Toxic Writing Friendships

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Like most writers I rely on a group of friends and family to give me much needed support as part of my writing process. I have those who are happy to provide input early on in the drafting process, those who are great proof readers, and those who are just ‘cheerleaders’ from the sidelines. Last year, however, I discovered the dreaded ‘toxic’ writing friendship – and though it’s a sensitive issue to explore, I felt the need to investigate this insidious issue. (It could also be that the NyQuil I now need to function courtesy of my infectious disease incubator sons is kicking in and making me want to vent!)

When I wrote my first book, Consequences of Sin, I did so under a veil of semi-secrecy, because not many people outside my writing group even knew I wanted to be a writer, let alone that I was writing a novel. I had a few friends who were the ‘writers’ amongst our social group – unpublished and with plenty of horror stories behind them – and I felt a little uncomfortable when I got my offer from Penguin, simply because I had never been regarded as one of the ‘them’. They also considered themselves to be ‘literary writers’ so I thought hmmm…what am I going to say when the project I affectionately called ‘my bodice ripper’ had actually managed to get published?!
At first it all went smoothly (well, cool but smooth). I tried to be low key about it all – not wishing to offend ‘the writers’ and I found myself putting up with stuff that was just unbelievable. One such ‘writer’ actually distinguished us because she said (with a sniff ) that I was writing ‘commercial fiction’ not ‘literary fiction’ which somehow meant my publication didn’t rate quite as highly (and justified her failure to be published as well).

I suddenly realized I had a noxious writing friendship on my hands. So what was I to do now?? At first I was worried that I’d pissed off every friend I’d ever had by inviting them to book signings or sending quick updates on my latest book news. Then, after others reassured me that wasn’t the case, I started to wonder – was my experience typical? Was getting published a sure fire way to alienate my other non-published writing friends? Were there really ‘literary writers’ whose tortured souls somehow trumped mine?
I started to question the value of my writing – you know the kind of thing – ‘Oh, I guess, yeah, I only write mysteries…’ but thankfully, I soon had a WTF revelation and pulled myself out of it.

So what about you – have you had the dreaded writing friendship turn toxic? How did you handle it?

NB: Needless to say I have mentioned no names and hey, my ‘toxic’ literary buddies would never stoop to read my blog!

12 thoughts on “Toxic Writing Friendships

  1. I’ve had a similar experience, Clare where a few have looked down their noses at my “commercial fiction”. It’s interesting to note that my books got published, theirs didn’t. I define literary fiction as award-winning books no one reads. ๐Ÿ™‚

    As I said in my post last week, if we aren’t writing what we love, then we need to go do something else.

  2. Oh Clare, I’m SO glad you asked this question (evil grin).

    We all get this. There’s always going to be someone who hasn’t gotten published who 1) resents someone else who does get published and 2) puts that person down for being a genre or commercial or what-have-you type writer.
    And if you were a la-de-da “literary” writer, you can be sure that your Toxic Tammy would still have resented you and put you down.
    So yes, WTF was the right response. Hang out with the positive people, both unpublished and published. We’re lots more fun.

  3. p.s. My personal experience with this was that I was in a writing group with a “literary” writer who’d been trying to get published for a decade. When I got the series, she seemed to get very anxious and started making remarks about how it was so much more difficult to break into literary publishing. Soon she broke up the group. I later heard that she reformed it–without me. As you said, WTF!

  4. I know Joe – my agent said the same thing! Kathryn – I can well imagine your scenario – my toxic friend would do just the same kind of thing and she also told me how much harder it was (obviously!) to get ‘literary fiction’ published…which justified why in her mind she hadn’t been published yet. I’m glad though that I realized she had turned toxic otherwise I may have listened to her crap!

  5. I think we’ve all been in this situation at one time or another. During my rookie year in this buiness–the year when I knew very little about the business AS a business–I asked my editor what the difference was between literary and commercial fiction, and his answer was, “About 50,000 copies.”

    Just recently, I was snubbed by a day-job coworker who fancies himself a literary purist and holds in contempt not only authors who write books like mine, but also people who read books like mine. Not surprisingly, he’s been working on his novel for about ten years now, and can’t quite seem to get it done.

    But let’s be honest here. The snubbery cuts both ways. Just in this thread alone, we’ve seen, “It’s interesting to note that my books got published, theirs didn’t,” and “la-de-da “literary” writer,” and the bulk of my first two paragraphs. Like minded audiences feed each other’s prejudices, when deep down inside, we know that the generalities in play are flawed, at best.

    With this in mind, I will be moderating a panel on February 28 enitled, “Literary Snobs and Commercial Sellouts” as part of a fiction writing seminar jointly sponsored by American Independent Writers and George Mason University. The panel will consist of two literary authors and two genre authors, and together we will explore all of the dominant prejudices. The audience will act as a fifth panelist. I’m really anxious to see how it turns out.

  6. To avoid this problem I don’t hang out with writing snobs…literary or otherwise.

    Construction workers and IT nerds, a doctor and a couple of business men make my circle of friends. That way they just make fun of me in general for being a writer and will be perfectly happy if I buy them an expensive bottle of foreign beer when I get published.

  7. What, John? Me prejudiced? Well la de da. (grin). You’re right of course! But that won’t stop me from sharing another another story. When someone accuses me of being a commercial writer, I look at them blankly and say, “But wait a minute. Aren’t ALL books supposed to sell?”

  8. John-
    That panel sounds great, you should post a podcast of it!

    Clare, one of my longest friend ships fell apart when I got published. It took a long time to figure out why- we’d been friends for twenty years, since high school, and suddenly she stopped returning my calls, created reasons not to see me. And after one snide comment she made during a conversation, it occurred to me that she was comfortable with me when I suffered through a series of ad hoc careers (dog walker, bartender, personal trainer) but now that I actually had gotten something published, she was jealous. Which made me sad, but I decided that until she felt she could be supportive, we’d take a few years off. I’m still hoping we’ll reconnect at some point.

  9. Michelle – good to know I’m not alone in this and John your panel sounds great. Perhaps you could sell Tshirts. I could wear the ‘commercial sellout’ one in Berkeley and see what reaction I get:)

  10. I’ve been fortunate never to have had to endure such a relationship, probably because I’ve yet to enjoy enough success for anyone to consider going all toxic on me. I’d be willing to give it a shot, you know, strictly for research purposes.

  11. I write commercial fiction. Never been part of a writers group, never took a lesson, never had a toxic partner, so I can only guess. I just keep my head down and write my stories. I always found that in the early days when I shared what I was writing with other people it took the energy out of the work for me. I don’t let many people see a work in progress, and never anyone who isn’t competent at telling me what is actually sadly lacking or what needs pumping up where. I have an author friend I trust, an agent who is spot on, and there’s the editor. Oh, and my wife, even though she does her best to see the best parts before she looks for weaknesses.

  12. I think I’ve just learned to appreciate my friends even more! While I had a major panic attack when Night Kill first came out (OMG everyone will hate it and they’ll never respect me again!), I seemed to be the only one who wasn’t totally delighted with my mystery. No, the situations I’ve learned to be wary of are those early readers. (Right on, John R.M.) Fortunately, I have a terrific writers group. They were supportive all through the process and still are. And when they get their novels published, it will be my turn to whoop it up for them. May I be spared these toxic writer friends forever!

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