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!)