The Green-Eyed Monster
According to psychologists, there are two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy. In the former, we feel tormented by another person’s superior position or good fortune and, in an attempt to make ourselves feel better, want them to fail or suffer in some way as a kind of warped payback for our own perceived shortcomings. With benign envy, we are able to appreciate the other person’s elevated position without it burning away at our insides like acid and thus use it as a motivational, aspirational force for ourselves, helping us to be better and strive further. Yes, it is possible to be such an evolved being! Of course I’m not saying I haven’t ever experienced that first kind of twisted jealousy but in this piece I am talking strictly benign envy, Benign Book Envy to be precise— that moment when it strikes you: God, I wish I had written that!
It might be at the end of a fabulous novel, still sitting with it clasped in your lap, reluctant to let go of that fictional world which has captivated you for the last day, week, month or however long it takes you to finish a book. You are awash with a feeling of fulfillment…a bit like the hot bath effect when you slip a little deeper under the scented bubbles and have an ‘aaahh’ moment. Or it may strike without warning right in the middle of the story as you suddenly come bobbing up for breath and gasp ‘God this is so good I don’t ever want to finish it….also, why couldn’t I have written this?’
Maybe it’s not books that get you this way but poems or songs; maybe it’s films, or box sets or some other creative genre. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that moment of benign envy where you can do nothing but bask in the glory of the creative genius of A.N. Other whilst secretly wishing it could have been you who had invented the rules for Quidditch or imagined ‘all the people, living life in peace…’
My Top Five ‘Writer’s Envy Moments’
So, could you list five things you really wish you had written? Here’s mine.
- The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton
This young adult novel was published back in 1967, before the genre of YA fiction even existed, before the term ‘YA’ had even been coined. In fact, it was a time when SE Hinton herself was just a teen. Despite being more than 50 years old, this novel still resonates with young (and ahem…not so young) people today and is the single book I credit with my wanting to become a YA author.
It is narrated by 14-year-old Ponyboy – a ‘greaser’ from the wrong side of town, who just happens to have a love of literature and school and sunsets. Getting caught up in a murder with his best friend, Johnny, they go on the run as tensions between the greasers and the wealthy ‘socs’ escalate. It culminates in a brutal ‘rumble’ as the two sides come together, fighting for honour and for their dead ‘brothers’ and all those things that gangs fight for. Yet ultimately Ponyboy realises they are all the same when you look beyond the superficial trappings of money or class. As Cherry Valance says ‘Things are rough all over’ but it’s easy not to recognise that when you are used to being judged and dismissed for your clothes or the length of your hair.
Brilliant, authentic, moving…as good a read today as it ever was and still gives me chills.
Check it out for yourselves on Wikipedia.
- Half Bad by Sally Green
This is a 2014 YA fantasy novel set in modern-day England, though not as we know it because in Green’s world witches live right alongside humans. They are either White Witches (who are deemed to be good) or Black Witches (who are thought to be evil). Then there is 16-year-old Nathan Byrn who is something of an anomaly: with a father who was (or is) the most powerful and cruel black witch there has ever been, and a (dead) white-witch mother he is a notorious “half-code”: half-black and half-white. In a world where everyone is coded by the age of 17, when they become a fully-fledged witch, the world is anxiously watching to see which way Nathan will develop.
For me, I was utterly hooked from the very first page, which is strikingly written in the second-person allowing us to get deep inside Nathan’s head as he is being held captive in a cage, handcuffed, beaten but determined to escape back to his family.
Followed by Half Wild and Half Lost, the story continues and takes you on a gripping journey into this magical, dangerous world.
The Brilliantly Written World of TV
For my next two selections I am looking at the world of TV series, where the writing is no less brilliant nor should be thought in any way inferior to the writing of a novel.
- Gilmore Girls created and sometimes written by Amy Sherman-Palladino
The show originally ran from 2000 to 2007 through seven seasons, and while perhaps it should have called it a day after season 3 or 4 (my opinion only), it was – and is – still a brilliant comedy-drama, exploring family and relationship dynamics through its trademark non-stop, fast-paced, dialogue peppered with literary, pop and cultural references. For this reason alone it really deserves to be watched four or five times so that you can truly appreciate its rich complexity!
It opens with sharp-as-a-tack, thirty-something Mum Lorelai (played by Lauren Graham) and her bookish teenage daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). This self-sufficient duo live in the close-knit community of Stars Hollow, New England, where Lorelai fled in disgrace after getting pregnant sixteen or so years earlier. She is proud of the life she and Rory have since carved for themselves away from her rather stuffy, wealthy parents Emily and Richard (Kelly Bishop and Edward Hermann). But when Rory is admitted to a prestigious private school Lorelai is forced to go back to her parents for help with the tuition fees. And just like that the past comes crashing back into the present.
The mother-daughter relationships of Rory and Lorelai and Lorelai and Emily are so beautifully crafted they become the defining theme of the show. And once you have watched all seven seasons five or six (or more) times you even start to appreciate that maybe Emily is not the wicked witch you initially had her pegged to be.
Oh to be able to weave such a delightful web! And there’s even a Netflix sequel – Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life set nearly a decade after the finale of the original series. Heaven. Watch all seven seasons and then the finale. You deserve it!
- Finding Carter by Emily Silver & Terri Minsky
This MTV show first aired in 2014 and I came across it by accident, as you do, whilst channel surfing. Within minutes I was enthralled. The complex family relationships that unfold bear more than a passing resemblance to Gilmore Girls. The Wilson family, Mum Elizabeth (Cynthia Watros) and Dad David (Alexis Denisof), twin sister Taylor (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and younger brother Grant (Zac Pullman) have spent years trying to rebuild their family after one of the twins was abducted as a toddler. Thirteen years later, the missing daughter, Lyndon–or Carter as she was renamed–(played by Kathryn Prescott), is reunited with her birth family after a prank lands her in jail and her cop birth-mother discovers her whereabouts.
Once more, as with the Gilmore Girls, the web of relationships is so richly complex. Carter (who naturally resents her real mother for tearing her away from the only ‘mom’ she can remember) is determined to make contact with Lori, her abductor, but is watched like a hawk by cop-mum who is naturally on a mission to bring this criminal to justice. Meanwhile her birth-father, a struggling writer, secretly pens a novel detailing the return of his long-lost daughter, which his agent is going nuts for, but which he promises Carter he would not write/publish without her permission. Factor in the incredible strain on their marriage that the intervening thirteen years have had and you also get cop-mum having an affair with a fellow-cop whilst also wanting to play happy families now that her long-lost daughter has been returned. Add in the awkward dynamic between the two twins, who are in effect strangers, and the youngest sibling who feels he was little more than a ‘replacement brother’ for his missing sister and you have an explosive, complex, multi-layered family drama.
A second series followed, but in 2016 MTV announced there would be no season 3 as viewer numbers had dropped. Such a shame!
And Finally, a Trilogy to End All Trilogies…
And for my fifth and final moment of Benign Writer’s Envy, I return to book-format with a novel I would never have had the imagination to write, so wonderfully elaborate is the fantastical world that has been created. In fact, it’s not even a book but a trilogy of books, to which prequels and sequels are now also appearing…so it is even greater than a trilogy…
- His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
There are some books that you read and you know instantly that they have changed you forever. Northern Lights, the first of the three,(published in the US as The Golden Compass) is one such book. Set in a world reminiscent of a Victorian version of our own, it features 12-year-old Lyra and her spirit daemon Pantalaimon (daemons being the physical embodiment of our inner selves, or souls, and a constant companion throughout a person’s life in this alternative universe). It does the book a disservice to try and condense the labyrinthine plot to a couple of lines but basically Lyra and her daemon live an almost feral life amongst the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford, until she is ‘adopted’ by the sinister socialite, Mrs Coulter, who is anything but what she seems. Before Lyra leaves, she is entrusted with a complex truth-telling device that she instinctively knows how to read. She learns about children disappearing, of a strange thing called dust and that Mrs Coulter is not to be trusted. She sets out on a perilous journey to the arctic to rescue her friend, Roger, and a growing group of abducted children.
I wasn’t even aware of how immersed I had become in this gripping, magical tale until I encountered the part where the abducted children were being forcibly ripped from their daemons. In Pullman’s society where it is inconceivable to even touch another person’s daemon, the idea of physically separating them is abhorrent. Experiencing the shock and outrage at this ‘intercision’ I suddenly realised just how deeply I had fallen into his world.
The story continues with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass and we now also have The Book of Dust which will be a further trio of novels surrounding His Dark Materials. La Belle Sauvage was published in October 2017 and features Lyra as a baby; then in October 2019 we can look forward to the second of the three: The Secret Commonwealth, which follows Lyra as a 20-year-old undergraduate.
Oh to have written just one of those epics….
What about you? If you could put your name to anything, what would it be?