Why are some writers popular while others aren’t?
A very difficult question with a myriad different answers I’m sure. Merit, context, luck, things outside of the writer’s control. Yes.
But on the whole, popular writing is popular because it’s smart.
Admittedly, a lot of smart writing never gets popular (or even gets unpopular enough to be popular) but all popular, even infamous writing has something about them that sets them apart and makes people want to read them.
Popular writing is usually writing with some substance (smart in the American sense) and writing that is savvy (smart in the British sense). That substance may not seem conventionally intelligent, even quite the reverse sometimes, but there has to be something that stands out.
And before an ivory-tower reader sniggers at popularity, let’s not forget the super-popular folks who are now stars of the ivory tower, Shakespeare and Dickens, who were popular with the populace in their day (and shunned by those with refined “tastes”).
It’s not for all to aim to be popular, but the essence of popularity (or that which makes writing popular) is one of the qualities worthy to be studied, along with the other attributes of writing.
So what’s the secret of popular writing?
I wish I knew.
For now, I can only say that I have observed the following attributes in popular writers:
I. Popular writers love themselves. They never set out to work on something they’re not interested in. At least you don’t feel like that’s what they’re doing when you read them.
It’s hard to have an interesting perspective regarding something that the writer’s mind is impervious to because of lack of interest. So popular writers either develop a passion for or drop a subject instead of putting themselves through the wringer. But more importantly, they rarely sacrifice their own perspective on a particular matter completely.
In other words, they are rarely complete sellouts. If they are, they seem not to be.
II. Yet, they love you, the reader, too. This, the “you” perspective, is something that often makes more mediocre writers’ hackles rise. More ordinary writers will tell you “I don’t want to be a sellout to readers’ opinions” or “I don’t care what people think. I write for myself.”
But really, readers’ tastes sometimes serve as a check against self absorbed concerns–more than some writers would like to give readers credit for.
There’s a fine line where readers and writers meet and each pushes against the other as a convincing game goes on. Gentle nudges with entertaining distractions are tactics popular writers use rather than sudden confrontations that break contact (unless the writer is exceptionally talented).
III. Popular writers make it obvious that you, the reader, are not exclusively loved. Sigh. But you can live with that if the writer is good.
Popular writers have an audience with a relatively broad spectrum . Just because you, who consider yourself part of the intelligent crowd, are a fan of a particular writer does not mean that s/he must not appeal to the fun-loving populace as well! Just because s/he appeals to your sensibilities regarding the interests of a particular train of thought (choose an -ism or an -ology here) does not mean that s/he won’t irk you by appealing to people who are your opponents (say, the abhorred anti[blank]ists or the horrible anti[blank]ologists).
Popular writers are charmers!
IV. They make their individual mark. Whether they’re crazy or sombre or insightful in a particular way, they have a style, a tone, a perspective that others don’t. That’s why you remember them and want to go back to read them. This is key.
When you’re done with their piece, many popular writers don’t leave you with much to think about. To build on. To reflect on. Only those with more substance do.
But all make you remember what fun you had reading them. Or how you hated them.
For hate, they say, is very close to love.
©bottledworder, 2013. https://bottledworder.wordpress.com
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