Thursday, September 20, 2007

Betes Noires

It’s a dirty little secret shared by almost every author I know. Even authors regularly hitting the NYT have one. They’re given different names—betes noires, doppelgangers, nemeses. What they are is the particular fellow writer who becomes the burr beneath our skin or the red flag waved in front of our inner bull. They are the lightening rod for all the injustices and neglect we suffer (or think we suffer) as authors. They are, to put it more bluntly, the focus of our all our petty jealousies.

To be most effective, an author’s bete noire needs to have first been published at the same time as our author. But while they might have started off at the same point, our author soon sees her bete noire pull ahead. She gets a bigger print run, a dream advertising campaign. Or maybe her books ride to popularity on a plethora of tasteless hot sex or blatant appeals to the resurgence of American militarism. For whatever reason, the bete noire soon outsells our author (in the case of a NYT-selling author, that can mean just hitting higher or staying longer on the list). And—here’s the clincher—the bete noire’s books are BAD. After all, if her success were deserved, then our author would applaud it. Instead, our author is left chagrined, confused, and outraged. Why are her awful books selling while my books—which are oh-so-much better—are not?

This may be just a female thing; I don’t know. But the tendency is so pervasive I suspect it must serve some purpose. I know I had a bete noire when I was writing romances. Since I’ve left the genre, her success (ill-deserved, of course!) has lost its power to sting (her career is also on a long, steady decline, but I’m not going to crow about that). Do I have a new bete noire? Yes. Am I going to tell you who it is?



Lisa said...

Betes Noire -- I love that! And I am a sucker for author's secrets. Now I'll be speculating for weeks about which best selling author gets under another's skin. The idea that this would be more pervasive with women authors is tempting -- but, I don't know. Men tend to have pretty big egos. It wouldn't surprise me to believe there are just as many of them complaining to their wives and dogs about their own personal secret nemeses. ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

I do complain about authors who make it big despite the fact that they are famous in other circles besides writing. And I do sometimes feel a twinge of jealousy when a book is lauded that I think is not as good as my stuff. I don't know if I have a particular individual in mind though. It's more general.

Steve Malley said...

A diehard Simpsons fan, I always use the term Baby With One Eyebrow. ("Even Maggie has that baby with the one eyebrow..." - Lisa Simpson)

At the moment I don't have a Baby With One Eyebrow, though I'm sure one must be in the offing.

Meantime, I'm off to spice my manuscript up with hot sex and blatant appeals to American militarism. Maybe *I'll* get to be the BWOE!

Chap O'Keefe said...

I'm sure you wouldn't really want to be anyone's BWOE, Steve. Or their bête noire.

And Lisa . . . men do have them. Worse, they take action against them!

Emily said...

Definitely not a female thing. Most of the histories of literary envy (I've read some) are of male authors wishing dastardly things, or making them happen, to their male rivals.

In the mid-late 19th century, it was commonplace for male newspaper editors to punch or shoot their rivals.

It's a scarcity thing. The pool truly isn't big enough for all of us to swim in it and get paid enough.

One reason that I became a biographer was so that I wouldn't have anyone to envy or snarl about (even just to myself). But I'm still very annoyed when bad writers, of any genre, get enormous advances and publicity. The world is not always fair.

Emily Toth

Payton L. Inkletter said...

That inferior writer who is over-rewarded at our expense… t’is character building for us. It doesn’t put Weeties on the table, but the few seconds left in the pantry taste better, or so the theory goes.