Are bestsellers craving critical love just greedy?

I can’t remember where, but the other day I saw an article about bestselling authors – and how upset some of them are about the fact that they tend not to be particularly popular with critics. At first I thought this was fair enough, I mean, it must be quite upsetting to be thought of as popular but not, um, serious.

On second thought however, I decided that it wasn’t fair. You’re a bestselling author; do you really think you need a pat on the head from a critic or two? If you’ve cracked the market there’s a chance you’ve tapped into a genre, or a writing style, that lots of people like. To do this it’s quite likely you’ve had to compromise to some extent right? No one can say they have tastes that are shared with everyone else, we’re all a little bit different – and it’s those differences that make us feel special.

To create a book that tops the charts, you need to appeal to a lot of people. I’m not saying this means you’ve had to dumb down your writing (Christ, as a copywriter I know how difficult it can be to be simple and concise), but you’ll probably have made the decision to eschew some of the flowery language or conceits critics are fond of. It doesn’t make your book worse, it just makes it a different beast, and the kind critics aren’t as interested in.

I don’t read many bestsellers, and the ones I do read are the magical lucky few that manage to straddle the line between literary fiction and popular novels, but there’s a reason for that. I choose the books I like to read, and they tend to be the kind that appeal to niche audiences. They tend to be the ones more likely to get good reviews by the critics, but they aren’t going to be raking the authors in much cash.

So when bestselling writers complain they aren’t being taken seriously, I can’t help wondering if they remember how rubbish it is to write and write and never earn enough to feel as though you can even call yourself a writer, let alone a bestselling or critically acclaimed one.

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5 responses to “Are bestsellers craving critical love just greedy?

  1. Pingback: Are bestsellers craving critical love just greedy? (via Lynsey May writes down the night) « Philadelphia Stories Weblog

  2. Great post! While it’s true that the majority of writers dream of both critical raves and enough money that they can write fulltime, it’s rare the twain meet. So literary writers run the risk of becoming cynical and despising the bookbuying public just a little, and popular writers can get defensive and needy: “If my books are so terrible, then why are they so popular?”

    Neither attitude is particularly pleasant. If you’re a published author you owe it to yourself to understand the industry and where your work stands within it, that not everyone is going to think you’re a genius, and take it on the chin.

    Would love to read the article if you can remember where you saw it. 🙂

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    • Thanks Eimear – really annoyingly I can’t find that article for the life of me. But I’ll make sure I flag up any similar ones I see and send them your way!

      Yup, I think you’re totally right – if you’re going to put yourself in a public position by perusing publication, you have to make sure you know where you stand in the industry and what it means for your work.

      Sometimes I think my dreams are so grand they are unachievable and other times I think they are fairly meagre compared to some – I don’t think it would take THAT many readers to make me happy 😉

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  3. Lynsey, this was an amazing post! Yes, I can understand to some extend why they are not happy and why they need the critic’s approval- humans always want more & more… I don’t read many best sellers either, not because I have something against them but because usually the books that become bestsellers are not the kinds of books I would be interested in reading.
    They do make some compromises to be able to appeal to so many people and it shows from the story. I don’t like that ‘this story could have been so much better if it wasn’t reshaped to fit different people’s fancy.” feeling when I’m reading a book…

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    • Cheers Lua, ah, if people were always happy with what they had, I guess we’d have nothing to write about eh? Hehe, but yeah, I’m totally with you when you say you’d rather have a book that wasn’t designed to fill everyone’s fancy – I want to feel as though I’m experiencing something special when i connect with an author.

      It’s funny, in some ways I think that fiction writers are some of the few artists who have a chance of commercial success without too much in the way of compromise – in comparison to the film and comic book industry in any case.

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