Sunday, March 3, 2013

Comparison is the thief of joy, unless ...

This post appeared on March 1, 2013, on Author Expressions. I'm reposting it here because of some of the feedback I received on it.

The usual misery of February was ameliorated this year with the riveting tale of Patricia Cornwell taking on her financial manager in a case of financial mismanagement, and winning a $50 million settlement. I don't know how this story played out in your home, but it became the undercurrent in the swells of dinner conversation and the rogue wave that crashed during a quiet evening of reading.

The first, and really the only, question was, How many books do you have to sell to make $15 million a year? My answer? How would I know? I can barely figure out how much money I need to get half a tank of gas in the car. Fifteen million dollars for books? I look at that lowly plural "books" and think it needs more oomph to match that amount of money. The word looks so puny by comparison.

The story of a writer who makes huge sums of money will make life much more difficult for the rest of us. Now, every time someone asks me what I do and I admit that I'm a writer, their eyes light up, they stand a little taller, and they ask about my books. I know (and you do too) that they're thinking I'm so rich that I must shed gold dust. As I disabuse them of this notion, their eyes fade to the usual dullness of strangers when I explain the term "mid-list" writer.

The Cornwell saga of loss and triumph has brought a certain glamour to writing once again--for writers. We know our work is mostly drudgery, but now others think we are "almost" important. Anyone who makes that kind of money certainly must be important. Even if other writers don't come close to making what Cornwell makes, we can see the potential is there. It's a heady moment.

Or it would be if I could relate to the court award. But I can't. Cornwell is so far off in another universe that if someone told me she had been awarded $50 billion I would have thought it bizarre but equally irrelevant to me and my life. Furthermore, I don't wade in the mainstream, or swim in the ocean of popular culture. I would never expect any book of mine to sell millions of copies, and if it did, well, my thought processes don't stretch into that realm.

My inability to connect with Patricia Cornwell's circumstances, beyond wishing her a heart-felt congratulations, is perhaps one of the best things that could happen to me or any other writer. Theodore Roosevelt was right when he said, "Comparison is the thief of joy." I love to write, I love hearing the stories that come to me, I love watching human beings act out their dreams and fantasies. If I start watching other writers develop their work and careers, I'm sure to start seeing flaws and emptiness in my own. Even worse, I'll take time away from my own work and what gives me satisfaction.

Writers are celebrating the success of one writer who triumphed in court. But in the quiet of the early morning, or the end of the night, during the time F. Scott Fitzgerald called "the dark night of the soul," writers are also thinking about all those books people are buying. $15 million, which is what Cornwell gave as her annual income, is a lot of royalties for a lot of books. And she's not the only one selling in big numbers. Somewhere out there millions of people are buying books--books, books, books. That little one-syllable word, "books," still has the power to fill a universe.

A few writers in this world will look at Cornwell's court judgment and think they make almost as much, but all writers can look at the news story and know in comparison they live in the same world with her. They write books that go out into the world and someone, somewhere, buys them and loves them. The real news in the Cornwell story, for writers, is how big the world is for their work.

So, to Patricia Cornwell, a brief message, Hearty congratulations, and Thank you.


  1. Susan, I found the Cornwell story fascinating as well, although I admit my eyebrow went through the ceiling at such figures and I judged them inflated. I don't know enough to assess this case, but you're right it give us encouragement. This spoken as a "low-list" writer.But I do know people are reading. I see them absorbed on the T, standing on buses, and they talk about "what are you reading?" in church and at lunch. Yay for books! But I don't ever want to make that much money (not that there's a chance of that) I'd be so scared I'd bury it in the back yard.

    Thanks for your good commentary.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Lyn. I like to think of people reading at bus stops, waiting in line at the grocery store, and other unlikely places. I wouldn't want that much money--it's more burden than fun at that level.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. I, too, wondered about those numbers. I, another of the low-listers, figured it had to do with her investments — never imagining that she was still turning out blockbusters with those kinds of royalties. Thanks for the blog, Susan. I love your writing.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rae. She has her own audience, and they adore her books. I can't imagine, one, producing a book so regularly and, two, making that much money. I wonder how much freedom you lose when you reach that level.

      Thanks for commenting. Hope your work is going well. I've always loved your essays.