What is Success?

I’ve been away looking at the Eiger, so my post on J K Rowling’s recent experience with a pseudonym comes a little late. However, given that the success or failure of writing careers turn on such matters, I’m going to add my tuppence worth here.

To recap: J K Rowling, whose has global sales of 450 millions books (according to one source), published a novel called “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseudonym Richard Galbraith. The novel received warm reviews but did not sell many copies. The BBC reports the figure as 1500.

Whatever the sales were, they shot up once the true identity of the author was revealed.

One of the most interesting responses to the story–or, more precisely, to the effect of the story–was from the writer James Smythe.

In his post An Open Letter to New and Would-be Writers, James makes the point that we should not define success quantitatively (paradoxical though that might sound). The book is already a success if a publisher picks it up and runs with it. James cites the example of his own book, The Machine, which has not taken off as well as it might.

Publishing is just like any other media business: you promote something, throw money at it, you tell people that they want it, and it will be a success. But not every writer gets that money; for some of us, we’re resigned to praying for miracles, or relying on blind luck.

I thought James’s post was interesting in several ways. First, it’s honest. Second, he sounds like he means it. Third, he may be right.

What is success? Like porn, it’s difficult to define, but easy to spot. Stephen King is successful. James Smythe is successful. Me…

I think all writers struggle with this. I’d say my writing is successful in a narrow sense. I sell books, get reviewed (only by customers on Amazon and Goodreads, but they’re honest and straightforward). I’m with a literary agency who count Pulitzer winners among their clients. I receive emails from happy readers (the disgruntled never say hello).

Smythe ends with this:

This isn’t about sales; it’s about intent. You intend to write a great book; do that. The rest is all, frankly, bullshit.

I used to think that. Now, I fear, I’m older and more cynical. If you can survive on intent, more power to you. However, I do agree that, in the case of a work of fiction, it either succeeds by its own lights or it does not; never mind the Booker Prize, is the work true to itself? Did you fix its problems? Did you care about it?

I care. Still.

Published by Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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  1. I think ‘success’ is a concept which varies from one person to another and purely depends on what drives you. I hesitate to comment on this to a psychologist but for me it was when I started having enough confidence to put my doodles and daubs online and then started receiving comments from people in other countries. It lead to small press comics work which was even greater recognition for me seeing my work on paper. I’ve never been paid for any of it and am never expecting to either. It isn’t my day-job and that means I get to chose when I do it and how (no I will NOT draw an illustration for band album covers for free; leave me be, you chancers). So for me it is the fact that other people have recognised I exist and enjoyed my work – that was the mark of success for me.

    If, however, you want your vocation to be your profession then you are bound to assess your progress with the markers of professional life – remuneration, awards, sales figures, downloads, mentions on social networks etc.

    As an artist, success is also defined on comparing your intent and skill with the finished article – does it match or even exceed your initial plans? Is it skillful; is it aesthetically pleasing in structure; is the language fine; does it have something to say, etc etc?

    At the end you could quite easily consider yourself a success in some areas and less so in others. Most artists, whether verbal or visual, tend to be rather critical of themselves in the question of whether they produced a good piece of art and that is what drives them to try again, and again.

    By some of the standards I’ve posted above you are very successful, although you may think otherwise!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth! All good points. I do wonder whether ‘success’ is defined correctly for a given person (including me). That’s the difficulty, I guess.

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