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Jealous Hippos

In the insular world of emerging fiction writers, the Times Book Review carries cooties.

By Allison Amend - August 13, 2003

Kurt Vonnegut referred to it as the karass: people who seem to follow you your whole life. It explains why you see Janice at the coffee shop all the time and then again during your vacation in Cancun. It explains why Larry, who grew up across the street from you, married your best friend from graduate school, without being introduced by you.

There must be a fiction writers' karass. Sometimes I feel as though all emerging writers were living with me inside my tiny studio apartment. We go to graduate school together, date each other and break up with each other, live within three miles of each other in New York, run into each other at readings and conferences and colonies and parties. We review each other's books and read each others' reviews of each others' books. We are a close-knit bunch, insecure and socially awkward, full of rivalries and grudges and competition and ambition. Remember the old board game, Hungry Hungry Hippos? It's sort of like that, but it doesn't end when the players get bored.

All this—the karass, the hippos—has led me to develop a faithful Sunday ritual. I wake up, get the Times, buy a cup of coffee, scan "Sunday Styles" to see if anyone I know got married, and then I settle into the Book Review to search for cooties. Cooties, in my lexicon, are loosely defined as metaphorical but contagious germs carried by (a) people I've been intimate with; (b) people my friends have been intimate with; or (c) people I've met. It's contamination by association. I've been through an MFA program, attended a variety of writers' colonies, and lived in New York for four years. Much more often than not, the Book Review gives me cooties.

Cooties, as the name suggests, are unpleasant. A bigger person would greet a review of a colleague's book, an essay by someone she knows, an article about an old classmate with an unadulterated wealth of goodwill. I am not that person.

It's not that I curse everyone I know who's made it bigger than I have in the world of fiction (since I haven't made it, everyone who has made it has made it bigger). There were several bright stars in my graduate program, people who worked hard and were generous, people who exuded talent through their pores like curry. I rejoice in their success.

And there are also my close friends, for whom I'm also almost 100 percent happy. (There's always that smidge of a percent, though, that's envious—just a little—that it happened to them and not to me). Usually these uncharitable sentiments are alleviated by an expression of sweet gratitude in the acknowledgments section.

But there are people I read about with a rib-crunching breathlessness, reverberating through my midsection as pain radiates from a stubbed toe. Those who are younger than I am. Richer. Prettier. Luckier. More talented. Every one of them who makes it makes me feel less able to do so myself. Indeed, that they are more viable than I am in some way proves to me the futility of continuing to write.

Thus is jealousy born.

Jealousy, unlike its close cousin, envy, connotes suspicion. How did she get where she is? The word contains a hint of resentment, as though someone has taken your rightful place. Jealously, that "green-eyed monster," the "jaundice of the soul," is "as cruel as the grave." (Shakespeare, Dryden, Song of Solomon). It's a debilitating condition, paralyzing as a constrictor, that plagues the insecure.

Other emotions can act as motivating factors. Revenge, contrary to popular opinion, is often an excellent source of inspiration. I've written several stories and a novel about exes; while at first the exercise was cathartic and the fiction muddled and dim, I gradually let go of the revenge and surrendered to the story. The characters that resulted, born of passion and hurt, were surprisingly round and complex.

Other venial sins can also be construed as beneficial to writing: strife, certainly, has its charms, drunkenness worked for Hemingway and others, and disrespecting your elders is the foundation of memoir. Abortion—though not in the way the Catholic Church defines it—has spared many an author (and reader) from slogging through to the end a novel that is not working.

But what I suffer from is jealousy. And I'm in good company. It is a condition with a long history: It preoccupied Herodotus in 450 B.C.; it appears frequently in the Bible, in Shakespeare, and in treatises on humankind throughout history. Even God was jealous (20:5). Luckily, it appears to harm only its possessor; I'm only hurting myself.

And what a sweet pain it is! Like spicy food or running until you're winded, nothing hurts so good as cringing to see the girl who couldn't spell "tomorrow" in fourth grade publish an article in Lingua Franca. Like nail-biting or scab-picking, it's a way of punishing myself for my dearth of discipline, my sins of sloppiness, my penchant for partying.

Book Review cooties give me the itches but good.

I am not proud of my jealousy. It makes me feel petty, mean-spirited. It folds in upon itself, increasing my feelings of worthlessness. The bigger person I mentioned earlier would dismiss it with a couple of aphorisms: "We all mature at our own rate," or, "There's room enough in publishing for all of us." Again, she is not me.

Neither am I sure exactly what to do with the most useless of emotions. Stuff it back inside, like a jack in the box, where it will pop out every time the song ends? Repeat self-encouraging mantras? ("I'm good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it....") My usual methods of coping involve calling my mother, who is always ready with effusive and mostly empty praise. Another frequent means of release is to find a like-minded small person (there are more of us out there than you'd think) and be really catty.

Perhaps, though, the existence of jealously signifies that I'm still in the running, hanging in there. It means I'm still dreaming my dream. It indicates that success is possible; if it has happened to them, it could happen to me. Perhaps each friend who writes an article can put me in touch with his editor, can review my book someday or give me tips on pitching stories. Presumably, his success was the result of his own hard work, his pluck or aggressiveness, qualities I could possibly emulate.

Or else it's because he slept his way into Harper's. I heard his father plays squash with the editor. Scratch scratch.

Allison Amend, armed with an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is currently at Yaddo, where she's working on a novel.

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