Have you ever seen Wonder Boys, the movie based on the book by Michael Chabon? In the first scene, it takes you inside a grad school fiction workshop, where various students undercut each other through passive-aggressive critique. It is utterly painful and also rings true (as far as we’ve heard, having never experienced the masochistic impulse to seek out graduate studies, let alone the studies themselves). Inevitably, one student will be more successful than the others, and the others will no doubt, in most instances, begrudge them that success. Of course, it is uncouth to publicly begrudge one success, so most people will just go about this in the most passive and cowardly way possible.
In what might be the single greatest Salon post of all time, a woman named Abby Mims comes forward as The MFA Fiction Classmate Who Hated And Then We Came To The End author Joshua Ferris, whose first novel was nominated for a National Book Award, which must have really driven her crazy! Anyway: She claims to be Ferris’ nemesis from their grad school days. The piece is titled “Joshua Ferris is My Nemisis” (dek: “The classmate I resented in grad school went on to become wildly acclaimed. It’s taken years to get over it”).
Since we’d like to blockquote almost this entire post, but can’t, highlights:
She Won’t Call Him By His “Successful Name.”
We’ll call my nemesis Josh, since that’s his name. He goes by Joshua now — Joshua Ferris — but calling him that makes me uncomfortable, so for these purposes I’m going with Josh.
When This Story Started, She Didn’t Know Life Was Unfair, Maybe Because She Was So Possessed With Talent
We were in the same class at UC Irvine, two of the six they let in. I was 28 at the time, and possessed a shocking naïveté about many things, including: men, professors, academia, workshops, fairness, and life.
And By “Naivete” She Means “Naivete”
I imagined it would be an artist’s utopia of sorts, with lots of cheerleading and gentle suggestions and group hugs. I also believed it would be the place where I met the love of my life.
That’s all before the end of the third full paragraph. Then: She cries after her first workshop because her work is torn down.* She wants to clear up the “falsehood” that attacks on people’s work in MFA workshops are impersonal.** And then, she explains the moment she realized Joshua Ferris was her nemesis: A colleague received a scathing critique from their professor, and Ferris responds.
“Well, she needs the criticism,” Josh said earnestly. “I’d love that kind of a workshop. I’d welcome that kind of feedback.”
This from the golden boy whose stories had been universally praised, lauded even, who’d never had one negative thing said about his writing.
What happened next was that I simply lost my shit. Lost it big time, much to the horror of my fellow colleagues. “What the fuck are you talking about?” I said. “You have no fucking idea what that is like. NO FUCKING IDEA.”
Two points, here:
1. Who knows what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes? Only someone obsessed with assuming such a thing.
2. Criticism—no matter what it’s base ingredient or motivation is—is good for anyone, because even if it is personal, there is still likely some bit of truth worth extrapolating and using to move forward and step on the faces of those who have tried to personally begrudge you for their petty reasons (in this case, the professor, but welcome to the world of Anonymous Internet Comments, too). If anything, it’s the further dismantling of ego, which is never—ever—a bad thing.
Anyway, the story continues:
His attitude was never malicious, it was simply maddeningly superior. Outwardly, he had not a shred of insecurity. It was hard not to hate him for this. And I will say, too, that he was a man obsessed. While the rest of us were screwing around with our crushes and debating whether or not to use our middle initial when published, he was writing. I mean really writing, all the time, sometimes a rumored fourteen hours a day. (I don’t mean to say the rest of us weren’twriting; we were. If any of my fellow Irvine-ites were also writing fourteen hours a day, my apologies. I, most assuredly, was not.)
What a terrible person this Joshua Ferris is! He works really hard and isn’t painfully insecure so as to project negative emotion towards someone else (like the author), who at one point “gets” Ferris and feels vindicated because he writes a bad sentence in a piece written from the perspective of a woman about to have a mastectomy. Hilariously, the criticism is not that he wrote that classically cliche male-penned bad sentence about a woman regarding her breasts; it’s that he didn’t write that sentence! Woe is Joshua Ferris, who naturally doesn’t pay much attention towards this criticism.
You know how this ends: Ferris gets an advance, writes his book, becomes famous, and charms everyone (including Gawker—at that time, untouchable for its then-staff’s scabrous eye towards the more boldfaced names of the New York Literati). She seethes at her former classmate’s success.
And then, one day, comes to the realization that hating someone who is massively successful is useless and a great impediment to her own success (advice most often given in a brilliant cliche you’d think someone would’ve said to her by this point: “Swim in your own lane, sister.“).
All of that said, Abby Mims deserves to be loudly lauded for her work, here. She wrote the most singularly fascinating thing on the internet today, and possibly for the rest of the week. It is a stark, honest, brutal revelation that this anger exists. It’s a thing.
And it’s an impediment towards the success of people who could give themselves a better opportunity than one that involves hating decent writers they once knew before they were famous (also, with whom they share an agent, but that’s an entirely different and far funnier blog post). It’s a sociological and psychological moment that should probably be a reference point for years to come. Especially because, in the end, how self-aware is it? Has anybody truly let go of a “nemesis” who never really regarded them as such when the last paragraph of their tell-all blog post is this?
So I write, even if it’s over here in the almost-dark. At the same time, Josh is out there, really out there, with a second novel that was customarily trashed, working on his third with the kind of pressures and expectations I can’t imagine. I can finally appreciate that difference for what it is, and embrace the beauty in being unknown and for the fact that I am still writing. On my best days, this carries with it a freedom that borders on the infinite.
This is still a conclusion in which one person differentiates themselves from another. At least the entire enterprise is consistent.
Joshua Ferris Is My Nemesis [Salon]
*An emotion yielded from the dismantling of ego, which existed before this story started, but you, the reader, should assume no such subtext.
**Again, an assumption built by the ego of someone who thinks the world is hungry to constructively mold the work of an artist, instead of a craven and competitive place in which self-interest and bottom lines rule all, which—if you’ve ever spent more than an hour inside of a literary agency, you’d learn very, very, very quickly, but that’s a reality many MFA candidates would like to forget exists while honing their craft. Also: She hasn’t seen Wonder Boys?!
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