Friday + Dr. S O'D = Writers Therapy
I occasionally give workshops and seminars in my Brooklyn Heights office on topics of interest to writers. If you would like to be notified about upcoming events, email me at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.
Dear Doctor O'D,
I am a writer of what gets called "literary fiction." I have a relative who has written numerous works of fiction, with far more titles in print than I have—but her novels have all appeared in paperback and fall under the heading of "popular fiction." Many of them were written under another name for a formatted romance series.
Here is my dilemma. While I manage to maintain a facade of respect and enthusiasm for her work, the truth is, I really have no respect at all for what she does. It galls me, secretly, when people put us together as the two writers in the family, making no distinction between the seriously crafted work I produce and the superficial, poorly-written pages she produces. I can admire her energy and enthusiasm, and I recognize that she is as dedicated to her work, in a sense, as I am to mine, but deep down, I disdain her work as shallow and unimportant and just not very good, even for what it is. Were I to be honest about it, there would be terrible and painful consequences.
Is there another way to think about this?
The other novelist in the family
There are a number of ways to think about this issue.
One has to do with the rivalry between writers of “literary” and “commercial” books.
Better women than I have perished in these treacherous waters, and I am not about to plunge in. I do, though, want to mention two psychological principles that may be useful for writers to consider:
∑ Similarity between warring groups. Erik Erikson observed that the intensity of enmity between groups of people is often in direct proportion to their resemblance to an outsider. Erikson was referring specifically to ethnic identity, but the explanation he proposed—that we find the surface likeness so unbearable that we emphasize and exaggerate minor differences to distance ourselves definitively from the despised group—is applicable to a broad spectrum of relationships. This tendency to turn on those who would seem to be our natural allies can be exploited by third parties who benefit from keeping our attention and aggression focused on one another (e.g., the Mommy Wars; European manipulation of colonized peoples in Rwanda and Burundi; or the situation of the working poor in the US).
∑ Cognitive dissonance. This term has entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for “noticing that things don’t make sense,” but it is actually a precise psychological description, introduced by Leon Festinger, of the discomfort we feel when we hold two conflicting thoughts or attitudes, and the gyrations we perform to reconcile them. One subset of cognitive dissonance theory is known as the “effort-justification paradigm,” and holds that the more difficult, arduous, or even degrading the process of attaining a goal is, the more valuable and important the goal is held to be, independent of its intrinsic worth or external rewards.
Enough said about that.
Another facet of your situation is, of course, is the mortification of being lumped with others whose work you believe is inferior to yours, regardless of genre. Ann Radcliffe and Emily Bronte both wrote Gothic novels; Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Edgar Allan Poe wrote crime stories with an occult tinge; and Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer both penned Regency romances. We know who we think the “real” writers are, but in a field that necessarily lacks definitive criteria for excellence, and in a culture that equates fame and monetary success with merit, the argument that the superiority of your work places it in a separate category from that of your relative is likely to be met with incomprehension.
Finally, there is the question of family dynamics. Families are notoriously incurious about what their members actually do for a living. They are more focused on discovering the ancestral source of the unusual shape of your nephew’s nose; on recounting for a new audience the story of the time you wet your pants during the second-grade play; and on ferreting out the details of your cousin’s acrimonious divorce. If you are neither part of the family business nor broke and homeless, most family members are glad to assign your job to an easily recognizable category, such as “doctor,” “writer,” or “custodian,” and move on to the really important stuff.
So, yes, it is galling to dedicate yourself to perfecting your craft and expressing your most deeply held beliefs and feelings, only to be pigeonholed with a relative whose work you think is shoddy and whose methods you can’t respect. But you’re right; there is no way to address it without causing even worse problems. (In fact, I would bet that your relative has already intuited your feelings and is sitting on some feelings of her own. Do you really want to unleash those?) Try to think of the fiction that your books are equivalent to hers as a part of the fabric of social lies that keeps family get-togethers manageable, akin to “This pie is delicious!” and “I just love your new couch,” and look elsewhere— to your readers, discriminating friends, and your own critical judgment—for validation of your work.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.