Peers or popular?

A fellow writer once asked me, what would you prefer? To be acclaimed by your peers or by the reading public? By peers, he meant fellow writers, editors, reviewers, people somehow involved in the industry or the critiquing of it.

He caught me off balance because I actually hadn’t thought much about it. I can’t remember what I replied; doubtless it was something glib about wanting it all. Rich, famous AND loved – hey, why not?

But I have given a lot of thought to it since. And I am still not sure. At one time I think I would have replied, ‘Oh, my peers.’ There is a wonderful feeling about being nominated for an Aurealis. Even though your common sense tells you it’s only the decision of three judges, and people who have judged these things often say the actual winner is a compromise because no one could agree on the “best”. But hey, these are people who KNOW books, my kind of books. Who read widely, can recognise a plot hole or a cliche when they see one. They know enough to recognise the something special. And they like MY work. That’s a pretty good feeling.

But that reply contains a certain amount of arrogance too.

What is a writer if he or she is not read?
I was a secret writer for many years.
And no matter how much you enjoy the creative process, there is something missing if no one ever reads it. There is an incompleteness to that process. That’s not to say it is wasted, or not worth it. Just that it’s not quite…complete.
A writer needs an audience to go from being a shade self-indulgent to being an artist sharing a creation.

But that begs the question. How big does the audience have to be before the process is ‘complete’? Is your mother and Great-uncle Bruce sufficient? Your ‘peers’? Or does it have to be the average book reader who pops into the bookstore because Aunt Amy recommended your book as a great read?

I dunno. I guess I still want it all.

And there another tricky question here too. Just how much do you sacrifice to be a bestseller? Nothing – (if they like it, great, if they don’t, that’s their loss?)
Everything – (they liked my first vampire book so I am going to churn them out ad infinitum, all with variations of the same plot, and laugh all the way to the bank…)

[Of course, it’s not so easy to decide what you have to do to be popular anyway. Think about a runaway bestseller by any relatively unknown author. If you had read it before its popularity, would you have predicted it?]

But writers all make choices of some sort, and it would be a pretty strange author who doesn’t, on some visceral level, want to please the unknown reader, the person who just picks up a book in the local store. In fact, many of us agonise over it. Should we kill of the hero? Won’t the fans be upset? I have made a decision not to write in the first person, even though I know I do it well, because so many people have told me they won’t read books written in the first person.

The only thing I do know is that I have to please myself first. There is no way I could write to please only other people, even if I knew the secret formula to being a runaway success.


Peers or popular? — 11 Comments

  1. Omg Glenda my hubby and I were just discussing this (read: loudly) five seconds ago.

    I’ve been agonising for a long time if I should write something I could be respected by my peers for, or put something out there that would make us rich (yea I know, such presumptions. the cheek when I’ve not even written a thing!). My husband, of course, just wants me to get on with it and put something – ANYTHING – out there. I, on the other hand, am nervous since I used to be a magazine writer, and feel the need to be accepted by my peers first.

    Sigh. Do u think if I wrote trashy stuff and got paid nicely for it, that I’d be able to redeem myself with something meaningful and original later?

    IF i get published, that is. BIG if.

  2. It’s nice to get a review or to be invited onto a panel at a convention, and it’s nice to appear in a bestseller list, but my personal success gauge is whether my publisher (or any publisher!) wants another book out of me.
    Let’s face it, it can take a long time – and any number of books – for an author to build a loyal audience. If the publisher is prepared to back you then they’re obviously happy enough – and that’s the only thing keeping us in print 😉

  3. I think ultimately you should write to satisfy yourself.

    If peer recognition floats your boat, and you don’t get harmfully obsessed by it, then aim for that.

    If popularity floats your boat, and you don’t get harmfully obsessed by it, then aim for that.

    Personally, I ultimately aim to enjoy the process – that good old dream of loving your job – while making enough money to continue doing what I enjoy. I couldn’t see the point in continuing writing for peer recognition or popularity if I hated every moment of it.

  4. Think a part of it is about communication (Art, writing, communication darling, heh). As a secret writer you pen something you want to say, or the kind of story you like to tell/read. When published, it’s good to get recognised by peers that you have something interesting to say, and/or that you’re skilled in your craft of storytelling. Being popular among the punters suggests that they’re interested and/or admiring too. Cool.

    But if you write what the readership wants, you have to watch the boundary between what you want to create and communicate and what the readers want to read. If you can do both, that’s great. But if you want to write something that readers aren’t interested in, then communication gets frustrated. And if you write to a bestselling formula just to make sales, aren’t you a bit like the kid who tries to be part of the cool crowd in the playground, by whatever means necessary?

    Sorry, that’s a burble – I’m still trying to get on a plane! Have a good Christmas. :o)

  5. Mm. Hard. I think one does need it all – the ability to come up with ideas that will sell and to write them with sincerity and enthusiasm. And to do it well enough to please the most fastidious readers – one’s peers.

    Season’s Greetings to all who would fly with the Larke:-)

  6. A friend of mine has a saying: The best compliment is the one you can bank.

    I’m not comfortable with the implication that somehow peer commendation is more valuable than booksales, which are in effect customer commendations. I think that’s being disrespectful to the reading public, who are just as (if not, sometimes more so) informed as to what constitutes ‘quality writing’ as any (often self-appointed) peer group spokesperson.

    To say that the applause of my peers is more instrinsically valuable than the act of parting with hardearned money to my book is to say, I think, that there is somehow an elite or intellectual divide between writers and readers. Ah yes, those pesky readers, they really don’t know anything, they’ll shell out millions for that hideous Dan Brown (or Stephen King, or JK Rowling, or Danielle Steele, or whoever) but they won’t buy my clearly superior masterpiece.

    Well, phooey to that.

    Yes, it is nice when someone whose work I respect says, Hey, nice job.

    But if I want to keep doing this, I need to touch the hearts of thousands of people I might never meet who say, Hey, nice job, by opening their purses and wallets for the next book I write.

    You’re absolutely right. Getting shortlisted for an award is an enormous buzz and is a very real validation. But awards don’t get publishers offering me contracts. Those pesky readers do that.

  7. Hi Jenn. Nice to see you here. I am with your husband on this one, because I promise you one thing – if you don’t get something out there, you won’t have any readers at all. YOu’ll be that secret writer I was talking about. I would suggest that the first thing you write should be something from the heart, because that has the best chance of being good no matter what the audience.

    Simon: Having been dropped by my American publisher for bad sales, should I then take this as evidence that I am a failure?

    Trudi, I agree. That’s the bottom line for me too. I have to love what I do. Only afterwards do I start wondering about all this other stuff…

    Hrugaar, I agree too. And I am waiting for you to put more down on paper. You have a public out there waiting too, you know. Communicate with them!

    Satima – I hope I do fly this year…:)

    And Karen, as usual, puts us all back on track quite bluntly. *grin* But in a way what you say also begs part of the problem. I would never scorn my reading public. Ever. I love them to death. The fact that people actually pay money to read what I write still has a breathless wonder to it…

    But what do you do when you aren’t hitting it big with the great unknown out there, but are getting lovely kudos elsewhere?

    Although I didn’t ask this precisely, my question was playing at the edges of this: should you then alter what you write to please the reading public, (while still staying within the parameters of your own enjoyment and pride in you write) – if you could work out what it is they want? Is taking pleasure in good reviews, prizes and peer acclaim and forgetting about the rest being elitist?

    In a way this is a bit silly, I suppose. If we all sold well, what would a bestseller be?

  8. “Simon: Having been dropped by my American publisher for bad sales, should I then take this as evidence that I am a failure?”

    Not when you’ve already documented the mess they made with the marketing and the cover art.

    No, I was referring to things within our control. And while awards and shortlists are nice, it’s completely dependant on what else is under consideration in the same year.

  9. Well, when it comes to feedback (and at the risk of sounding like the most paranoid maniac on the planet): evaluate your sources. At the end of the day, the most trustworthy feedback comes from people with zero emotional investment in you. The most impersonal compliment in writing, and the most reliable, is money changing hands at the bookshop service counter. Counting down from there you can rank/grade your feedback accordingly. As I said, I know it sounds paranoid, but sometimes feedback comes with an agenda. It’s not always sinister, but it does factor in.

    Having said that, however, sometimes there can be a definite lagtime between critical notice and public awareness. My favourite example is Janet Evanovich. She didn’t break out with the Stephanie Plum novels until about #5, I believe. The others were as good, if not better, than what she’s writing now, but for the longest time nobody knew who she was. I was handselling her like crazy in my bookshop because I thought she was fantastic, but it took several years for the wider reading public to jump on the bandwagon. Why that was is another discussion, but it did. Also Laurell K Hamilton. She was very very mid-list with modest sales for years, and then the Anita Blake books bubbled over and boom. She’s super high profile. Again, I was handselling her heaps because I loved the books (the early ones, anyhow.)

    I do think, to start with, you must write to please yourself. You may write to please an ideal reader, or the kind of readers who enjoy a certain style of storytelling, but at the end of the day if you aren’t in love with what you’re writing it’ll show and you’ll fail.

    I also think you must continue to write to please yourself, bearing in mind that unless you seriously *aren’t* writing to please only yourself but to appeal to an external audience of editor, agent, publisher, reading public, you need to have a level of awareness of what your audience is looking for. And if you ignore the ingredients that your audience is looking for you must accept that, most likely, you won’t succeed.

    By all means play around with the genre of your choice, push the envelope a bit, challenge some of the standard preconceptions or expectations — but don’t deviate too far from the customary format because if you do, you run the risk of disappointing your core constituency and they won’t be back for more.

    At the end of the day, if you choose to write fantasy it has to be because it’s a storytelling form that you enjoy and want to read. In which case the basic tenets of that form (or the sub-genre of the form that you decide on) must be tenets you can happily live with, because if you can’t, if you are determined to pull them apart, subvert them, whatever … you may get lauded by the literati types within the community (those folk Russell so endearingly and accurately calls ‘the jades’) but you certainly won’t appeal to the mainstream reading public. Of course, if you’re not interested in appealing to the mainstream then subvert away and get your payback elsewhere. But don’t be surprised or offended when you don’t see the same level of public approbation as critical acclaim, and your sales aren’t brilliant.

    I don’t think there’s a simple answer to which is better, popular or critical acclaim. It’s an individual thing that has more to do with personal psychology than with an external, quantifiable yardstick. Sometimes you get a venn diagram effect where the two spectrums overlap — but more often you get a polarising effect. The critics love it, the reading public goes, meh. Or vice versa, where the critics sneer and the public says, Fantastic! Realistically, which is preferable? It depends on why you’re writing. Are you writing to reach as many people as you can with stories that are moving, exciting and accessible? Or to be told by some self-appointed ‘experts’ that what you do has value? Because I think experience shows you’re more likely to get one than the other, not both together.

    And why do you need to be validated by someone else at all? Or, rather, why should a single critic’s voice saying, You’re good, outweigh thousands of voices in the book buying public?

    I’m not saying I know. I’m just wondering aloud.

    Does it have to do with wanting to be part of the community, to be seen as valuable by the social group? And if it does, then is that not dangerous? Insofar as all groups have agendas too, and political undercurrents, and reasons to form alliances and anoint the cool kids and so forth? And can an artist really afford to pay too much attention to that?

    Re: your struggles with using a first person narrative. I think it boils down to genre expectations. The most successful use of 1st person occurs in crime/mystery fiction, where the narrator is usually the detective who takes the reader on a voyage of discovery to find out Whodunnit. These books aren’t epic in scope and scale, they are intimate, often claustrophic tales of mystery, betrayal, violence and revenge. Because the reader learns as the detective learns, it becomes a vicarious investigative experience.

    Not so fantasy fiction. The average mainstream fantasy reader wants big, sweeping, epic, vast. And that doesn’t mesh with the narrow focus of a 1st person narrative. That’s not to say you can’t write 1st person fantasy but if you do, it has to be a different kind of fantasy. Not the epic kind. So if you’re presenting your story as an epic adventure spanning distance and culture with a big cast of characters you’re not going to deliver the expected, anticipated reading experience with a 1st person narrative. So in effect, what you’re promising you can’t deliver and that disappoints your readers.

    Not all fantasy is vast, epic adventure stuff. But when it is, it works best with 3rd person multiple pov storytelling. At least, I believe it does. And I think if you look at the current bestelling fantasy of that type, what you get is that kind of storytelling.

    If that makes any sense at all. It’s Christmas Eve, and you’ve got me thinking and expounding. Aaarrrgggh.

    But feel free to bluntly disagree with me. And in the meantime have a terrific Christmas.

  10. Lots of food for thought there. Basically, I can’t see any easy answers for a writer. It’s just a balancing act – writing for oneself without forgetting that you want people to enjoy what you are delivering just in order to give it some validity as an art form, and that it would be nice to make a living at the same time.

    And all the while there is this complication of why some stories sell so well and other similar ones don’t – and how do you tell whether you are writing something that will touch people?

    As I said right at the beginning – I want it all!!

  11. As a relative newbie to being published (my first piece of flash fiction came out in AntipodeanSF issue 100) I have to admit to a definite glow about me today – my piece was picked out as the absolute best by the ASif reviewer Tansy Rayner Roberts, a bit of news related to me by Eneit as we chatted online.

    So, at the moment, for me it’s peers. And my smile just about equals yours, Glenda *g*

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.