Popular versus critical acclaim

There’s an excellent post by the whip-smart1 Sherwood Smith on this hoary toothed and clawed subject generating much excellent discussion. It’s mostly been said over there but I cannot resist adding my tuppence worth.2

Firstly, the discussion over there is in terms of “award winning”. As Sherwood acknowledges, I think this is a problem because all awards are not created equal. There are a number of awards such as the Quills for example which explicitly go to popular books. Some awards are voted on, some are juried with a different jury every year, some have the same jury for years. Some awards have huge amounts of prestige, some no one’s ever heard of. Some awards will make a book popular if they win it. The Booker in the UK and the Newberry in the USA create bestsellers every year and keep books in print for decades. “Award-winning” and “popular” are not (necessarily) oppositional terms.

But the question is usually a hypothetical and assumes that you can have one or the other but not both: Would you rather be a bestseller or be critically acclaimed?

Every writer I know says bestseller because that means money and making a living. The question winds up sounding like, Would you rather eat well for the rest of your life or have one perfect meal and then starve? Most sane people are gunna say, “No to starving. I wants to live!”

The question also makes assumptions about the kind of books that are critically acclaimed versus those that are popular. I see many DREADFUL shockingly written books get critical acclaim and awards, while there are also gorgeously written books that sell bucketloads.3

The concept of the “commercial fiction” writer comes up in the discussion on Sherwood’s blog and how they are generally not respected etc. etc. This has a lot to do with what field you write in.4 Commercial fiction is usually taken to encompass the genres: crime, romance, fantasy, sf etc. It’s a bit of a misnomer because some genres sell better than others—sf is in the doldrums right now and most sf writers are hardpressed to make a living. Does that still make them commercial? And what about literary writer Cormac McCarthy writing a science fiction novel? Does that make him a commercial writer? Cause he sure is making a lot of money. Also in crime in particular there are many writers who are critical darlings such as Richard Price. Does his award-winning critically-acclaimed work lift him up from being a “commercial” writer and deposit him in the lofted halls of the literary?

I am a commercial fiction writer producing YA. Within my field I have won awards, been totally ignored by other awards, been critically acclaimed, been critically dumped on, and had one book sell bigger than expectations5 as well as in many non-English speaking markets, as well as had books sell only so-so, as well as totally bomb in some markets6. In my very small way7 I’m both popular-ish (though by no means a best-seller) and critically acclaimed-ish.

Within my field I’m slightly known; outside my field, of course, I am unknown. There are at most three YA writers with name recognition outside the land of YA: Stephenie Meyer, Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling. There are, of course, other big names in my field: Meg Cabot, Sarah Dessen, Garth Nix, Christopher Paolini, Scott Westerfeld. But, trust me, when I mentioned their names to readers who don’t know YA8 they’ve never heard of them.

What does this all mean? I have no idea. I’m thinking out loud here. *Heh hem.*

The two categories are slippery. How popular do you have to be to merit the term? How critically acclaimed? The category of bestseller is notoriously slippery. The New York Times‘s methods for deciding border on voo doo. I know people who are USA Today bestsellers but not NYT bestsellers and vice versa.

Most of the writers I know don’t obsess as much as you’d think about being either a bestseller or critically acclaimed. They want to be able to make a living at writing and they want to be able to do it while writing the best books they possibly can. Naturally, we all mean something very different by that. Both what it takes to make a living and what constitutes a good book.

Those two things are a big enough struggle. The vast majority of published writers do not make a living from writing. And most of us struggle to meet our own standards of good bookness. Though writing the best we can is usually the only thing we have any control over.

Speaking of which, I have a zero draft of the Liar book to make good.


  1. What is so smart about whips? []
  2. I realise that I have never in my life so much as seen a tuppence. Never mind . . . []
  3. Why, yes, I am not going to give examples. You know I don’t say mean things about living writers. Well, okay, I have mentioned my disagreements with OSC but I have not dissed his books on account of I haven’t read them. []
  4. Romance writers are not dissed for being commercial writers within the romance field. []
  5. The expectations were low. []
  6. France and Taiwan. []
  7. At this moment in time. It could all go pear-shaped. []
  8. And who don’t have teenage kids []


  1. Sherwood on #

    Hours after this post EBear won an award. Hee! I loved the timing.

  2. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    Whips aren’t all that smart, really, but they do smart, hence the term.

  3. Justine on #

    Sherwood: That is lovely. But hasn’t she won a number of awards already? I know she was a Campbell winner.

    Mary Elizabeth: Huh. At last I understand that expression.

  4. Chris Lawson on #

    I’d add Mark Haddon to your list of YA novelists known to adults.

  5. Justine on #

    Chris: Nope. Haddon’s not YA. Also he does not have anywhere near the sales or recognition of the three I mentioned.

  6. Marie on #

    A very interesting entry…there is also the factor that writers (probably) want readers to like their work, so another way of framing the question of “Would you rather be a commercial writer or an award-winning one?” is: “Who do you want to like your books? All and sundry, or a select crowd with certain criteria for what makes a good book?”

    I like the explanation of “whipsmart.” I always thought it had to do with the quickness of wit– that the intelligence is quick like the snap of a whip. Of course, the OED would know for sure.

  7. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    “Every writer I know says bestseller because that means money and making a living.”

    Um…not strictly true. Hopefully, I won’t have to choose. So far, I’ve had a moderate amount of both critical acclaim (glowing reviews in major newspapers, Illinois Arts Council literary award) and money (six-figure deal from HarperCollins). I’d like more of both — but if I had to pick, I’d pick critical acclaim. In a heartbeat.

    My family might not approve of that choice. 🙂

    But I can make money elsewhere, if needed. Only with my writing can I try to make art.

  8. Patrick on #

    Critics (and their acclaim) always make me think of the guy explaining the piece of art is brilliant because of how the painting of the sky is completely devoid of blue and what that says about society, when the simple fact is, the artist had no blue paint.

  9. Hillary! on #

    Hmmm…I think you’re better than all those authors. Actually, that’s not fair, I like you more than Garth Nix because I’ve never been to his blog, and I somewhat prefer Scott…just because he has more books than you. Other than that I absolutely adore you! It’s probably just because fantastic taste.

  10. Caryn on #

    One thing to note is that so many of those we now hail as classics and make kids read in school were once popular fiction. Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens wrote to entertain and to make a living. I doubt they knew at the time that their works would be read and discussed in English classes so many years later. Then there’s Ray Bradbury who writes science fiction and crafts a fine story, yet Fahrenheit 451 is also critically acclaimed. So maybe if a book is popular enough to stand the test of time, those in the future will realize its value.

  11. Cecilieaux on #

    Re whips: not only do they smart, they do so quickly and with a snap.

    Re tuppence: I don’t imagine you mean the 2p coin, which was only recently (1971) minted. The original literary tuppence was from back when a pound had 20 shillings and a shilling 12 pence. You may imagine the irreplaceable hours of childhood I wasted while forced to do maths using the old system, to boot in a British economic colony that didn’t even use the currency in daily life!!! More on point, it was a silver coin up to the Edwardian era, later copper. Around the time of the American Revolution it might have been a day’s wage for a farm laborer.

    Maud Newton led me here and I love your blog. Can an old adult read YA fiction?

  12. Burger_eater on #

    Whips: Not smart, but people will admire your intelligence (and your good looks, courage, whatever) if you have one in hand and show a willingness to use it.

  13. Justine on #

    Cecilieaux: Welcome. As for your being allowed to read YA ficton. I’m not sure. Can you cope with big concepts and brilliant writing? We’re all geniuses, you see, us YA writers. 🙂

  14. Patrick on #

    My goal is to write a book that offends critics so much that they recommend book burnings. My dream is people will see my book on the shelf, buy it and then burn it.

    The buying part is just as important as the burning though.

  15. Kevin Wignall on #

    Hello, haven’t been around for a while – in fact, when did you start allowing capital letters in comments…?

    Anyway, the Booker doesn’t guarantee sales anymore. For the last two years Katie Price (the glamour model “Jordan”) has outsold the entire Booker shortlist. The Booker has also lauded some unreadable trash, including DBC Pierre and John Banville (who now writes crime as Benjamin Black, proving you can write badly in commercial and literary fields).

    I’ll take the sales any day. I’ve seen enough bad books lauded as literary masterpieces to know that such praise is hollow and worthless. And let’s not discount the fans who buy our books without them being Booker-nominated – I’ve received so many intelligent and beautifully written emails from readers, people whose opinions are far more valuable than those of the critics because they write from the heart and have nothing to gain in writing it. I have no doubt you’ve received many similar, Justine.

  16. Maree on #

    YA fiction is the best eva so the authors ought to be well-known, in my opinion. I’m biased though (I’m a teen).
    Patrick, I like your thinking!
    As I have no experience in the field of publishing books and getting awards or critical acclamations, I have no idea what to say. However, it was good to read (and keep in mind if I ever publish a book).

  17. Meeks on #

    Thanks muchly for your post. Something I’ve discussed in the past, being, as you say, popular-ish and award-winning-ish (I must say that my “popular” books are more popular than the “awardy” ones are awarded). Actually the topic of my upcoming grad lecture at VCFA may have to do with those books that span the divide.

  18. Melissa Walker on #

    Great post, Justine. It’s definitely true, as far as I know, that earning ENOUGH to keep on writing good books is what most YA writers are going for. And it’s such a lovely life to lead.

  19. Jack Heath on #

    Like all your other author friends, I’d rather write a bestseller than win an award. I’m such a sellout.

    I think the definition of literary fiction (as opposed to commercial fiction) is “a novel, short story or novella that people will pretend to like in order to appear smarter.”

    But, of course, that doesn’t make it bad.

  20. Gabrielle on #

    I don’t like that question very much because I think it implies that anything that’s popular is no good. I have a very strong feeling of annoyance towards people who ditch books just because they’re popular. There are some YA books that are maybe more fluffy, and thus less award-winning material, and yet are really good.

    Also, as a writer (if I ever were to be published), I’d much rather have normal people love my books than have fancy pinkie-raising juries appreciate my technique. Of course, awards are great and all, but if I had to choose, I’d choose popularity, even if neither gave me any money.

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