by Suzanne Farrell Smith, with Cheryl Wilder
ed. Claire Guyton
Maybe it’s the election, but “Greed” comes easy to the tongue. Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren spoke at the Democratic National Convention about decades-old “corrosive Greed” reincarnated today in billionaires with Cayman Islands tax shelters, a not-so-subtle dig at Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney accused the striking Chicago teachers of letting Greed trump their devotion to students, and discounts half of all Americans as parasites, or—as his running mate Paul Ryan calls them—“takers.” “Main Street” Americans criticize big-business executives for being the real takers, who slink away from a crumbling economy with oversized bonuses and severance packages spilling from their pockets. In a slinging contest, Greed is the ready scoop of mud.
I was taught in Catholic school that Greed is the acute desire for material possessions, wealth, power, or notoriety, a desire so powerful it drives the Greedy to take more than they need or deserve, and to deprive others. My mother reinforced these lessons, going to great lengths to impose fairness among her children at all times—she even meted out M&Ms in equal numbers and colors. And as a writer making my place in a community that celebrates art, self-expression, and camaraderie among peers, Greed seems particularly repulsive. Greed had Amazon.com recruiting customers to scan prices in small bookstores, report them to Amazon, then walk out of those stores empty-handed in order to get a discount online. Greed drove the Super Stop & Shop in the town I visit on weekends to buy the land across the street just to shutter its “competition”—a tiny farm stand selling Jersey tomatoes and rhubarb pies. Greed characterizes Wall Street, oil empires, the 1%. I stand with Dickens, who called Scrooge “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Writers, Greed is everything we stand against.
Yet when I take off my mask of naïveté and peer at the writing world, I see Greedy hands grabbing here, swiping there. An author who doesn’t share the spotlight with those who helped him attain success, or one who pays overeager MFA students pennies to churn out work, secretly, under her name. Writers who consistently submit four times the page limit for workshops, or writers who ask their grandparents and roommates and dentists to post multiple glowing reviews of their books under different names, thereby bumping themselves to the top of online search results. Authors who self-publish at higher-than-average e-book rates are accused of Greed, as are authors who hold out for fat speaking fees. In the May/Summer 2012 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Patrick Toland reports on new domain name endings on the horizon and how those with enough cash could purchase .poet or .novel, thus buying “the unspoken right by association to say who was authentic and who was inauthentic.” What power! Toland likens the purchase of domain name endings to a “land rush.” Previously untapped writing life territory has opened up for the Greedy.
I too have been Greedy. My writing life isn’t that old, and given that most of my writing time has been devoted to completing one manuscript, I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to get Greedy. But even within these narrow parameters, I’ve succumbed. Recently, someone offered to pay me for a copy of my manuscript. A stranger who saw one of my published pieces wanted to read more. I could name the price. For a moment (an hour? an afternoon?) I didn’t consider whether to accept the money, or why this person wanted to purchase it in the first place. I debated how much to ask for. Then, sensing something was off—like my normal-self had absconded to a café while a secret-agent-self took over negotiations—I wrote an SOS to my writing friends, who responded unequivocally that I should reject the peculiar offer.
Greed seems to me the guiltiest sin. The sin you most have to apologize for. Just ask British crime writer R.J. Ellory, who recently scripted a sorry to readers for pseudonymously writing positive reviews of his own books while slamming those of competing authors. In fact, until a late draft of this essay, I hadn’t included my personal example of Greed. But several surveyed writer friends were willing to own up. Once they did, I started seeing multiple other ways that I have been Greedy, aside from the obvious desire for some quick cash. When working on a new piece, for example, I am Greedy for my husband’s time and brain power. Even as he dead-tired drifts on the couch after a 70-hour work week, our baby pressed to his chest, I read my work aloud and ask for feedback.
Adam Arvidson’s Greed hones in on what he finds the single most valuable commodity in the writing life: “Recognition.” He calls it his “guilty secret.” “I want to be well known, famous,” says Arvidson. “I want to have a platform from which I can share my views as a credible witness. All the other things (earnings, contests, book deals, speaking engagements, teaching positions) either lead to or result from name recognition, so that’s the core.” Risa Nye echoes the desire for notoriety, finding her Greed in wanting more than she already has: “I have some name recognition, but it’s never enough! I want to keep my name out there.” So does Jennifer Lunden, who notes just how early the Greed started, and how broadly it expands. “I have fantasized about being a famous author since I was a child,” she says. “I still do. I want to be studied in colleges. I want to go down in history. I want to change the world.”
Rich Farrell’s Greed ties tightly to the sin of Pride: post-MFA, he “yearned for entry into that rarefied kingdom of Writers.” To quicken his entry, Farrell “began to submit stories that were nowhere close to being ready. I’d fire off new stories with the sole intention of sending them out as fast as I could finish them.” He questions the Greed behind the speed. “Why am I greedy for what I haven’t earned yet?” Jason Mott, in ten years of working, did earn his way into the circle of published novelists. “Actually, I feel a little greedy for my book deal,” says Mott. “I’ve been fortunate in poetry with two publications and now I’ve just landed a two-book deal for fiction and, by some miracle, found myself able to quit my day job and become a full-time writer.” Risa Nye also highlights writing for money: “It’s always great when someone pays me for my written work—and when the check arrives, THEN I feel greedy for more.”
As the guiltiest sin, Greed is also the most unbecoming. Envy highlights what we want and drives us to attain it. What we choose to do when we’re Slothful can reveal us as charming, bedraggled, whimsical. Lust equates to singular focus and propels us toward writing. Gluttony can be presented as perfectionism if one voraciously consumes craft advice, or devotion if one must own every edition of every book in a beloved author’s body of work. Wrath can set off an explosion of creative work. Pride dedicates us to quality. Is there anything attractive about Greed?
In second grade I voted for Walter Mondale because Ronald Reagan already had a “turn” in the White House. I get frustrated when professional athletes who are former Olympic medalists leave their highly paid positions to become “amateur” again and compete for more gold. My longstanding and somewhat unrealistic attachment to fairness aside, I do see one positive aspect of Greed: it can breed continued success. We write for myriad reasons, most of which have nothing to do with external rewards. (Writing a book is just about the worst get-rich-quick scheme I can think of.) But the taste of a win can make us strive for more. “There’s always the next thing,” says Jennifer Lunden. “I wanted to win a Pushcart and I did. So of course, now I want to win the National Book Award. And hell, why not be honest here? I want a Pulitzer! And then, on to the Nobel Peace Prize! Not yet, but someday….”
Our surveyed writer friends identify desires—for recognition, publication, and compensation—that sit on a thin line between ambitious goals and true Greed. After scrutinizing what they name as examples of Greed, I say let them off the hook. We have every right to desire (and sometimes to insist on) reward for our work. I came across what I think is a perfectly nutshelled redirect of an accusation of Greed in a March 2012 Tweet from a writer named Saladin Ahmed: “Got called greedy writer for asking about pay. Grew up poor. Am deep in debt. Have kids. Money matters to me. LOTS. Don’t like it? Fuck you!” Jason Mott finesses the point a little bit more when talking about his book deal: “It’s more than I ever dared dream would happen and, yes, somehow I feel a bit greedy, even though I probably shouldn’t. After all, I’ve been working for a decade to get here.”
There is room for some Greed in the writing life. Though Charity is known as the virtuous antidote to Greed, we have only so much attention to give each other. We offer to critique another writer’s work for free and with enthusiasm, hoping that writer will publish the piece and add to the CV. We recommend each other for writing jobs and introduce each other to movers and shakers. We notify each other of upcoming contests and grants. We share our opinions, our connections, our wisdom. But as writers, we must be selfish with our time and attention, too, keeping the greater share for ourselves. Otherwise, our writing lives would slip away, leaving behind benevolent readers and reviewers who used to write.
Our challenge is to properly diagnose the sort of Greed we’re experiencing, then either refuse to give in to it or channel it into appropriate action. Once my friends brought me back to my good sense, I chose not to give in to my Greed, and declined to sell my manuscript to the mysterious shopper. When a friend asked me to look at her submission to a publication, and then wanted to use my exact language as her conclusion, I feared that my Greed for credit might show itself, but gave her the go-ahead. When she announced a few weeks later that her article had been accepted, I didn’t even think about my role. When I published a piece this past spring in a journal I covet, I felt eager to submit again, even though I didn’t have anything ready to send. My publication-Greed could have pushed me to submit a half-baked essay; instead, it propelled me to get cracking on revisions. When I got frustrated this fall about not having a fellowship that would allow me to work on my book without worrying about income, my compensation-Greed bit hard, and I had to remind myself that I have applied for exactly zero fellowships. An unfinished application still sits on my desk, waiting for me to channel that Greed into action.
Sometimes Greed can infect what’s at the very heart of the writing life—the writing itself. Unchecked Greed can cause a writer to perform such extensive surgery on her material that it’s no longer recognizable. When I re-enter my nonfiction manuscript and consider my next steps, I remember the friend who read it earlier this year and told me I’d have a better chance of publishing if I fictionalize it. To her, the story reads more like a novel than narrative nonfiction, and she dropped two biggies in one email: “agent” and “movie deal.” I had to laugh, but I did wrestle with the temptation. For a while, I wondered how a shift from truth to fiction would impact not the manuscript, but the manuscript’s chances. Fortunately I’m tuned in to my deep love of nonfiction, oriented toward my goal of being published with an independent press, and aware that fictionalizing my book would hardly guarantee a seat on the gravy train—far from it. I’ve got my Greed licked. But every once in a while, as I’m feeding my baby in the middle of the night, my fingers pretend to do a quick search and replace of “I” to “She” and my imagination runs wild.
The most effective way to keep Greed in check in the writing life might be to cultivate satisfaction with where we are, what we have written, how much we have accomplished. After her essay won a Pushcart, Jennifer Lunden says her Greed was temporarily fulfilled: “I am pleased. Delighted. And don’t tell God, but I’m proud, too.” Risa Nye says, “If I set goals and keep going, I can look back someday and feel satisfied that I tried a bunch of things and managed to accomplish them with varying amounts of success.”
Satisfaction, however, ebbs and flows. Get Greedy, succeed, feel satisfied, repeat. “There will always be something more that I want to shoot for with my writing,” says Jason Mott. “Some new story, some new style, some new medium. There is always room to grow and learn as a writer.” Risa Nye agrees: “Being satisfied doesn’t mean resting on your laurels.” Cheryl Wilder, my co-author of this essay series, describes satisfaction’s changeable nature: “I see satisfaction as more a moving target than a stationary end; I can be satisfied with a piece I have written, but once that elation fades, it’s time to move on to the next poem or essay.” As she points out in her Introduction to this series, once we travel the pathways of sin, we can forever travel back toward virtue, never reaching an end point but rather finding purpose in the journey.
In most areas of my life, I possess what I call a “strong peace reflex.” Several years ago, as I and my then-new husband circled over the Greek island of Santorini, I gazed out at the ancient volcanic crater that would serve as our honeymoon destination and said, “If this plane goes down and we die, I’m satisfied with what I’ve done in this life.” In my writing life, however, I crash through waves of regret and despair, which is one of the reasons I wanted to co-author this series on sin. I’m learning that when it comes to my writing, should the ebb and flow of satisfaction stop suddenly and forever, I want to be arrested in the flow—content with my body of work. I’m not there yet. My book isn’t published, and publication might be necessary to get me there. But here’s a nudge in the right direction: a few years ago, I couldn’t have started a sentence with, “My book.”
The writer friends quoted here…
The questions we asked…
What, if anything, do you feel most Greedy for? Name recognition? Earnings? Contest wins? Ongoing book deals? Solicitation of your work (i.e., lack of need to submit)?
Does Greed ebb and flow as writers move through different life stages?
Do you think you could ever be satisfied as a writer?
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Penguin Classics, 1995.
Toland, Patrick. “.Anything! How the Dot Com Boom Might Cost Writers More Than Just Their Money,”
The Writer’s Chronicle (May/Summer 2012): 94–98.
Image of shiny gold wrinkled textile texture by Lisa Fotios via Pexels.
Previously published at Hunger Mountain.