Would You Prefer Your Book to be Critically Acclaimed or Popular?

DSCF1164In October I started a writing course in experimental fiction. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect but had heard some good things from good people about it so decided to take the plunge and find out what it was all about. Honestly, the experience so far has been something of  a revelation. I feel like an experimental fictionaut who’s been rocketed to the planet literaturia but found out that I had been headed home all along.

It’s a little hard to explain what experimental fiction actually is but in brief we might describe it as something that is a break from the norm.  Anything that moves away from or plays with standard narratives and story arcs might be considered experimental. I’m often drawn to these types of works – flash fiction; ‘going down the rabbit hole’ pataphysical fiction; strange dystopian sci fi; any stories that play with structure and form. It’s usually these sorts of pieces that will leave me with book hangovers that last for days.

But this led me to a question about my own writing (which came up a few times in class), would I prefer my book to be critically acclaimed or ridiculously popular? Both I hear you cry, but this question is the literary equivalent of asking if I’d like to reduce taxes or increase public spending – of course I might want both, but with rare exception, this doesn’t happen. From a purely monetary point of view the popular book (by which I mean the standard narrative and easy to digest read of whatever genre) is likely to allow you to write more and more popular books, possibly quit your day job and live the dream of being able to tell people at cocktail parties “I’m a writer”.  On the other hand, you might produce a thing of beauty with the experimental book, gain the respect of your peers and, although, you will have fewer fans, those that are may be far more appreciative than the masses who might tell you “Yeah, it was good. Yeah.”

Experimental fiction, by it’s nature, is designed to challenge and some people just won’t follow you where you want to lead them. On the other hand bestsellers might have immediate appeal but, if you’re of a certain experimental persuasion, might not satisfy your own urges to challenge convention and try something new. Of course, none of this is to say that any of what we write will be popular or critically acclaimed. Law of averages tells us it will be neither, even if we stack the deck and start from the assumption of publication. Yet in pursuing the art, the literature, the experiment, we are probably making it even harder to be widely read.

For the most part I think I have to learn to stop worrying and love the process. The only thing that really matters on a day to day basis is putting fingers to keyboard. I will write what I have to write and let everything else take care of itself. Yet, sometimes I can’t help but think about the road I’m driving myself down or where I’ll end up – critical juncture or populartown?

6 Comment

  1. Wow, great discussion! I don’t consider myself a writer so I’m trying to answer this as a reader, which is what I am really. It’s true popular books are most of the time those who are read but quite a few times I read those and end up not liking them. And I wonder myself how some books can be that popular when they are horribly written *coughs, coughs Fifty Shades of Grey, coughs, coughs*. But, a few times as well I discover literature gems that are not very well known and I do prefer those to a popular book to be honest. It’s the thrill that I’ve found them while browsing my local bookstores, that I’m reading something not everybody and their mother are reading and that makes me feel special as a reader as well.

    1. thenovelprojectchronicle says: Reply

      Oh My Fifty Shades of Grey I will never understand the popularity. It’s just such a difficult thing isn’t it? But I totally understand when you find a hidden gem in a bookshop and it feels like it speaks to you. It can be so much more meaningful than reading the book du jour just because. From the point of view of the writer of course it would be great to be both but i”m not totally convinced that it’s possible.

  2. Alice says: Reply

    I think I would prefer to be critically acclaimed, because a) I’m a bit of a literary snob and insecure, so require the acceptance of intellectuals and b) Challenging fiction progresses literature and I enjoy the experimentation of it, making me think – I like the idea that my writing would be studied. Essentially, my ego is driving the decision, unattractive but true. Not to say that you can’t sell well and be critically acclaimed, but it’s rare. Nor am I a writer, I would be a rubbish writer, ha!

    You’re right though, don’t let the worry infiltrate, just enjoy what you’re doing. I’m sure it’s marvellous.

    1. thenovelprojectchronicle says: Reply

      Great comment thanks! I do sometimes feel a snobby fantasy that my book(s) would be read way off into the future when I am long gone but at the same time, it would be nice to get on a train, go to a cafe and find several people reading my book(s).

      And yes, first and foremost i believe you have to enjoy what you are doing.

  3. “Yet, sometimes I can’t help but think about the road I’m driving myself down or where I’ll end up – critical juncture or populartown?”

    I’m so glad you put that. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, in fact so much that I’m writing a lot less e_e I’m also going to try enjoying the process.

    I would personally prefer to be critically acclaimed, mainly because I have such a huge passion for the fantasy genre that it would mean a lot more to me if a small group of people enjoyed it and they all had the same appreciation, than if it was a global worldwide super-duper awesome hit bestseller that had equal amounts of people loving and hating it and only a small few could actually tell a good fantasy from a bad one. This is a great article!

    1. thenovelprojectchronicle says: Reply

      This is such a good point. I just finished a creative writing class recently and was asked if I’d ever considered writing YA, largely because I tend (although not always) to lean towards writing sci-fi. The argument was that I’d have a tough time of it getting lots people to read sci-fi (as with fantasy) but that YA is so popular that it’s niche ideas were more likely to be accepted.

      It’s an interesting thought, but I think, on balance I’m more like you. If it happens to be a YA novel then fine, but I would prefer a Hugo award than all the money!

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