It’s hard to be value neutral about popularity, but I think it’s important for anyone with a product to sell to be able to set aside ego and look honestly at our markets.
Sure, we can (and do) rail against the injustice that [insert name of best selling writer here] is hugely popular, and we’re not. It’s fun to pick apart the syntax and grammar in the latest blockbuster.
Once we’re done drawing mustaches and devil horns on the back cover photos of the top ten on NYT best seller list, it’s time to get back to work and look seriously at our own product and our own market. Because if Steven King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown were all eaten by rabid weasels tomorrow, it wouldn’t really have any effect on my sales. (Oh, but imagine the YouTube videos…)
Taste is an intensely personal thing. In music, in food, in sex, in fiction–it’s not really something that we can define or defend rationally. Some people like one thing, and some people like another. I have known people who put ketchup on a Reuben, and while I recoil in horror at the very idea, I can’t say that those people are wrong, just different. I, myself, put brown sugar on grits, which I have been told will send me directly to Hell.
Not everyone is going to like what I write. Not everyone is going to like what you write. Some of us have a natural inclination to write in a way that appeals to a large segment of the population. Some of us don’t. It’s not fair.
But, you know, if you think life is fair, or is supposed to be fair, you are going to spend a lot of time being disappointed. What’s more, you’re not going to get all that much accomplished.
Cowboy up and deal with the real. There will always be people who are more popular than you are. It’s not because they sell out, or because God likes them more, it’s just the luck of the draw.
I’m a good writer. I think that’s an honest assessment of my talents. I’ve got a natural ear for the rhythm of language and a feel for a well-turned phrase. It doesn’t mean that I am or that I ever will or that I should be a popular writer. The twist in my mind where my stories come from resonates in a particular frequency of creativity that is on the uncommon side.
I deal with it. It’s not the greatest thing in the world to deal with, and I’d be lying if I said that I never get bitter about it. I’m human(ish) and I have my moments of mad scientist angst when I cry out, “Fools! I will destroy them all for not recognizing my genius!”
Then I have another beer and go back to writing. Because I don’t get to decide how many people like my work. I don’t get to decide if someone else wants to visit my strange little world or would rather be entertained by someone else.
What I do get to decide is how well I do whatever it is that I do. Maybe what I am writing is the literary equivalent of kim chee and banana sandwiches. Okay, then, I will devote myself to making the best damned kim chee and banana sandwiches on the market. And while I’m not going to sell anything like the burger joints, I can comfort myself with the thought that there are a million burger joints out there, but what I sell is hard to come by.