I 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.