The more successful I’ve become, the more unworthy of success I feel

Success is supposed to be a good thing—so why do I still feel so bad about it?
Success is supposed to be a good thing—so why do I still feel so bad about it?
Image: Fanqiao Wang
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About 15 years ago, my brother was in the hospital with double pneumonia. He was on oxygen. Even with this, though, he had difficulty breathing. Sometimes his fingernails turned blue.

I had a hard time looking at Anup and so I sat with my back to him. As I did, I read War and Peace. In the hospital room, the book made me even happier than the way a great book usually does. I admired the characters and the humor and the style, but what impressed me most as I sat there, with my back to my brother, was the awareness that a human being had written War and Peace and that Tolstoy must have cared very much about it as he was writing. The awareness of another person’s caring was a large part of the experience of reading the book. It was as if the sentences were illuminated by a light. As I sat there in the hospital room, this love allowed me to feel that the world outside was greater than my situation, that while my family was experiencing difficulties, the outside world remained wonderful.

During the week and a half that my brother was sick, I carried War and Peace with me everywhere in my coat pocket. The book was so thick that it ripped the pocket. I liked the rip. When the book was not in it, the rip reminded me of the book and of the life that the book contained. It reminded me of my love for my brother, and how I would do anything for him. Somehow the rip made me feel connected to all the things that I valued most.

Not long after the pneumonia, I began writing a novel about my brother who, when he was fourteen, suffered incapacitating brain damage, and about my parents who had taken care of him since then. The book took 12 and a half years to write, during which I earned almost no money. My wife supported us, earning enough for us to live a middle class life in Manhattan. It should be noted that my own relationship with money is very strange. The floor beneath the desk where I write gets very cold in the winter. My wife suggested that I should get a carpet—I didn’t want to. I felt uncomfortable spending any money on myself because I was not earning much. What I did was spread newspapers over the floor and put my feet on those.

During the years that I was writing the book, I kept the coat whose pocket War and Peace had ripped. Whenever I put on my yellow overcoat and touched the rip or saw the rip in a mirror, I had the sense that even when an individual is under terrific stress, the world continues to be full of delight. This insight and the rip, which was a physical manifestation of that insight, helped sustain me during a long, often hopeless-feeling writing process.

My book came out last year and has been a tremendous success. My novel was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. In the United Kingdom it has been reviewed widely and championed with a passion that often felt personal, like the critic had formed a genuine connection to the book. More than these reviews, though, what makes the book seem to be a success is that it is being read. It has begun to be taught in high schools and colleges and medical schools. I meet random people who have read it.

But success makes me feel guilty. One thing I had envied about other writers while I was writing my book was that they got invited to literary festivals, that they got invited to give paid talks. I am now having these opportunities and they are even better than I had expected. I flew business class to Bali for a literary festival. On the way over, I mostly didn’t eat and the Cathay Pacific stewardess began coming to me and asking if there was something the chef could prepare. On the way back, another stewardess came over and told me that she had heard I had not eaten anything on my previous flight and that she hoped I was not ill, and the chef could prepare plain rice if I had an upset stomach. To receive such luxurious care made me feel embarrassed.

The part of success that I have appreciated is the opportunity to meet writers I admire. It has been eerie to sit across the table from someone who has won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and have breakfast, and discuss how to get the espresso machine working. The best thing about meeting these writers has nothing to do with fame—it is such a privilege to hear how much genuine attention and affection they bring to non-famous writers. Being at these literary festivals, I have the sense that everybody distrusts fame, everybody sees it as a bit of a lottery, and nobody wants to be a jerk towards those who have not been smiled upon.

In the last year or so, I flown so much for my book that I have developed sciatica. A pain runs down the back of my left leg and causes the middle toe to periodically spasm. To me the sciatica feels like a symbol of success, the equivalent of gout in an earlier time. When I get up in the morning and gingerly put my foot down on the floor, I feel like I am stepping into a fortunate existence.

This success perhaps culminated recently when I won an important literary prize. The Folio Prize is for the best book published in the United Kingdom in the last year without regard to demographic concerns like race, gender, nationality or subject matter. The prize comes with a great deal of money and generates so much publicity that my novel has begun to be sold in British grocery stores.

I did not know I was going to win the prize. All eight of us on the shortlist were asked to come to London for a party. Because I assumed the odds were low I did not want to go, but my publisher demanded that I come. I was flown business class on British Airways. The stewardesses walking back and forth holding up bottles of champagne looked so glamorous that it was hard to believe that people live such a life. At the airport, the business class passengers were ushered into an expedited immigration line. And in London proper, I was put up at The Savoy. I assume that The Savoy Googles all of its guests, but nonetheless the pastry chef left a cake in my room congratulating me for being nominated for the Folio Prize.

The party where the award was going to be announced was in a beautiful high-ceilinged hall. There were 500 or so guests and there were swarms of waiters with trays covered with flutes of champagne. I had been offered the opportunity to invite friends to the ceremony, but I had thought why would I choose to not get the prize in front of the people who matter most to me?

The chair of the committee stood on a stage and made a small speech about all that a good book can provide. I was so nervous I could barely hear him. The award goes to Family Life, he said.

At first I was not certain that I had heard correctly. Then a photo of me flashed onto a large screen. I began making my way through the crowd. I climbed onto the stage and made my way to the podium. All of the nominees on the shortlist had been asked to prepare a three minute speech. I had not because I did not want to feel even worse if I did not win. I thanked my editors and my wife. I said, “The fact that I got this prize doesn’t mean that I wrote the best book. It just means that I got this prize,” and then I was taken off the stage. I was led to a conference room where I did a radio interview, then to another room where I gave a press conference, and then to still another room for one more interview.

I had begun to feel guilty when I spoke at the podium. The more I talked, the more shame I felt. Because my brother’s brain damage has prevented him from living a full life, whenever something good happens to me, I feel shame. It’s as if I have received too much luck.

All that evening I felt shame. When I got back to the Savoy, my wife was waiting for me. She suggested that I take some of the money I was going to receive and buy something for myself, perhaps a new coat since my old one is getting so ratty. I was about to say no and then I realized that while I can feel gratitude in difficult situations, like sitting in my brother’s hospital room or with my sciatica, I have a hard time feeling gratitude for things that are actually purely good. Actual happiness confuses me.

I didn’t buy a new coat in London, but I intend to go shopping soon. I’ll keep my old coat in the closet, though. It has been so good to me.