Reader Request Week 2013 #1: Further Thoughts on Fame and Success

And now we begin Reader Request Week 2013, in which I answer your questions! Yes, yours! Well maybe not yours, specifically. I’m talking in general, here.

To start off, let me put two related questions on the table. The first, from Chris Salter:

In 2008 you wrote about your level of fame. Has that changed in any meaningful way? And as a follow-up: You seem to be friends with a number of semi-famous (or actually famous) people. Does it ever feel weird to see your friends being chronic topics of discussion on the Internet, on TV, etc?

The second, from Frankly:

If it is not too personal I’d like to hear a bit about how your life has changed given the success you have had as a novelist. You went from newspapers to online ‘reportage’ (for lack of a more accurate description) to novelist and from populated sections of California to much more rural Ohio. That is a heck of a range. To say nothing of starting off in a low income family to what has to be a bit more comfortable even if it is not ‘Vanderbilt-esk’. I’d love to hear your musing about that you miss, what you don’t miss, what you enjoy now that you didn’t imagine and how you think those experiences have changed you.

On a professional level as a writer, I’ve often had a (usually very minor) level of fame. My first job out of college was as a movie critic for a newspaper, and the paper promoted me as a personality, so I was a local celebrity, not unlike a TV weatherman or a radio deejay. Later on I experienced more minor fame as part of the first generation of bloggers (or online diarists, as we called ourselves). So when I experienced my first taste of (again minor) fame as a novelist, it was an experience that was not entirely unknown to me. I think that prior experience was ultimately beneficial, because it gave me a roadmap for how to deal with it.

Also useful: The fact that I had spent years meeting and interviewing film makers and movie stars, which is to say, people who had actual undeniable fame in our culture. That was helpful because I had something to compare my own little slice of fame to. This was key in allowing me to keep perspective on what my “fame” was and how far it went in the world: rather little and not very far, respectively. This has been useful in keeping me from becoming too much of an asshole, or at the very least, from using fame as an excuse for being an asshole.

Which brings us to the question of how my own fame has changed over the last five years. There are two ways to answer this. In the field of science fiction and fantasy, certainly, I am more famous than I was in 2008. This is the aftereffect of having a few bestselling novels, winning a couple of Hugos and other awards (and being nominated for several others), being the president of SFWA for three years, and (duh) having a Web site that is a hub for science fiction and fantasy readers, pros and fans. Note this is not a discussion as to whether I deserve to be famous, should be famous, will continue to be famous, or if fame has made me a dick or whatever. Simply that I am famous in my field right now.

Outside of the field of science fiction and fantasy, my fame is about the same as it was in 2008: Close enough to zero as to not make any real difference. I am slightly more notable outside SF/F than I was five years ago — if you say my name in room of writers outside the SF/F genre there’s at least a small possibility they have heard of me as a writer and/or someone who talks about writing/publishing online. But notability is not the same as fame. What’s the difference? If you are notable, people say “oh, I know who he is.” If you are famous, people say “oh, shit, is he here? I’d love to meet him.” If you’re notable, people won’t think you’re out of place at the party. If you’re famous, people came to the party because you’re there.

As I’ve noted before here on Whatever, I think that the sort of highly limited fame I have suits me. I have enough of an ego that I think it’s neat to go to a convention or book fair and have people squee in my general direction for a day or three, and I’m not going to deny I dig on the other perks, like travel and money and the ability to meet on a more or less equal footing talented people whose work I admire. But I also have enough of a desire to have a life that I am glad I don’t get recognized in restaurants and supermarkets. I have friends who do; their general consensus on it is that it is less fun than people imagine. I am willing to believe them, especially because they’ve been dealing with it for years. When your desire to go out in the world is constrained by your need to be let alone, fame stops being fun and becomes a burden. And yes, it’s a high class burden to have. But famous humans remain human, and stress works on them like anyone else.

I do have a number of notable and/or famous friends at this point. Some of them came up with me in the genre or were within a couple of years of me on either side; some of them I got introduced to through mutual acquaintances and sometimes some of them wanted to meet me, because they were fans of my work (which was — and remains — totally cool). And as noted above, sometimes I get to use my own limited fame to get to meet people I admire, and then I become friends with them from there. My famous friends and I are friends because we like each other as people. As a bonus, we have a common pool of relatively unusual experiences that we can talk to each other about without feeling weird about it, which turns out to be really important for one’s sanity. It’s nice to be able to talk to people about a topic, positive or negative, and to have them know from their own lives what you’re dealing with.

Having friends who are famous can be a lot of fun: It’s a kick to watch a television show or open up a magazine or go to a bookstore and say, oh, look, there she is. It’s even occasionally fun to brag about knowing these folks to someone I know likes or admires them. I’m not generally envious or jealous of their fame/notability because I’m happy with my own level and in any event I think envy and jealousy are stupid things. If you’re not happy for your friends when they do well, then you should question if you are really their friend.

On the flip side, however, when I see someone take a whack at them, online or elsewhere, yeah, it annoys the crap out of me. It annoys me because frequently these whacks are gratuitous or based out of ignorance or stupidity or actual malice, brought on by prejudice or envy or whatever. I also think there are some people who have a hard time recognizing that people who are famous are also real live humans, and like other real live humans are nowhere close to perfect, nor are they meant to be your dancing monkey on a leash. To be clear, there are some friends who stake intellectual, social or policy opinions out in public, and it’s perfectly valid for people to disagree with those — vehemently, even. I don’t like it when they unfairly cross the line into personal attack, any more than any person likes it when their friends are attacked.

(I will note that the large majority of my friends are not famous in any significant way, which should not be entirely surprising if only because, again, outside of my field, I am not famous in any significant way. I am lucky to know all the friends I know, and am glad that any of them choose to be friends with me.)

To move away from the topic of famous friends and to address another aspect of Frankly’s question, being a novelist has not materially affected my life in a way I think people might assume. For example, my transition from being poor to being well-off, and from living in a (sub)urban California environment to a rural Ohio one, all happened well before I was ever published as a novelist. To be blunt about about it, when I sold Old Man’s War to Tor, I wasn’t expecting it to change my life in any significant way — I was paid $6,500 for the book and assumed that’s all I would ever see from it, and mostly intended for fiction to be a sideline to my then-happily profitable career as a non-fiction writer and corporate consultant.

It turns out I was wrong (funny about that), but when everything hit for me in fiction, most of the most dramatic changes in my life circumstances were already behind me: I was in my mid-thirties, I was happily married with a kid, and I was well into a financially successful writing career. My success as a novelist was a bonus on top of that. I do tend to think it was a good thing that I was, in many ways, already squared away before I hit as a novelist. It meant I wasn’t overwhelmed either by the money or attention, and that I had a reasonably good idea who I was and what I wanted.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that all my life experience to that point helped me not to change my life dramatically. And I think that’s been to my benefit in the long run.

(It’s not too late to get in a topic for Reader Request Week: Go here for the details and to leave your request!)

19 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2013 #1: Further Thoughts on Fame and Success”

  1. Sounds like the best kind of “fame” to have. Not too much — just enough to have fun with it.

  2. Yup. It does.

    I think, judging from the small sample of friends who are a bit famous, fame DOES have a tendency to try to make you an asshole. But it’s the measure of the person that you try to make that change as small as possible.

  3. At least you are not infamous, Sir Scalzi. In the early nineties in my city of a hundred-thousand people I was elected to the local School Board. After three years I was infamous in some circles in town. I was an advocate for the kids, not the administrators or teachers. Got my first hate letter between winning the election and being sworn in. After twenty some odd years, people still look at me out in public with that look, “I know your face, but who are you?” They’ve forgotten my name that goes with my face. Enjoy your level of famousity-sounds just perfect.

  4. In the paragraph beginning “On the flip side,” the phrase “are meant to be your dancing monkey” probably needs a “not.”

    Grounded (as in feet on the ground, realistic) is good.

  5. “If you’re not happy for your friends when they do well, then you should question if you are really their friend.” – so intellectually obvious, yet apparently emotionally difficult concept. I often wonder why people get jealous of their friends, instead of excited for their accomplishments.

  6. “It’s even occasionally fun to brag about knowing these folks to someone I know likes or admires them.”

    I imagine this conversation:
    Casual Acquaintance: I really like Neil Gaiman’s work. He seems cool.
    Scalzi: He is. Did you know that roller girls once covered me in butter cream frosting in his driveway?
    CA edges carefully away.

  7. This really puts the idea of fame to perspective. How it could affect a person depending on when it comes to his or her life. For me, it looks like you’ve had it in the most ideal time. Thank you for the insight, sir.

  8. Gee, how disappointing ;) I was hoping for some real life-altering revelations. I have said it before but I’ll say it again – you are one lucky bastard! The fact that you so freely admit it and that you handle it so well makes it impossible to resent that B-{D. Thanks.

    I’m not a fan of autographs but if I saw you out in public I’d probably ask to shake your hand and say thanks for the entertainment. If I go to all the trouble of wedging myself between you & the Mrs you damn well better put down your dinner fork and amuse me or I shall forever tell people what a conceited jerk you were!

  9. “In any event I think envy and jealousy are stupid things. If you’re not happy for your friends when they do well, then you should question if you are really their friend.”

    I’m often happy for my friends for their success while simultaneously envying it, especially if it’s in an area I want to be in. I’m not proud of the envy, and I do my best to get rid of it, but it’s there nonetheless.

    Envy and jealousy are stupid things. That doesn’t mean they’re always easily controlled.

  10. You and/or your readers might be interested in seeing some of your famous friends talking about levels of fame on a cruise ship a couple of years ago:

    Strangely enough, I think the main thing that stuck in my mind from this was a desire to learn all the words to Chicken Monkey Duck before the next time I met Mike Phirman. Achievement Unlocked.

  11. I used to work for a magazine in the music industry, and I got to see the effects of all levels of fame, from minuscule fame to monumental. The bigger the fame, the less pretty it got. You’re right: there is a “just right” amount of fame, and it sounds like you’ve found it.

    And any talk of fame always reminds me of this quote from Harlan Ellison, from An Edge in My Voice, I think:

    No one bothers to tell you, when you’re poor and hungry to make it, that fame – of even the smallest sort – brings with it a disconcordant hire of moochers, self-seekers, time-wasters, dynamiting hype artists, emotionally starved groupies and just plain clipsters. One tries to be polite, but after a few years, after a few million incursions, after a ceasless barrage of requests, demands, hard-luck stories and assorted annoyances that in and of themselves are minor but taken in sum drive you bugfuck, one looks up with flaccid onion hanging out of one’s mouth and says as sweetly as possible. “Get the hell out of my face, you spittoon; can’t you see I’m trying to eat? Have a little common courtesy and a little respect for someone’s privacy.”You wouldn’t have the temerity to walk up to a total stranger and do it, why do you thing you have the right to shoehorn yourself into the presence of an equally total stranger, just because you caught him or her on the Late Show? The warped concept we’re dealing with here, beyond bad taste and lousy manners, is the concomitant of the Cult of Personality. It is the sense that one is entitled to anything beyond the work the artist proffers. It is all Johnny Carson Show time. An actor performs in a screenplay, and what he or she does in that film is the gift. Beyond that, the audience is entitled to nothing. A writer commits a book, and it is published. That is the outer limit of what the reader is entitled to.

    I saw this scene played out many times in my years in the music business. And, for some reason, it was worse in the Christian music business. The sense of entitlement to the artist’s time and attention on the parts of the fans was light years beyond what I saw in the secular music biz. Go figure.

  12. @ Kenneth B: I’m not even remotely surprised. My father was a minister, and people always tried to take advantage of that fact. Con men, hucksters, scam artists, of course, but “friends” and relatives, too. They seemed to feel that because someone was religious, that person should never say no to anything, ever. For some reason, it engenders a massive sense of entitlement.

    People are often startled by the level of cynicism I have, but when you get phone calls from inmates starting in elementary school (back then Dad used the title Reverend in our phone book listing — pre-Internet artifact for you young folks), you quickly learn to see through the smokescreens,

  13. I have known famous people, and do not envy them that. If you have the option to choose rich or famous, take rich. Heck, take middle-class. I have a friend who was moderately famous for a while, and now is not. Yes, her income has gone down from OMG!!! to Extremely Comfortable, but she’s much happier.

  14. I have been studying up on fame for the last few years. As far as I can tell, what you want to do is to keep your fame on the down low, i.e. Do Not Appear Regularly On Film or Television. (Or online too, probably.) Don’t be so recognizable that people feel like they know you so well because they see you on a regular basis.

    I would rather have “name fame” more than the rest of it. Just enough fame to be able to have a creative career and make money. I don’t know how well one can keep it on the down low in this day and age, but I may try.

  15. You really do have the best of both worlds. You can be famous when you want to be, complete with being covered with frosting on Neil Gaiman’s driveway, and then you can go home to Bradford, where, when people see you in the supermarket, they’re like “Oh, there’s Krissy’s husband” or “that’s Athena’s Dad,” or “Better order more Coke Zero!” Assuming that they recognize you at all.

    Of course, on the Internet, your cat is and always will be more famous than you are. ;-)

  16. Thanks for the answer John! It’s pretty much what I expected, but I was still curious. I thought about not asking at all because it didn’t seem likely to be that interesting of a question, but then I figured I’d let you make that judgement call. :-)

    @DemetriosX: Thank you for the laugh. I can also imagine John doing that specifically FOR that reaction.

  17. For me, I call this Comic Book Famous.

    If I go to a comic book convention, I’m reasonably famous* – lots of people recognize me, want books signed, and that sort of thing.

    In every other situation, it’s exactly like being not famous at all. This is not a complaint.

    *Or notable. I do still find it weird – not bad weird, just weird weird – when people say that they were nervous to talk to me.