Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 25, 2016

Life isn’t Fair—A Classic Problem

Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in 1877, in the memorable and beloved opening to Anna Karenina. But lately I’ve been wondering if perhaps the opposite isn’t true—that people are happy for all sorts of reasons, but unhappy for only one: that life isn’t fair.

Either way, I love such pronouncements. They make me think. I am drawn to discussing the latter here because if there is an industry one might choose that perfectly exemplifies unfairness, it is the one in which every reader of this post is engaged. And when you think about it, the publishing frustrations that make us feel whiny boil down to a variation on one sentence.

It is not fair that this other author got _______ (an agent on her third query, a sale without a synopsis, a hard-cover edition, a three-book deal, on the New York Times list, a six-figure advance, any sort of promotional budget or creative marketing, so much mainstream media coverage, such rabid fans, so many Amazon reviews, such distinctive awards, so many foreign rights sales, a movie deal, a five-city or five-continent book tour, or genes that keep her slim despite the fact that she puts in just as many hours behind the computer as you do and posts just as many Facebook photos of wine and chocolate) and I didn’t.

Tell me you’ve never uttered a single one of these things, at least in private.

(Mm-hmm. I haven’t either.)


Publishing has always been a highly selective industry.

Not everyone will find representation.

Not everyone will get published.

Not everyone who gets published once will publish again.

Not every book can get every kind of promotion or recognition.

Some foreign publishers won’t care what you write, just as many of the American ones didn’t.


It is not possible for every career to look the same.

In times of great disappointment, this conclusion will still make sense to the left side of your brain, even as the more affective side dissolves into a hot mess.

Imagine this next sentence in a dreamy voice:

“Imagine a publishing world in which we all feel we have been dealt with fairly…”

Oops. There are problems with that.

  • If everyone got published, “discoverability” would be just as laughable a notion as “sales.”
  • We storytellers would be out of a job.

If no one were ever thrust into awkward, humiliating, or painful situations—if none of us were ever beaten down by life’s unfairness—even we would have no need for stories in which our beleaguered hero would rise again and prevail. For stories that expose pockets of hidden richness. Stories with twists that show there isn’t only one highway to a happy ending. Because despite the way Tolstoy set up his story, characters, like determined real-life people, can find happiness in all sorts of ways.

The injustices we suffer make us want to set things right. Overcoming obstacles is the only way we can know, to paraphrase the opening of another classic—Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield—“whether we shall turn out to be the heroes of our own lives.” We feel most successful when an unfair system leaves us the momentary victor.

To develop the even keel that will drive us ever forward, writers are left with the complex task of accepting all of the following:

  • life isn’t fair.
  • our own industry will never be fair.
  • given the chance, we’ll capitalize on that unfairness to our own advantage.
  • competition fuels both our desire and the health of the industry. 

I know it hurts when others get recognition that you desire. (Not “deserve,” mind you—in the absence of a meritocracy, that word helps no one’s spirit.) The next time you want to melt into a weepy mush, go ahead and mutter the words—Life isn’t fair—because it’s absolutely true.

But then dry your tears and add: Thank goodness.

Let’s get real. Have you mastered the art of being truly happy for the accomplishments of fellow authors? How have you used your disappointments to drive you forward?

About Kathryn

10685420_966056250089360_8232949837407332697_nArt of FallingKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Twitter: @kcraftwriter
FB: KathrynCraftAuthor

39 comments on “Life isn’t Fair—A Classic Problem”

  1. As a child I never received any traction with the "Isn't not fair" argument, so I tend not to consider those words. But in your quotes from the classics, I "get" how important that concept is for us. Right now, I'm thinking about my characters having a discourse on just that fact. Of course, it won't be a civil, logical discourse...

  2. I'm thankful I never got the, 'life's not fair' gene. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that none of those many examples you gave don't apply to me - I think them as much as the next person. The only part missing is the, 'it's not fair'.

    Just because fairness isn't relevant to me, doesn't mean all the rest hurts less.

    Thanks for another great lesson, Kathryn.

    1. Interesting that you can cast the words from your life--they're "immature," after all--and yet their ghostly imprint can still be felt on our hearts. Honoring our emotions and managing their impact is a lifelong balancing act.

  3. When I tried, the "it's not fair" as a child, my father's response was always "Life isn't fair," so I got over that whine fairly early on. Publishing is an industry where we need to celebrate everyone's successes.

    1. I love this philosophy of abundance, Terry—that celebrating the success of others in no way diminishes you or your own chances in the field.

  4. Yes, I have been truly happy for fellow authors, even for one who played rotten! No, I haven’t mastered this art. Sometimes self-pity thoughts come to mind a dozen times a day. But I am slowly learning to look at how far God has brought me and praise Him instead of whinnying. I am learning if I "quickly" revisit my past successes, as small as they are, it keeps me from wasting time in a “weepy mush,” making others’ successes even greater. Thanks for sharing Kathryn. Perfect timing.

    1. I love this notion of revisiting your successes, Dianne, which reminds me that back when I had my resume service I urged clients to update their resumes every year—even if in a relatively stable work environment—for this very purpose.

  5. Like others on here have commented on here, saying 'it's not fair' when I was a child would not have gotten me anywhere with my parents. So, I don't think I have ever used that phrase or even thought that in connection with myself. That phrase does come to mind when I read about a parent that has died too young or child has died of terminal cancer. That is truly not fair...and always puts things in perspective for me. As for my writing, I will slog on and hope that some 'luck' will fall my way if I put in the work. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    1. Beverly, closely tied to the examples you give is the notion of what we "deserve," a word that has always rubbed me the wrong way. It seems unfair for a child to die young because they did nothing to "deserve" this, nor did the family who mourns. Seems the only thing we can count on is that if we are born to life we will have some sort of journey, although we cannot dictate how long it is (even suicides have been known to fail) or what successes visit us. Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

  6. Having been a dancer before a working author, I was trained not to expect fair. I think that's served me (and you) well in this profession. Helps us to keep the eye on the prize, which is the work, not the applause. However, it doesn't keep that green eyed monster from sticking her head out of the box on occasion. Fortunately my little monster has a short attention span.

    And in my defense, I don't even post pictures of wine and chocolate.

    1. Haha thanks for stopping by, Shelley! Yes, the work not the applause—although what dancer doesn't want to bow? The grand reverence was one of my favorite ballet steps. 😉

      But you're right: we live the life of a writer day after day after day not for one short moment in the spotlight, but because this is the life we want to live. In BIG MAGIC Elizabeth Gilbert says that every life comes with its own kind of "sh*t sandwich"—and learning to keep our equilibrium while others succeed where we cannot is one of the sh*t sandwiches we've chosen to eat.

  7. I sent out ten queries on Saturday and have already received two rejections, including one very encouraging one. This post couldn't have come at a better time. Rejections make it easy to feel sorry for yourself and to lose perspective. I appreciate your assessment of the industry, and I appreciate other readers' comments.

  8. Kathryn, this is a great reminder to "just get over yourself," as my daughter would say. Nobody asked us to be writers. We're lucky to have a passion, and to follow that passion, no matter what the outside world has to say about what we're doing (never mind what the outside world will pay for our products.) Thank you for that reminder.I'm actually glad that it took me over two decades to publish my first novel, because by then I'd realized that book sales aren't going to make or break my life or be my source of happiness. I love writing, and I love my life--writing is just part of who I am and what I do. Still, occasionally I still fall prey to these bouts of envy, like when the author of that new novel, The Nest, was paid over a million dollars for her debut book--I wanted to hate that book, but then I read it and realized, "Wow, this is a great story. She must have worked hard on it. Hat's off to her!"

    Bottom line: Write because you love writing, and know there is always room in the world for another great story. The more we help each other, the more great stories make it into the world for all of us to read.

    1. Holly I love, Love, LOVE your bottom line! As for The Nest, I recently spoke with someone who purchased the hardcover and quit reading after 150 pages because she had no use for the characters or the writing—so it's all subjective, all the time, and in every aspect of our careers. I think her advance was quite a gamble in a still-limping industry, but there goes my wobbly equity meter again—if I were the recipient, I wouldn't refuse. 😉

      1. Well, I'm pretty sure the advance on The Nest was largely because the author's husband is a comedy writer for late night TV, and Amy Poehler and other stars were in this writer's workshop group--helps to have connections! And I know a lot of people have objected to the book because of the "entitled" characters (who are fighting over the fact that they're "only" getting $50K each as inheritance after their mother gives a lump sum to the oldest brother to pay off an accident claim). She wouldn't have gotten this advance without her connections and that oh-so-beloved Brooklyn setting, but I still loved it for the sharp social satire, and it's surprisingly sweet.

  9. I never begrudge my fellow authors their success. I'm not in competition with them. Any jealousy I feel comes more from thinking, Gee, I wish I had that 3-book, 6-figure deal so I wouldn't have to eat PB&J for the next 7 days. I don't use the word "fair" when it comes to certain authors' successes, but I do use the word "luck." I think luck has a small part in success. Hard work, sure, timing, yeah...but there's that little bit of luck at play there, too. And some people are indeed, more lucky than others.

    1. True, Tiffany. I'd break that down even further in that there is random luck—the smaller part—and the luck that people lay the groundwork for through preparedness, which is the greater part. But still it is rare that any one author or book has good luck in all things. When we feel envious we are usually fixating on a perception.

  10. Thanks for the good medicine, Kathryn! Yes, disappointment is a built-in part of our writing life. We need to be reminded to step back, see the big picture, and appreciate what we can.

  11. A great post. I wonder where this notion of fairness comes from? A childhood where everyone gets a turn and children are given ribbons for just turning up at a sports carnival? As a budding writer (and a human being in general), I've realised that someone else's failure or success in no way improves or diminishes my own.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    1. And yet we strive for fairness as a society, and I'm glad for it—equal pay for women, equal marriage rights, equal education and employment opportunity for all races and religions. When the fight is worthy and yet the outcome is sure to disappoint at one time or many—that's when having an outlook that can say "someone else’s failure or success in no way improves or diminishes my own" comes in handy. Thanks, Anna!

  12. Kathryn, You've spoken the truth. I'll let you know if it hit my target...after I whine a bit. 😉

    1. Whining: how we know we're human. Horses don't stand around wishing for grass that's outside their means to get, they just eat what's at hand. Thank goodness we aspire to more.

  13. I remember hearing this as a child. I think we need to teach our current generation this motto. I have a great niece who said something when a game show was over one day. But that isn't fair. I was like what are you talking about? It's a contest in a way to see who can do whatever. Her mother made the excuse it wasn't her fault she'd never seen the show before. I tried to explain to her if life was fair we'd all have everything we wanted. I don't see how giving everyone a trophy for participating creates a sense of understanding this. I am always happy for others when they win even if I am a little jealous inside. I shrug and go on, figuring my turn will happen someday.

    1. These comments show you are not the only one with disdain for the participation trophy, C.K., and I suppose if they were meaningful my adult sons wouldn't have told me to throw theirs away when they left home. Imagine, landfills full of trophies! I'm no fan myself. I was never into team sports but in my life as an author I have found that I do have a competitive side for sure, and it helps drive me toward my goals.

  14. Many years ago I heard writer's Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her husband Dean Wesley Smith speak at a writer's conference and they were talking about the concept of "fairness" in the publishing world. Dean said, "There is no fairness in publishing. You have to go out and make your career happen. You have to work incredibly hard, learn your craft, send out your work, write the next project, and then hope for the best. Nothing is fair because 'Fair' is in August." I've always remembered that. "Fair is in August." Period. There is no other "fair". 🙂

  15. I liked Hollyl's 'Bottom Line" too!
    Though, as a novice and an MFA student, i feel the competition bug fiercly, pretty much every class, especially as we workshop our stories.
    At this stage, we're all fighting for our professors approval and trying to get our first stories published, and some of us are having more luck than others. And yeah, I've had my share of the "green eyed monster" because of it! We're also all competitng for a limited # of TA jobs on campus, and so yeah....
    Even at this point, I'm feelin ya'll!

    Just trying to rise above...some days, easier to do than others!

    1. Lisa I can only imagine that the classroom really rap things up. Then once you're out it's the rush to publish. I have a friend going through this pain!

  16. I've only just found this link from another article titled: 'Five comparisons not to make for your book', where we've recently been discussing a variation on this. It's all very well to cite the truism: 'Life's not fair', as if that's meant to mollify the many (most) of us for whom that's true. Yet when it comes to an industry as big, profitable, long-established and deeply scrutinized by all concerned as publishing, it's more than a little disappointing to discover that it is quite *so* unfair to the majority who might like to become a part of it, and in doing so, maybe even improve the quality of its output.

    Using the example of the other thread, we were instructed *not* to try to emulate the literary devices/writing styles of established, best-selling authors. That was in particular reference to the modern (and it *is* only modern, as in, only existing for the last couple of decades or less) 'writing rule': 'Don't include prologues/dream-sequences in your work'. But the discussion eventually broadened to discuss many of the other modern 'writing rules' such as: "Don't use adjectives/adverbs/semi-colons/dialogue-tags other than 'said', etc."

    The point of the discussion being (or at least, that was the ultimate conclusion) that aspiring/debut authors are *not* being judged fairly by the agents/editors in publishing because these modern 'writing rules' are evidently not being *applied* equally between established and aspiring authors. For example, do a survey of modern best/medium-selling novels and you'll find that the (vast) majority do not stick rigidly to the 'Don't use dialogue-tags other than said' rule, despite it apparently being enforced on the rest of us.
    Which rule is not only unfairly applied, but (as discussed on the other thread) is also un-evidenced as to its literary validity, arbitrary, has only existed since very recently and (clearly) does not agree with how most modern successful authors write. Following on from the last point, this rule thus also becomes illogical, counter-productive and economically non-sensical if the most successfully modern authors, themselves, ignore it. Not only that, but this particular 'rule' contradicts several of the other 'writing-rules', making its application to new authors even more bizarre.

    In short, we all know how much competition there is to get published these days, and none of us minds losing out on an agentive/publishing deal to a better writer. But what is quite unforgivably unfair (and economically non-sensical) is for new authors to be told that they're not supposed to try to emulate precisely the writing-styles used by the most successful authors in the world today, when the evidence would suggest that such writing-styles are precisely what the reading public want! And frankly, it's impossible for me to escape the conclusion that such 'writing-rules' are imposed on aspiring authors for the express purpose of 'sabotaging' our chances of getting published. And considering how there are only enough publishing slots for 1% or less of all book submissions these days, I wouldn't put it past the industry using these 'rules' as a crude way to simply 'thin-out' the number of submissions they seriously have to consider. And I know that sounds cynical, but then so does the modern publishing industry...

    1. Thanks for your comment Steve. Make what you will of "writing rules"--award-winning YA novelist A.S. King has used a prologue in every one of her published books because someone once told her she shouldn't. You'd do better to think of such "rules" as guidelines meant to expose deeper truths about communicating through fiction, and focus on your storytelling instead. The focus of this series of posts is how to overcome the anger, frustration, and cynicism that can hold you back while pursuing your dreams. Feel free to leave a link to the other thread though, for those interested!

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