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Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Fame or Respect?: Measuring A Writer's Success

When I was young, I didn’t think I could pursue a career in the arts because it didn’t ‘help people’. Doctors and scientists and so on seemed like professions with more value – until I realised the necessity of being able to express yourself creatively a stress becomes our number one problem. Beautiful artwork, dance, theatre, literature and music can make us feel elated and inspired in a very unique way, so those who value and appreciate art will respect artists.

This era has seen a surge in indie artists becoming successful and so the question of ‘if’ I could, somehow, remotely help people through my art became the question of ‘how’ I could do it. I wonder about my authorly goals more often than I used to.

What do I want to achieve with my writing?

There was an excellent post on The Novel Project Chronicles about whether it is better to have your book critically acclaimed or popular. Would I prefer my book to be known only to fans of the fantasy genre but highly respected, like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K Jemisin, or Across The Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn?

Or would I prefer my book to become staggeringly popular, like The Fault In Our Stars by John Green or The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North? As in, read by thousands of people not even part of my target audience, and straight off the back of it comes a movie deal, official merchandise, a rise in the popularity of previously published books, and then probably a mobile app, t-shirts and a McDonalds promo figurine inside every Happy Meal? Okay, I’m exaggerating. Slightly.

The last two aren’t fantasy books, of course. Naturally. That doesn’t happen to fantasy books very often. Harry Potter – a children’s book. Game of Thrones – first published twenty years ago. They are both incredible series’ and in my opinion their success is well deserved, but many other fantastic fantasy books fall by the wayside. I hear people complain about it, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

I would rather be critically acclaimed than popular.

Putting aside for one minute my irrational fear of fame (the idea of being in a viral video unintentionally makes me freeze up in terror), my goal is to become a remarkable fantasy writer and I think that the best judges of that will be dedicated fantasy fans. To me, it means more to have a quiet little family who understand and respect not only fantasy but the institute of writing. I always did prefer underground fandoms, and I think that the fact that fantasy has always been obscure and eclectic is one of the most appealing things about it.

Sometimes, you do want your favourite author to get a bit more recognition, though.

Still, when you put a book in front of people who aren’t the intended target audience, it provokes polarised reactions like you get with Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey... which makes the book all the more popular.

Writers who hope to get popular are often the ones who are building a business around their writing, like my sister. As the main source of income, success is the goal. But then you have the writers who hope to get massively popular, with the goal of never having to work again. But writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, and most of the writer-bloggers that I follow are also avid readers who do not take writing lightly or as a lottery gamble. They want to contribute something worthwhile to the world of literature, which they love. I wonder if they would prefer critical acclaim too.

But then I think – isn’t wanting to be critically acclaimed counterproductive to my aim? Surely, the point of creating art, aside from the love of it – is for the art to be shown to the world?

Ashana Lian .

The dream of fame is a primary appeal to many writers - would you prefer critical acclaim or massively popularity?


  1. Hmmm... I think you are comparing the extremes of each and also maybe confusing the terms a little.

    Firstly, art exists to help people. Without concerts and ballets to attend, galleries to visit, books to read and films to watch, the world would be dark and people to would be severely depressed and/or constantly agitated. Literature is one of the biggest and oldest forms of art regardless of the genre. If people enjoy reading it, then it helps them.

    Books that are critically acclaimed and books that are popular tend to fall under different genres of literature (not always but usually). Literary novels tend to win the most awards while genre fiction, like Mystery, Thriller, Romance etc tend to fall under the classification of popular literature i.e. read by the masses compared to those that read literary fiction. The top three genres in Popular fiction are Romance, Thrillers/Mysteries and Sci-fi and Fantasy ( So if you are writing fantasy is it unlikely you will also win any of the book awards that would make you critically acclaimed.

    N.K. Jemison may only be known to fans of the Fantasy genre but that fanbase is incredibly wide. Also there are a lot of fantasy books that DO get movie deals (Mortal Instruments, Divergent, Percy Jackson, Startdust and millions more) and I actually think it is one of the genres of literature that gets made in movies/TV series more often.

    However being popular (or being in popular fiction) does not automatically mean millions of fans and movies deals and merchandise. It is possible (and actually more common) to have a reasonably small fanbase, lets say 15,000 to 20,000 readers of your work, and make a living from your writing. That is what I would call success.

    I completely agree that writing is not a get rich quick scheme and you can only do it well if you are true to your art and passionate about creating good work for people who love the genre you like to writing in. But I think if you hope to make a career out of it, you've got to consider where your genre is placed in the world of literature and find a place for yourself there so you get what you want out of it without disappointment - or maybe do it as a hobby.

    1. Making money as a writer is so hard that I think writing novel as a hobby rather than a job is the best thing to do. If by some luck, you get movie deals that would be a bonus.

    2. Hi Zuri! Thanks for your comment :3

      Your comment discusses the issue from a different angle (I may not have explained the 'terms' properly, in which case, sorry!)

      By ‘popular’ I do mean the sudden, drop-of-a-hat viral bestsellers, as opposed to relative popularity within any given genre. This post mainly muses over which one a writer – hypothetically speaking – would prefer. It’s not about which one the average writer is actually likely to achieve according to which genre they write in.

      Brilliantly put, though – art and creativity does make life feel more worthwhile, I couldn’t have put it better myself. But I know I’m not the only ‘artist’ (loosely speaking, lol) who has stopped to wonder if their work matters to anyone at all.

      It’s a good point that NK Jemison has a large fanbase – a book that has received critical acclaim could be popular as well, of course. The world of literature is changing, and with digital publishing making it easier to reach your consumers directly, it’s possible to achieve the ‘relative popularity’ you are referring to AND receive critical acclaim.

      When a book goes viral though... that's a different story altogether.

  2. I think if you want to write a novel, just write it. Perhaps with good marketing it might get popular and you as an author will become well known, perhaps it won't but at least you would have accomplished one of your goal. Besides, popularity truly doesn't equal quality.

    I think a lot of books that have gotten movie deal are often overated. Harry Potter and ASOIAF are excellent but Twillight and Fifty Shades of Grey are O_O. Also, something that isn't often taken into consideration is that some book are easier to turn into movies. I'm especially think about John Green's books there. Even though I like his writing and adored Looking For Alaska, I personally don't think his books are groundbreaking. I mean it's always the same plot and the same type of characters. However, if made in movies his books can easily entertain.

    On the contrary, books like Accross the Nightingale Floor, The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms may be more difficult to adapt into movie because it's fantasy and the plot is much more subtle. Besides, most characters in these books aren't white including the main one. Despite what people say I think the race of the characters still play a huge role in how a book is received.

    I went astray from your original question, lol! Wanting to be critically acclaimed isn't counterproductive, I'll say it's the contrary. It'll make you want to work harder. Also, it's normal to want to be successful and want your work to be known. What the point of putting something out there if nobody comments on it? The downside is that if people end up not caring/knowing about your work, you might get really disappointed.

    1. I agree. Those who want to write a novel should definitely do it. No-one really knows what reception it will get, and nothing can really prepare that writer if they end up getting the same recognition as GRRM.

      ... interesting point. When I worked at a bookstore, one YA book after another were becoming movies so fast that I wondered exactly what was the basis on which they were being chosen. Was it because the book already had a significant fanbase, or because it was similar to the last YA book that became a hit? I’m not convinced it’s only to do with how easy the adaption is, though I’m sure that’s a factor too.

      What you said about John Green – I’ve heard that before, but mainly from people/bloggers who read TFIOS first, liked it, and then went on to read his other books and didn’t like those. (Don’t worry, all of the comments kinda went astray from my original point! There’s so much to think about surrounding this issue that it was inevitable, really.)

      The thing about art is, even though the vast majority of writers, bloggers, musicians, painters, illustrators (etc) I’ve come across produce art because they love it, it’s also a given that they want others to see it. Art can be produced solo but it requires social engagement - also I think that deep down we do want our work to take off and reach people from many different walks of life BUT not have a profound impact on our own life (because a lot of people are afraid of change and most of the artists I know of are introverts).

  3. This is quite interesting to think about, but I have to say I lean towards the critical acclaim side of things. I mean at first I think that being famous would rock: you'd be able to reach more people through your words, and if you're a minority you're paving the path for others like you and dismissing stereotypes. But then I think about writers I love who completely befuddle me with how their talent speaks for them. There's no artificial fangirls who seek the next hype-read, because let's face hype is never a guarantee of talent. In the end isn't writing supposed to be celebrated, not as the "next big thing" but as this superb skills that can be completely fun to do? If I worked hard on a novel, made the words a delight to read, included all sorts of things people could talk about for decades after...wouldn't I want dedicated readers to read my books? Wouldn't I want readers who would search out and hunt for the messages between the lines, the different loopholes in my writing?
    The thing about fame is how artificial it is...even John Green acts humble a lot of the time because his cause is humble. Fame is something his brother can't much come to terms with because of how it purposefully misconstrues people and the object of all this attention. Phrases become common knowledge and everything gets dumbed down - and I don't want dumb literature. I want talent, and so that's what I have to bring to the table.

    1. Very true! Although sadly, very few writers of ethnic minorities achieve that sort of massive popularity, but I like the perspective on the potential good it can achieve.

      I LOVE looking for subtext in books XD Yeah, it’s unfortunate that when a book becomes a trend and appears on all the Must Read lists, it reaches readers outside of the target audience and its message is bound to be lost. Then it’s bound to be dumbed down. When I just think about how people have tried to explain to me what a viral book is about, and then I read it like, “WHAT? That is NOT what The Slap is about at ALL.”

      Book hype is raaaarely a guarantee of talent =( Sometimes I wonder if in fact a book’s insane popularity is fabricated out of a really shocking subject matter or plotline, and not because of writing talent at all. (Some argue this case about GOT/ASOIAF, but I seriously disagree on that one). Thanks for commenting :)

  4. Huh, I've actually thought about this often because Twilight is a series I like—there's a lot of criticism, but part of it is coming from people who genuinely dislike paranormal or romance novels anyway. And that's fine, but you can't criticize a book for belonging to the genre it belongs to, if that makes sense. Like you said, when a book becomes that popular, people who don't even like the genre enter the pool, and then it just becomes something for people to rip apart, and I think can really hurt an author. It's really important to remember! Thanks for your insight; it's definitely given me some food for thought today. :)

    1. That is such a good point!!! Although, my reason for criticising Twilight is that there are a lot of questionable aspects to it, like the plotlines and characters – even if the fantasy concepts to it are intriguing. It's true that I don’t like romance or paranor/rom, however Twilight was the book that made me REALISE that. I found the faults of Twilight replicated in books from the same genre.

      (Actually I was thinking last week, does a person’s opinion on a book matter only if they like the genre? And I realised that can’t be true because people like to read new genres all the time – I’m not a huge fan of crime, but I have read some amazing crime books. As for the bad crime books I’ve read; perhaps my experience in reading highly complicated fantasy mysteries is what gives me the advantage in seeing where the plot falls down. So then I thought, then, just because the person doesn’t like the genre doesn’t make their opinion worthless, even though other people may take it with a grain of salt. I think about these things a lot, lol.)

      I don’t usually read trending books unless it’s something that would have interested me anyway. I haven’t read 50SOG because regardless of its popularity, it’s not a story that would interest me in the slightest. I read TFIOS because I WOULD read a tearjerker every now and then if it was recommended by someone whose opinion I respect (and it was.)

      Thanks for commenting! (Wasn’t expecting everyone to get so intense on the comments hehe)

  5. Wonderful post! I don't know, I think I would definitely want my book to be critically acclaimed if I wrote one, one that's actually seen as a well written piece of fiction. And a dedicated fan base would be amazing. But I guess maybe a part of me would want as many people to read it as possible as well. So I don't know. I think popular books can get much more negative criticism than one that's not very popular, mostly because you're right when you say that people who aren't even fans of the genre or the intended audience will read it and judge it.

    1. Hi Charnell! Sorry for the (huge) delay. I agree with you there - I eventually decided it one of those tricky questions that was too complicated to properly answer. Mainly because so many conditions would have to be straightened out before you can ever attempt to guess at which would be better for the average author/ a particular author/ me/ you.
      -sighhhhh- Let me tell you, my head hurt after writing this post >.<


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