Academic envy

A scholar reflects and confesses.


There are sexier sins than envy, but it’s the one the serial killer claims for himself at the end of the movie Seven, and that is my solace. Awash in faults as I am, I’d nonetheless thought myself immune.

Upon first encountering Tom Wolfe’s neologism “plutography”—“the graphic depiction of the lives of the rich,” coined to describe slavering over the uses to which others put their (large amounts of) money—I thought it immensely useful. It helped explain Architectural Digest and why people drive around ritzy neighborhoods during Christmas season to critique yard displays. But I’m only interested in décor if I get to sit on it and have a proper drink, and yards bore me.

It’s not that I wasn’t surrounded by it. One of the smarter things I heard in graduate school about the job market was that academia works by envy and to adjust oneself accordingly. Even as the premises grow increasingly unlikely, let us pretend. You have (1) a job interview, (2) another job interview, and (3) an offer from no. 1. Proceed thus: tell no. 2 that you have an offer. This exponentially increases your chance of getting a second job offer. Once someone sees someone else desiring you, you become more desirable. If you have a second offer it is even easier to get a third one. And so on. There is doubtless an envy algorithm.

In his famous concept of mediated desire, the literary critic René Girard (SUNY–Buffalo, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, France) explains this very neatly: the modern novel, and the culture from which it emerges, is built on wanting what other people want. So I knew ahead of time about academic envy.

Knowing is one thing. Feeling is another. 

I wrote a book. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It does matter that its subject matter intersected with that of another book published around the same time. This would have been perfectly fine but for the fact that my attention kept being drawn to the other book, irritatingly, by people I respect. I grudgingly looked at the book’s mentions online and noticed that everyone loved it. By everyone I mean the London Review of Books.

I love the LRB. That’s what pushed me over the edge. I knew that the LRB would never even hear of my book, but the minute they loved this other book, I realized I am not immune. And brudda, does envy suck.

There are several things an actual scholar might do at this point. The first is obvious: avoid the pressing issue and cast it in impersonal terms. “How is envy different from jealousy?” I faced this, as is my wont, squarely, a brave smile playing about my noble etc. Right. I then did the second thing we do, which is to take a theoretical question and avoid that by lapsing into the anecdotal. Thus I confide—and this does not leave this room—that I am extremely glamorous and recently met Elvis Costello. After suppressing the urge to point out to him that he was Elvis Costello, I made sure to impress upon him (Elvis Costello) the fact that meeting him was just another moment in my incredibly exciting life, which is to say no big deal. After Elvis (Costello) tore himself away from me, I told a friend about the encounter. Said friend said she never thought it would be possible to die of envy but suddenly it seemed a possibility. It never occurred to her to be jealous of me, which is why she is not only my friend but a better person than I. Even though she hasn’t met Elvis Costello. But let us return from specifics to general principles. I concluded that envy is the desire for an experience or an object, while jealousy is the desire to be the person who has the experience. Call this the EC Theorem.

Newly enviable, I was adequately fortified to go to an actual bookstore and … not purchase the other book—are you nuts?—but spend three hours reading it. Reading, however, is not quite the word. I was looking. What precisely I was looking for is difficult to describe. I was looking for style or wit—but that’s all I ever do, so it doesn’t really count as occasion specific. (I spent three hours this morning in the syntactical arms of Wolcott Gibbs circa 1932; by the time 10:30 rolled around I was ready for a drink at the Algonquin. And no, I do not mean Alexander Woollcott. Gibbs hated it when the two were confused.)

And there, nested amid my heap of disavowals, parentheses, and upholstered redirections, rests my point. To be confused with someone else is a small death that draws together the two paradoxical imperatives of fashion that the sociologist Georg Simmel identified in 1905: be unique, and be part of a crowd. Fashion is not just clothing but a mode—a way of doing things, a cycle, a trend, and the constitution of the covetable. The reason that academia works by envy is that it, like any form of society, is subject to fashion, despite the failure of most academics to dress well. At the heart of it all is desire; we know what we want—even who we are—by seeing what other people desire. Even people whom we’d rather not be, but who seem to be like us (Woollcott, Wolcott) while we seek to be our gorgeous particular selves. Ergo envy. I exit my coy if well-appointed little closet: I write about fashion.

Back in the bookstore—where a nice clerk offered me a chair circa the second hour into my investigation—I could say I was looking for the exertion of an argumentative grip that reveals some interesting form of an underlying sensibility. But that makes it sound like I was reading. I wasn’t reading.

I believe I was looking for recognition, in two ways. First, I wanted to see what it was that other people saw: I wanted to recognize something in the book as desirable, loveable. I failed, for I was looking for either what my book wasn’t or (more anxiously) whether this book was my book, but better. That’s not commendable; had I been able to see something other than the fact that this was not-me, I might have achieved something ethical. But it was not to be. I dress well, but I never said I was a nice person.

Too, in the simplest and most drizzly way possible, I wanted recognition in the sense that I wanted to be seen (not literally: I’d squirreled myself away, not coincidentally, in the self-help section, where real academics never go). I wanted intensely to be myself, elsewhere, or more particularly, to be not there, as in the bookstore, looking for something I would not and could not find, because what I wanted wasn’t in the store (and it was a good bookstore), or in the book (which actually isn’t that bad), or apparently in the book I happened to write (alas).

Eventually I catwalked myself out of there and went to have a drink with a select group of people at a small and glamorous place I’d prefer you not know about. I just want you to be aware we had a damn good time, you weren’t there, and that your name never even came up.


Jessica Burstein is an associate professor of English at the University of Washington.

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