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.
- What is so smart about whips? [↩]
- I realise that I have never in my life so much as seen a tuppence. Never mind . . . [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Romance writers are not dissed for being commercial writers within the romance field. [↩]
- The expectations were low. [↩]
- France and Taiwan. [↩]
- At this moment in time. It could all go pear-shaped. [↩]
- And who don’t have teenage kids [↩]