, that makes us feel this way, and vanity is at the root of almost every bad thing in the world. It was good advice.

If, instead of fretting over "writing," more writers simply read–and widely–then I think all of us would-be "content producers" would be a lot happier. For most of the writers I know, their compulsion to write grew out of a compulsion to read.

Emily Dickinson kept most of her 1800 poems in her desk. Julia Child didn't have her first French meal until she was 36. Thomas Hardy didn't publish his first poetry until he was 48. There is world enough and time for all of us to say whatever it is we have to say. In the meantime, frolicking in the garden of aesthetic delights that is our world of English-language letters is a great way to while away the hours.

Look how lovely you are!

City_Dater (#2,500)

@Lawyergay, @Choire:
You are both so wise. May all who would waste time grumping over this list take heed. I'm a voracious reader and probably only know and/or care about the work of four or five people on this list, at most.
Perspective is all.

(And you both look pretty today as well!)

KarenUhOh (#19)

I just make my own list.

oudemia (#177)

@LG: My vegetable love for you grows!

C_Webb (#855)

Marvellous, darling.

Moff (#28)

"two got divorced hideously"


(I mean, I hope not. But I had that thought, too.)

jrb (#3,020)

Win: "Twice that many Americans are in jail."

atipofthehat (#797)

Doesn't "20 under 40" violate the official Awl Age Ratio Protocol (AARP)?

That's hot.â„¢

Matt (#26)

"If you're lucky, you're like me" UH-HUH.

deepomega (#1,720)

For me at least, there's this weird double-whammy of envy calculus that happens with age and success in combination. "Here, look at these people who are more successful than you" doesn't hit me nearly as hard as "Here, look at these people who are your age or younger and more successful than you." I guess it's the manifestation of "time remaining to kick ass", which makes me feel like a train is bearing down on me.

garge (#736)

I have major issues with Carey Mulligan and Evan Lysacek; my issues are very time- and failure- centric, less genre-specific. But Mary's life coaching is helping me try to be the person I want to be (where do I send my tithe?).

saythatscool (#101)

Didn't you say you're like 23? You should be worrying about your next beer, not train schedules. Relax. There's mucho time.

Moff (#28)

@saysthats: Heh. That's what I always tell the kids, too. Keep 'em occupied and distracted; we don't need to be looking over our shoulders every two minutes.

deepomega (#1,720)

I'm 23 on the outside but I have the creeping fear of failure of a man twice my age!

More reasonably, I grew up in the super achievement-oriented suburbs of DC, and won't be able to stop striving till I own some sort of company or something. It's a sickness and I'd surgically remove it if I could (no I would not but still).

saythatscool (#101)

You should try heroin for that. It works wonders on your motivation.

Garge Carey Mulligan is 25. So there is that.

deepomega (#1,720)

@saythatscool – You must be the sort of friend my mom always told me not to make.

Hydroceph (#662)

Oh he totally is. You really have no idea.

Wrapitup (#975)

Whoa, careful. Don't be listening to saythatscool and his hippie talk. You need methamphetamines. And you're welcome.

keisertroll (#1,117)

Why am I only 25 and feel like I'm Calvin Trillin old?

If it promotes/encourages/pays for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to produce more books the caliber of Half of a Yellow Sun, then excellent/more/please.

Think of them all as Gretchen Mol. 15 years from now they will be the answer to every blind item about a writer who has to blow Harvey Weinstein so they can write some under five bits for a sitcom.

Hydroceph (#662)

Sorry, i'm still stuck on the being young part, despite careening towards 40. Did someone say something?

Mike Riggs (#3,658)

I have not read any of the featured authors because none of them is Thomas McGuane. Ergo, this list does not speak to me in the way that, say, "A 20 writers under 40 who write almost as good as Thomas McGuane" list would.

That list would set me on fucking fire if I were not on it.

KenWheaton (#401)

Thank you for this. I was sitting frozen at my computer, steaming with rage and envy, my mind reeling with grand New York literary conspiracies designed to keep me locked out.

Now I feel a little prettier at least. Almost pretty enough, in fact, to pick up a swimsuit with two-inch inseams.

C_Webb (#855)

Choire, I think you confused my "creeping sense of personal decrepitude and irrelevance" with "envy." An understandable mistake, but it's a meaningful distinction, isn't it? Maybe? Please?

I don't even know you and I hate your guts. I hope all the bad things in life happen to you and you alone.

Also: I want all hot tubs cold.

Once I'm published I'll worry. Until then this isn't really about me, it's just a list of people I've mostly never heard of or am not really impressed by. And the ones I have heard of and like deserve to be on any such list so, you know, no big deal.

katiebakes (#32)

Wait so, the question mark goes OUTSIDE the quotes? GOD Choire, you've really messed with my mind on all of this.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

I'd like to echo Miles' "thank you." I went through all these EMOTIONS over the weekend after discovering that Molly Young is 23.

The only person listed that I remotely care about is Wells Tower. His piece on the Homeless World Cup was hysterical/heartbreaking. It's in either the current Harpers or the Atlantic.

carpetblogger (#306)

I have a list of my favorite Awl commenters over 40.

By age, or by commenter number?

EeLeen Lee (#5,368)

"7. Some of the people on that list are, believe it or not, still poor. And probably have terrible, awful apartments. How many wonderfully too-long books of crazy alternative mixed-genre fiction do you think Chris Adrian has to write before he pays off his med school loans? I would estimate 6000 of them"

Does the writer possess conclusive documented proof that Chris Adrian is living below the poverty line? Does anyone have access to his bank records? Was he last seen with a bunch of winos and drug addicts on Skid Row?

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