Monday, July 4, 2011

Fearing Success

Some months ago, when I was balking at rewriting the manuscript of my second novel for what felt like the 37th time, my agent accused me of suffering from "fear of success." To her mind, this was the only explanation for my reluctance to come up with a new plot and somehow figure out how to insert it into the existing framework of my novel.

To my mind, though, the idea that I was afraid of success was ludicrous. I'd been twisting myself into knots and jumping through hoops for months in order to ACHIEVE success. What I was afraid of was failure. In fact, I find the whole "fear of success" thing no more convincing now than I did when I first heard of it--back in 1972, when I was an undergraduate at Radcliffe, and Matina Horner, who originated the theory, was its president.

But lately I've come across the life stories of some writers that have made me think that maybe we all SHOULD fear success.

One of those is William Styron, whose first novel, published in 1952 when he was 26, was a huge critical and popular success. But, as I'm learning from a fascinating and beautifully written memoir by his daughter Alexandra Styron, Reading My Father, from that time on he was more or less tormented by his own perfectionism--and perhaps by the fear that whatever he wrote next wouldn't equal that first success. Indeed, his second novel was pretty much roundly derided. Although he went on to write two more highly acclaimed novels--The Confessions of Nat Turner, which won the Pulitzer, and his masterpiece, Sophie's Choice--he spent the final 27 years of his life either trying unsuccessfully to write another novel, or in the grips of debilitating depression, or both.

Then there's Ernest Hemingway, the subject of a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by his friend A.E. Hotchner that detailed the final, paranoid year of his life. And a piece by Jonathan Franzen that appeared in The New Yorker on April 18, 2011, about his friend David Foster Wallace, who suffered from chronic depression and, like Hemingway, ultimately committed suicide.

It's hard to say that all three of these highly successful writers suffered from mental illness BECAUSE they were successful writers. But the writing, and the pressure of sustaining their success, was clearly related to their suffering. As Alexandra Styron says in her memoir, when her father died it had been "twenty-seven years since he'd felt good about himself," because it had been twenty-seven years since he'd finished a novel. When Hotchner asked Hemingway why he wanted to kill himself, the reply was, “What do you think happens to a man going on 62 when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself?" And Franzen suggests that Wallace's suicide was related to his struggle to finish his final novel: "When his hope for fiction died ... there was no other way out but death."

The knowledge that you have thousands and thousands of readers out there, waiting for your next novel, and that as the years pass their expectations are rising ... that's got to be paralyzing. Maybe even more paralyzing than the fear, known to many less high-profile writers, that you'll spend years pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into a work of fiction, only to find that you have NO readers. In other words, the fear of failure.

It's interesting, but perhaps not significant, that all the writers mentioned above were male writers--and, in the case of Hemingway and Styron, Male writers with a capital M. Maybe there's something about being considered the Great American Novelist (a title that has yet to be bestowed, even putatively, on a female writer, to the best of my knowledge) that makes the head that wears a crown all the more uneasy.

But I don't know that there's anything gender-specific going on here (although I feel compelled to point out that, according to Matina Horner, it's only women who are afflicted with fear of success, associating success with "depression, illness, and sometimes even death"--maybe they know something men don't?). A while ago I heard the author Stephen McCauley speak about writing. He's not quite in the Great Writer category, but he's been highly successful and has a loyal following (myself included). He revealed that he'd been suffering from writer's block, which had been broken only when he received a call from an editor he knew inviting him to write "women's commercial fiction" under a pseudonym. Released from the persona of "Stephen McCauley," he found the words flowed, and he had a blast. (He declined, alas, to reveal the pseudonym under which he had written--but he said the books were available at Costco.)

I could certainly understand that story. I wouldn't presume to place myself in the same category as McCauley, but my first novel garnered a few intensely enthusiastic fans. When these people told me how much they loved A More Obedient Wife, and how they couldn't wait for my next novel, I was of course pleased. No, make that thrilled. But at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder if I could possibly do it again--whatever it was I had done.

My second novel did flow (at least the first draft did -- I'm now about to embark on draft ten, which I hope will be the last). But maybe that's partly because it's so different from my first novel, which is told in the voices of two18th-century women. My second novel, a contemporary comic tale about mother-daughter relationships, might actually be categorized as "women's commercial fiction." I didn't use a pseudonym, but like McCauley, I felt liberated by the idea that I was doing something completely different.

Who knows -- maybe Styron, Hemingway, and Wallace could have benefited from forgetting they were Great Writers and trying their pseudonymous hands at a little lower-brow fiction. After all, just because it's not Great doesn't mean it's not good.

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