Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Warning: Pettiness, Jealousy, and Narcissism Will Not Help Your Writing Career

In a recent article in Salon, Alexander Nazaryan admitted that he wrote mean-spirited reviews of novels by Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich because he was jealous of them, thus forever confirming authors' suspicions that nasty reviewers are actually just bitter, failed writers themselves (Your mom was right all along! Who knew?). Of course, anyone who can't objectively review a novel shouldn't write reviews, but a deeper reading of Nazaryan's confession reveals many of the pitfalls that ruin the careers of writers like him in the first place.

First, although Nazaryan bitterly mentions his many rejections from the traditional publishing world, he never once considers self-publishing as a viable alternative. Why? He humble-brags that at least three literary agents show considerable interest in his novels, though they fail to sell them to a publisher. After ten years of frustration with the world of traditional publishing, indie publishing seems like his best option. But he never once mentions or appears to consider this course, and the tone of his article reveals why: Nazaryan isn't interest in telling a great story or connecting with an audience.  He wants fame and glory. Like many privileged, entitled, white men before him, he wrote a novel and handed it to agents and editors with an attitude that screamed "Here is my novel. Now acknowledge my genius. Acknowledge It!"  When that didn't happen to him, he's shocked that why, other writers are getting published and having the kind of success that he's entitled to. Thus he spends plenty of time licking his wounds and bashing other writers instead of, say, self-publishing. Yes, self-publishing might be an excellent way to build an audience, have people actually read and review your work, possibly even make money from your writing, but it just isn't glorious enough for him.

The destruction wrought by Nazaryan's lofty sense of entitlement doesn't end there; when given a chance to network with one of the editors who rejected his book, he appears to go out of his way to make the encounter as painful and awkward as possible:

Speaking of rowing: Once, I set out with the Gowanus Dredgers to canoe the filthy canal that winds between the hills of brownstone Brooklyn. I was in a canoe with another woman who, it took us about five minutes of conversation to ascertain, had recently rejected some draft of some “first novel” of mine.
In silence we rowed through fecal matter and oil sludge. Then, slowly, conversation restarted: Look, a cormorant! She meekly offered that a novel about the Gowanus would sell. I haven’t quite gotten around to that one yet.
We rowed out to the Upper New York Bay. Here the water was choppier, but our guide urged the several canoes forward into the churlish channel. But then the weather began to sour, too, and some of the more novice canoers became alarmed. The agent made a joke about going down, which I thought would be particularly cruel irony: dying with a woman who had killed my book. (From "I'm Sorry I Trashed Your Novels")

It's hard to imagine what he thought this poor editor would think about rejecting his novel after this encounter. Perhaps he believed the bitter cold of his shoulder would inspire thoughts like "Oh my, if only I had realized how much I had wronged this tortured genius! Now I'm just dying to read more of his work!" More likely, she thought "What a blessing I rejected his book. Who wants to work with such an arrogant jerk?" Note to writers: yes, rejection hurts. But do NOT take that out on someone in a position to help your career. Smile. Be kind. Ask for feedback. Raging entitlement turns off editors, agents and readers. Also, no one can kill your book but you (see my earlier paragraph on self-publishing).

I know that it's tough out there. It takes a lot of guts to face rejection time and time again, and we live in a culture that worships at the alter of self-confidence. Yet there is a fine line between self-confidence and inflated ego. We need enough humility to assess ourselves and our work honestly. Bitterness is a sign that you blame other people for your rejection, instead of taking responsibility and actually addressing the issues that are holding you back.

One last thing I gleaned from Nazaryan's many failures: don't become so hung up on external validation. Fame and fortune are rare and precious commodities. If they're your primary motivation for writing, then stop now. Ironically, Nazaryan himself makes this point at the end of his article (apparently blissfully unaware that he's completely contradicting himself). He quotes William Faulkner (a Nobel prize winning author who's "largely forgotten" according to Nazaryan. Really? He thinks Faulkner is forgotten?).
The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat … He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands. (William Faulkner's Nobel Prize Speech)
Though he asserts that "if you find it [the quote] romantic and impractical, you have no business writing," it's clear he refuses to take his own advice. You can write to lay bare the haunting mysteries of the human heart, or you can write to win fame and glory, but you cannot do both. Especially not when the size of your ego prevents you from noticing the depth or the power of another writer's work.


  1. Many excellent points in here, although you might want to reread—well, proofread—your fifth paragraph.

  2. Thanks for the tip, I think I fixed everything!

  3. I suppose it's a lot like the performing arts. Those who want to act go into theater. People who want to be famous go to Hollywood, hoping to star in a blockbuster film.