Square One

In the immortal words of Mugatu, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”

If you haven’t heard, J.K. Rowling wrote a mystery and had it published under a different pen name, and while the book was lauded critically, it wasn’t selling all the well.  Somehow, this is supposed to be either shocking, surprising, or, even more strangely, an indictment of the publishing industry itself (depending on who you ask).

But I fail to see it as any of those things.  It’s just proof that, underneath it all, success is an elusive beast, and the best way to trap that beast is to already be successful.  While I’m not out to criticize Rowling’s writing (nor do I actually have any reason to), her incredible level of success is surely as much to do her reputation and celebrity status as the quality of her writing.  The only alternative is to believe that the Harry Potter series is, indeed, the greatest literary accomplishment in the history of the world.

Nothing against Rowling or Harry Potter, but I sincerely doubt this.

I’m not trying to dismiss her writing ability or her hard work (or anyone’s for that matter), but it’s also okay to admit that some things just become popular and through their popularity, become wildly successful.  And through their success, they become more popular.  It’s a cycle, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

I get more respect as a novelologist now than I did five years ago, and that’s usually because now that I have ten books published, it makes me seem more respectable.  There’s no reason it shouldn’t.  It shows that I’ve been doing this for a while, and that people are still willing to pay me to do it, which doesn’t equal talent, but does equal some level of success.

Harry Potter is indeed a very popular series, but let’s be honest.  A big part of that success is that it was in the right place at the right time, and that, by virtue of its popularity, achieved even more popularity.  A lot of people read Harry Potter because they loved it, but a lot of other people read Harry Potter because their friends read Harry Potter, because they wanted to be part of a cultural phenomenon.  And why not?  The motivation is incidental.  It certainly doesn’t diminish the books’ success or Rowling’s accomplishments.  But it also doesn’t mean that she is such an amazing writer that she could write anything and everyone would automatically adore it with the same level of passion.

Rowling’s biggest asset is her name because it gets people interested in the first place.  Without it, she’s back to square one, and square one is a very unforgiving place. Without something to help you stand out, you’re just another nameless schmo trying to get noticed.  So Rowling had the courage to go back to square one, and good for her.  But it can hardly be surprising that, without her name, she wasn’t setting the world on fire.  Unless you’re foolish enough to believe that talent is more important than reputation and branding.

If you believe that, I don’t want to destroy your illusions.  But, screw it, you are wrong.

We all know this to be true.  How many movies have you gone to see, some you weren’t even that interested in, because you noticed an actor or a director (sometimes, very rarely, a writer) you had a fondness for?  Hollywood has built an entire industry founded on creating something recognizable (via sequels, big name stars, or both), and while it doesn’t always guarantee success, it is the easiest way to ensure that you’ll at least get noticed.  And getting noticed is vital.

On the flip side, how many movies have you skipped because you had a dislike (for whatever reason) for someone involved in it.  After Earth might not have been a good movie (I didn’t see it), but I do know when I heard criticism or doubts about it, they were always rooted in complaints about Will Smith, scientology, or M. Night Shyamalan.  The movie itself seemed irrelevant.

Even as a writer myself, my goal is to eventually have a strong enough reputation that my books get bought sight unseen, pre-ordered before anyone reads a word of them, picked up by pure reflex.  It is only when I’ve achieved that level of success (which I doubt I actually ever will) that I’ll be truly secure in this job.  I still want people to enjoy what I write, but, let’s be honest, there are plenty of writers who have somehow succeeded in fragmenting and disappointing their audience who have managed to maintain strong careers.  I don’t want to be one of those writers, but I also know, given the choice between starving or selling out, I know what I choose.

Reputation isn’t always such a bad thing.  Nor is it always shallow.  If you’ve read a book that you absolutely despised, there’s nothing wrong with shying away from another book from the same writer. If an actor consistently amuses you with their film roles, they’ve probably earned your loyalty.  Heck, I’m attempting to build a career on the very foundation that nothing more than the name A. Lee Martinez will convince you to buy a book about anything from cosmic monster horror stories to divine comedies to modern day mash ups of the Hero’s Journey / Road Trip movies.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, our minds are often made up before we’ve even thought about it.  It’s how we function.  If we eat someplace and like it, we’re more likely to eat there again.  If we like an actor, writer, series, we’re more likely to give them a little leeway, and if we dislike someone or something, we’re more likely to nitpick and deride it.

J.K. Rowling dared to reset, to step out onto a ledge she never ever had to revisit, and unsurprisingly, she got treated like every other random person on that ledge.  It’s a scary place, and I can respect her for doing it.  What did she really have to lose?  But it just proves that greatness isn’t merely the byproduct of talent and that success isn’t something due anyone.  It’s something that some stumble upon, like a hidden vein of gold.  Once you find it, it’s pretty easy to keep finding it.  But if you choose to go dig elsewhere, you probably aren’t going to strike it rich again.

Everyone who is struggling for success should probably realize that.  More importantly, everyone who is already successful should keep that in mind.  Otherwise, we run the risk of thinking our success due us, of assuming that the failures of others is due to their incompetence, and not, more than we care to admit, happenstance and circumstance.

Except for me, of course.  I’m an amazing writer who will be renowned throughout the ages.  But you already knew that.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Whitewater
    Posted July 22, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post, I was just thinking about trying to explain this very subject to my niece(an aspiring photographer, her uncle being a moderately successful videographer)…that you can have all the talent in the world, but it can only take you so far. Square one is indeed scary, perhaps we all should visit it more often though to be thankful of what we have achieved.

  2. Charlie
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    My takeaway from the story of Rowling’s new book was actually very different. When The Casual Vacancy came out people were incredibly harsh about it, and I had the impression many were lining up to prove that she was only a children’s writer. You bring up branding and I agree completely that it has affected her career but more in the sense that she was being pigeonholed (that’s a disturbing term isn’t it) as a person who does kids stuff. When Campbell’s decided to create a line of spaghetti sauces focus groups found them to be “too soupy” but when they created a separate brand for the sauces test groups loved them.

    If the good people at Hostess started coming out with wine would people give it a fair shake?

    I’m loving (loving!) Helen & Troy at the moment but if your next book is the poignant, bittersweet story of the hardships of an immigrant family in 1914, I’ll read that as well 🙂

  3. Monkeygritz
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Just so you know, even though I am only one I can’t believe I’m the only one, and I’m pretty sure I bought the last 3 of your books without reading anything about them and one of those was a pre-order (Helen and Troy). I am so glad I happened to be perusing the shelves in the library for something new to read and happend to pick up that copy of Too Many Curses…

  4. Posted August 12, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    One who is extremely cynical (like me for instance) would say the whole Rowling thing was a publicity stunt from start to finish. Sure if she’d just put her name on it from the start people would have bought it just like that other adult book, but by pulling this stunt she got a lot more press. And maybe there’s a little bit of revenge on critics who might have dismissed her as merely a children’s author. Myself I only read the first Harry Potter and it was fine, but didn’t rock my world the way it did a lot of younger people.

    Though to borrow from her, tomorrow I’m going to reveal my 4 other pen names. I’m sure the buzz won’t be nearly as much.

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