• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You Know I Need You

I need you like the flower needs the rain.

When I was a young editor, there was an editor, maybe two years older than I was, but miles ahead of me in her career, who I was insanely jealous of. I didn’t even like her books that much, but she was clearly a player and she was very beautiful. Over time, the gap closed and I had my own stable of authors. But the jealousy never abated. Just the sheer mention of her name made me crazy when she acquired a book or climbed the publishing ladder to even greater heights. At some point during this time, I came up with the Bete Noire Theory of Publishing. This is when one particular person out there is the focal point of all your envy. The sick part is that you need this person like the winter needs the spring. And I believe every editor has one. One editor who sees all the same projects, gets courted for all the same jobs, who wins auctions and beds interns. (I don’t actually approve of bedding interns, but that’s another post.)

I also believe that most writers have their own Bete Noire. You know the writer who has agents clamoring for her. The writer The New Yorker plucked for their debut fiction issue. The one whose book gets optioned by George Clooney, or after having flop after flop still gets a lucrative contract from Knopf. Or maybe it is the one who wrote about what you’re still trying to write about. Or who received a Pulitzer for a book you couldn’t read it was so…downmarket. Or who has a great husband five kids and is about to publish her sixth novel. Or worse, the one whose husband left her, has five kids, a rare disease that’s eroding her vision and is still about to publisher her sixth novel. These fuckin’ people.

Who makes you crazy? Who is the one? And you don’t have to name names, though we surely wouldn’t stop you.

50 Responses

  1. A couple years ago, my cousin comes for a visit. She mentions over dinner that this kid she used to babysit lives nearby. She was pretty close with his family. Maybe she’ll give him a ring, see if he remembers her.

    Oh, and he’s also a writer. Like you, August.

    Well, I’d sold a novel for six figures the previous year. *Nobody* was like me. And I’d heard that a dozen times: “I’m a writer, too–I got a letter printed in the Sacramento Bee.”

    So I give a patronizing chuckle and say, “Oh, is he published?”

    She nods.

    “He writes books? Fiction or nonfiction?”

    “Mostly fiction, I think. His latest one’s about the neighborhood where he grew up.”

    “What is he, published on the internet? If you’re *very* close, I could carve a few minutes from my schedule to show him what a real writer looks like. What’s his name? ”

    “Jon Lethem.”

    So I hate him now. And Cormac McCarthy. Motherfucker doesn’t use *quotation marks*. He’s too good for punctuation.

    • Where do you live that your annual mortgage is less than the cost of a parking spot in Manhattan and Jon(athan) Lethem is your neighbor? I want to go to there.

      • Maine. And my cousin is from away, so kinda fudged the geography. Lethem actually lives (part time, I think) two hundred miles away from me and writes two hundred miles above.

        At least his early stuff. I’m thrilled to report that I find his recent stuff unreadable.

        I also hate Chabon. Actually, I hate all published novelists who don’t write as well as me, on the grounds that they suck, and all the ones who write better, on the grounds that I suck. And I only know one guy who writes *exactly* as well as me, and he’s an ungodly combination of tedious and neurotic.

  2. Mine is Rebecca Walker. She has the career that I know I will never have. And she does it so well. And is full of grace. Which I, also, would never have. I love to hate her. But, mostly, I love her.

  3. First of all, @August: shout out to the Sac Bee, what-what. *ahem* Second of all, I would’ve written something useful but I was too busy lizzing over this: “Or worse, the one whose husband left her, has five kids, a rare disease that’s eroding her vision and is still about to publisher her sixth novel. These fuckin’ people.” That ish is priceless and I’m girl-crushing on you right now, Betsy.

    • Actually was a Monterey paper, so I apologize to the greater Sacramento area. After I sold my first book, a nonfiction nothing, a friend called and read the letter to the editor he’d gotten published. About local signage ordinances.

      And yesterday, my dentist told me he’d picked up my first novel, but that he prefers books where he ‘can remember what’s going on.’

      • Ouch. Hope you were floating on some good nitrous oxide when he announced that.

      • I left home so any mention of the Sacramento area or newspaper elicits a show of loyalty.

        Also, “can’t remember what’s going on” is pretty much the way you determine what kind of reader he is. When I was in high school, our program’s book list was filled with literature that the “normies” couldn’t stand because they “couldn’t remember what was going on”. Idiots.

  4. Oh, my list is endless. But mostly I’m too busy just making MYSELF crazy to bother focusing on the motherfuckers whose success might put me over the edge.

  5. I have one–and only one. She is my sister’s (former) friend who started writing fiction when she was in her thirties…her first collection of short stories was insanely successful, followed by novels that have won every award. Not only has she written successful short story collections and novels, she writes articles in Oprah magazine etc. I can’t get away from seeing her name in print!

    Normally, I’m a pretty sane person and am happy for other people’s success. But she was mean to my sister–very mean. And anyone who is nasty to my sister doesn’t deserve this much success! So, yes, she drives me more than a bit crazy…

  6. Maybe I’m setting my sights too low, but my Bete Noire isn’t even particularly successful. In fact, her advancement in the literary world is barely more noticeable than mine (i.e. incredibly minimal) but there’s just something about her…

    You know, I think I could be driving myself nuts over her potential to outdo me in the future.

    Oh man, that’s looks even worse on the page than it does in my head.

  7. You may not have heard of the writer with whom I have a love/hate relationship, the one who writes well and is highly acclaimed here in Australia. Her name is Helen Garner.

    Mostly I try not to let myself feel too jealous of her. It’s jealousy not envy because I can well acknowledge her success. Her writing’s brilliant in many ways and I’d love to write so well as she.

    • “The Spare Room” is amazing and it’s on my desk right now. I keep fingering the cover, trying to absorb it by osmosis.

  8. Every successful writer under thirty-six years of age.

    Just five years ago, my cutoff was thirty-one, for some reason. Infuriatingly successful writers seem to get older every single year, like clockwork. Bastards!

  9. I’m jealous of every writer that became a success prior to the internet. Because they didn’t have to have such big platforms, and be on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    I hate spending my time doing internet networking when I’d rather be writing!

    • Lately I’ve been wondering (as I tweeted not long ago) how writers manage to do their writing AND do all the Internet networking: updates to Twitter and/or Facebook, blog posts, comments on other blog posts. I can see that “She Started It” find doing it all a challenge, which makes me feel a tiny bit better.

  10. Yeah, I have one, too. I knew her back when, and she wasn’t so great. Then… she got great.

    Oh, yeah, and she has gorgeous hair, too. Not. Fair.

  11. Bete noire is such a lovely phrase for irrational, neurotic resentment. I have a feeling that my entire life would benefit immensely from a French translator. Okay, so my bete noires (betes noire?) are all people who have WRONGED me in some way, those fuckers, like the workshop teacher with a buzzy book out now who lifted a couple of pages in her current work directly from an essay I workshopped in her class, or my mentor from a different program who snubbed me in the green room at a huge book fair–in front of God and Gay Talese and everybody–and then acted like I was batshit crazy when I asked her about it, uh, repeatedly, for months afterward, culminating in an endless and humiliating evening in which I sulked at the end of a long table filled with fascinating and successful female writers while the ex-mentor held court at the other end of the room. (“What?” she said, after I’d left. “Poor thing. I don’t know what’s wrong with her. I barely know her, really.”) And THAT is the perfect illustration of the problem with bete noires (shit! betes noire?): keeping those resentments alive is the equivalent of drinking poison and waiting around for them to die. Remettre de votre ressentiment névrosé déjà. Sigh.

  12. This is why, in all honesty, I try not to read the hot new books. For a long long time my ironclad rule was that the authors I read had to be dead. That way I could avoid at least some of the jealousy. Because it’s so corrosive and counterproductive, at least for me–I am just not strong that way.

    I love the part in Bird by Bird where Lamott talks about the author who kept calling her up to tell her more of her “gright” news and how Lamott finally said she just couldn’t be her friend for a while. That is a very liberating idea.

    • You’re gonna think I’m a hater, just because I want to stick a knife in my mother and keep talking about how I hate everyone. But I hate Anne Lamott. If I knew her, I’d invent great news.

      Lamott: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

      Just like a hemorrhoid.

      • I live in the same neighborhood, and she doesn’t pick up her dog’s poop. So add that to your list of reasons to hate Anne Lamott, as if you need one.

      • oh, August…do you really care what I think? I am touched…

        actually, don’t answer that. please. (resisting impulse to put smiley emoticon here)

      • scoop (ice cream?)– that’s total b.s. I’ve lived here since long before she moved here. I’ve never seen her not pick it up. unless you mean on the trails and so what? it’s freaking organic, isn’t it?

        august, you might not like how she says stuff but if more people in the world tried to understand grace, we’d be a lot better off.

  13. How about the bloggers who are benefited from being the first to post about a turkey sandwich or a bad boss? I see comments in the hundreds and I seethe.

    Also Amanda Hesser pisses me off. She writes well – but does she write that well? I can’t figure it out. Plus, she’s so skinny even though all she does is cook and eat.

  14. When my book was still a manuscript, I had a meeting with my publisher’s marketing dept. and I specified ONE book that was kind of like my book (since they asked for comps) except that I HATED that book and its New Yorker-darling author and its pseudo-Nils Bohr title and its faux-naive illustrations and its wimpy sentence-long half-literate poseur-philosophic-shitty musings. I really, really hate that book. Needless to say, it was a best seller.

    And then my book came out and I got invited to speak to women’s groups and book clubs and libraries and at EVERY event, someone sidles up to me and asks me “Do you know [Shitty Book ]? It’s a lot like yours — I think you’ll love it.” EVERY TIME.

    And when a really famous writer whose work I love sent me a nice note about my book (when I saw her handwritten return address on the envelope I almost passed out), she also sent me a copy of [Shitty Book] because she thought it was a lot like mine and that I’d love it.

    Does the vie de belle lettres (I just made that up to impress everyone with my savoir faire) get any worse than that?

    • That’s a thing of beauty.

      My theory is that when people say, ‘Oh, you have to meet so-and-so, you’ll love him,’ that means, ‘Did you know that so-and-so is better version of -you-?’ Extrapolate at your peril.

      And now you’re telling me that not only are cancer patients writing you mash notes, but Very Famous Writers send you handwritten lettres?

      You better watch out, or I’m gonna add you to my list, along with anyone who’s been shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize and gets reviewed in People, or who’s gotten both a PEN/Emerging Voices Fellowship and a Norman Mailer Colony Scholarship. You’re already on thin ice with the artistic talent.

      • Aww, August, are you one of the 7 people on the planet who’s looked at my blog? I already have such a crush on your bitter outlook. Don’t make me fall head over heels in love with you. It could get messy.

  15. I went to college with a not-particularly-talented girl who became a big shit by working as an entertainment reporter and then publishing a roman a clef about all the stars she’s fucked. And then writing an equally badly written novel. Yeah, I hate her. And I *will* outdo her. One day.

    But mostly, I get crushes on authors. I read Jhumpa Lahiri or Elizabeth Kostova or Kamila Shamsie and just want to have them over for dinner. And that’s what motivates me: one day, when I’m all successful, I’ll be able to say casually to someone, “Yeah, Jhumpa and Kamila are coming over for dinner tomorrow. I wonder if I should make chocolate mousse or a lemon tart for dessert?” 😀

  16. It’s OT (off topic), but I have to ask: where did that picture come from? Seems vaguely familiar. Love it.

    To answer the question, sort of, I tend to think more about authors I’d like to have dinner with than authors I resent, envy, hate, whatever. Maybe that’s because I haven’t seriously tried to publish anything lately. I already have a Facebook note outlining people I’d like to have dinner with, but it’s not confined to authors or even to real people (it includes the main characters from Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels). Maybe I should make another one exclusively for writers. At the moment, I think I’d begin with Richard Rhodes.

  17. Mine is Ayelet Waldman. Writer, gorgeous, married to his most mostness Michael Chabon. Could it be any more irritating? I want to stuff rolled-up newspapers down my throat when I see her name. The other bete is a chick from my MFA program, a total self-promoting motormouth who was into faeries and elves, just total (in my opinion) crap. And she gets lionized in print before she even graduates…I still Google her name from time to time. Hating the little nerdette doesn’t even help my writing! I just want her stupid career.

  18. A brazen girl who went to Bard and upon meeting me in Grad School, newly moved from Oklahoma, declared–Oh my God. You’re a hick.

    Needless to say her connections have served her well, but she is still a shallow heartless bitch.

  19. Oh, Betsy. This was a much-needed post. I’m plankton on the food chain of writers, so not naming names here. But I appreciate knowing I’m not alone in having a bete noire.

  20. CJ – When I showed up at Columbia for journalism school my mentor, upon meeting me and learning I was from Okla, said, “Well you don’t *look* scared!!”

    I looked back at him a little nonplussed.

    He said, “Well, they told me they were giving me someone who would need a little extra help getting used to the city.”

    My response: “Sir, I may be from Oklahoma, but I didn’t come straight from the farm. I know you New Yorkers think you’re one up on everyone, but I have lived in Washington and Budapest, and I think I’ll be okay.”


    Anyone who looks down on us Okies is definitely a bête noire. No question.

  21. Whenever I talk to someone new at my publishing house, when they find out that I’m from Wisconsin, they ask me what it’s like to get up at the crack of dawn every morning to milk cows.

    Jodi Picoult’s hair has a better personality than she does.

    I like that Anne Lamott doesn’t pick up her dog’s shit. That takes courage and, c’mon August, maybe a little grace?

    Speaking of… Elizabeth Gilbert makes me want to drop acid. Am I wrong? Wasn’t all the insipid crap she writes about covered in the 60’s?

  22. I love Ravens and the picture with this post instantly appealed to me. I don’t have names per say. Let’s just say every time I hear of someone breaking out big with a debut book, it ‘s like nails on a chalkboard. In some ways I guess I jealous of the instant appeal.

    Then again it just encourages me to work even harder on my own writing. (Hugs)Indigo

  23. James Patterson…..hope that’s enough said.

  24. I need to own the photo. As for the rest of it, I hate everybody.

  25. Betsy, where do you find these photos?

  26. Nicholas Sparks. I’ve read four of his books. In a way, I even liked parts of them, but I felt that the characters were too distant from the reader. There also wasn’t enough dialogue. My last issue with the writing is that it was formulaic. I couldn’t read any more because I figured out the formula. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t want to know the general end before I pick it up. He irritates me because he is ridiculously successful with, erm, er, drivel *cough*. However, I respect his consistency and ability to find a market. Some of the stories I write would aim at that same market. Mostly, I’m jealous because he writes book after book, and I haven’t been able to complete a second yet. My plots keep fizzling. Urgh. I try not to think about it.

  27. I almost don’t dare to say it. Admitting it makes me a very bad Canadian. But our national ‘Holy Grail’ of literature, Margaret Atwood, tops my list.

    I have tried for two decades to read through more than the first two chapters of any of her books. Alas, it has yet to happen.

    I salute her success though and wonder if perhaps I just need to swill several ounces, make that gallons, of Screech before my next attempt.

    • i’m a bad Canadian, too. oh, i know Margaret is talented and bright. she’s just so friggin’ annoying, year in and year out. i hear stories of how supportive other Canadian literary icon’s are to newcomers and then there’s Margaret, clutching her monopoly on the biz and hissing at anyone who comes nearby.

  28. When I was young I totally mythologized this one kid’s work and fell over myself when I finally got to meet him. I was craving any creative exposure to help me find my own. My work never was quite as flawless or visionary. I didn’t realize until decades later that he was actually drawing from a whole stable of well known artists. You find that all the time, tracing the song lines of the art backwards through your inspirations, and how they had the torch passed to them.

    In college I was told I was becoming a young Margaret Atwood. I’d never been compared to anyone and assumed it meant I was a fraud. I was crushed and afraid. Now I simply take the compliment and relax. I’m sure of who I am. I keep an eye on her career because it’s possible she’s got some of my riddles already answered.

    It separates the myth of a person from the actual experience of being alive from their perspective. To believe the sterilized external myth of the hero is to be completely gullible or worse, caught in a misdirection to purposefully fool yourself into a fairytale that doesn’t exist. People don’t feel the need to advertise their accomplishments if they don’t have something substantial to overcome as catalyst.

    The green monster comes when people draw blood, don’t realize they’ve hurt you, and then you associate their own vulnerabilities with what they’ve exploited in you. You don’t even want them to point their nose in your direction. There are people I think should be fired. But I keep it clear in my head that I’m not them and wouldn’t accept any of the poisoned apples they’ve come by on their methods. If the system supports you, great. if it doesn’t, that’s life. The only real thing in a writer’s life is to write out of genuine respect for the material.

    Rational thinking dictates that all of this will come to nothing. I’d stop, except it’s become what I am. I write. Caring is an expression of my humanity. If there’s no carrot, I struggle and I burn. But I still work. It’s my contribution to the world, for whatever it’s worth. I have to accept that and be comfortable with it because that’s what lets me get the job done, which is what lets me go to work and smile and be sane. People wonder what’s behind that smile and I can’t tell them. You find everything out on your own. Cold but cardinal.

  29. Okay – I know from your new post that you’ve moved on, but I woke up this morning and this random thought popped into my head – okay, not really random but it would take too long to explain the logic – or illogic.

    ANYway, I thought about your shrink. Maybe she didn’t comment on your books because she was jealous of you. She may not be a writer, but she’s paid for insight. Maybe she’s jealous of yours.

    Maybe you are her Bete Noire of insightful thinking.

  30. I hope it’s not too late to throw in my 2 cents…

    Classmates in grad school used to compare my work to Wurtzle’s Prozac Nation. I hadn’t read it, and I refused to once the comparisons poured in– out of protest, out of fear. It’s a little difficult to be compared to anything, I think– any likeness begs the question, at least for me, which is “better,” which is “worse”? I also tend to think: if it’s already been done, why should I bother?

    When I finally got around to reading it, I was totally offended. Really, I thought, am I really so self absorbed, am I so very whiney about my cruddy childhood? I am, of course, at least at times– the comparison was a little right on. In this way it was humbling. At the same time, my work was different. Prozac Nation– I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop… waiting for her story to turn out more like mine. It didn’t.

    Whenever I find myself in “compair and dispair” mode I try to remind myself of my purpose– what I am trying to accomplish– and how my work is different, and important– why it needs to be written and why only I am right to be its writer.

  31. This industry deserves what it’s going to get.

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