Jonathan Lethem:

Many readers also come to literature with a longing to get beyond the pettiness of the world. There’s a dream that you can finally escape small-p politics, competition, envy — all the things that are evoked by the label “high school.”

You would think that the more I rose into this status called “major,” the more privileges I appeared to enjoy, the more free I would feel, the more I would have left “high school” behind. I would have graduated. In fact, in many ways it was the opposite.

When I was a marginal, dark horse operator, I felt very out of “high school.” I could talk about all the different things I was excited about, talk about out-of-print writers and my love of vernacular cultural things — pop music, science fiction, Hollywood film. I could do high/low at once and no one was patrolling that. That, to me, felt like graduation.

But after taking on more importance in my publisher’s view and some critical frameworks, I felt handed a script that was a lot more like “high school.” There were things it wasn’t cool to say. There were people you weren’t supposed to mention anymore. When I got to be one of the cool kids, all I was supposed to do was answer questions about the cool kids and act like there were no other kids around.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of making a living through music. Even then, I was aware that actually admitting to a desire to be a rock star was verboten if you wanted respect, but that was essentially what I wanted. Not so much the fame, but the money and the ego nourishment of having a huge audience enjoying my artistic creations? Hell yeah.

It didn’t take long before I realized that I was visualizing a fantasy life; essentially, a complete revamping of my personality that would somehow magically occur once I reached a certain level of success. I began to realize more and more that I would still be the same person dealing with the same petty hassles of daily life, and it was obvious that many of the people who had achieved that kind of success were still unhappy. And I finally admitted that my personality simply wasn’t the kind that would thrive under the bright lights of stardom in any event.

I still like to write and record music. I still like the idea of other people being as moved by it as I am by the music of my favorite artists. And if I somehow stumbled across the opportunity to make a mint from a one-hit wonder, I’d go ahead and grab it before disappearing back into my cave. But I’m free to enjoy myself recording on my computer at my pace, my leisure, with no outside pressure of any kind. That’s really the kind of contentment I originally thought I’d find through success. And it’s the same reason I enjoy the kind of writing I do. Honestly, I don’t think an awful lot of my writing ability. I’m sure it’ll never be anything other than a moot point, but even if I had the chance to make regular money from my writing, I wouldn’t do it. I already know when things are good enough.