1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Seven: Fame

I touched on fame (such as mine is) briefly before in this series, but I was asked to expand on it a little. The topic I had scheduled today was pretty nebulous, so, sure! Let’s swap this one in instead.

I usually start any discussion of my fame by noting that I am not, in fact, actually famous. I am, at best, situationally famous. Which is to say, put me in a science fiction convention or a literary festival or on a book tour, and for the time I’m there, I’m notable, and a celebrity, and someone people are excited to meet, provided they match the face with the name. Take me out of those contexts and I’m just another middle-aged dude. I have on very rare occasions been recognized outside of context; enough that it’s amusing, not enough that it’s tiring and intrusive.

But in 1998, I wasn’t really even that. Prior to that date, I had been a minor local celebrity in Fresno, California, because I was a film critic and columnist there. and my picture was in the paper next to all my articles, and I would be on local radio and talk shows. That ended in 1996, when I left Fresno for a job at America Online. After that I was just another dude working at a tech company, and then, after I was laid off, just another dude freelancing.

There was some notability (or notoriety) attached to my name after I started Whatever, since I was one of the early adopters of the blog format and I was putting material out there regularly, and I, uh, wasn’t shy about my opinions. Was it fame? I don’t know. The joke about the early blogosphere was a take-off on Warhol’s prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes — “In the blogosphere, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” That wasn’t inaccurate! There were a lot of blogs with a small but committed group of readers, and to those readers, you were someone, because you were who they read. After Whatever debuted and for a few years afterward, I was “famous” to a few thousand people.

My real punt into fame, if you want to call it that, happened in 2006, and I can very specifically tell you when it was: It’s when Old Man’s War was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo Award, and I was also nominated for the Campbell. That was an unusual enough combination (I was the first to manage it in two decades) that in the science fiction community I stopped being just another writer, and became someone of note, starting an upward trend that (for the moment, anyway) more or less maintains.

All of this is pointing around the concept of fame rather than pointing at it — it’s leaving unaddressed the question of what “fame” actually is. I think the answer to that is actually pretty simple. At the very root of it, you’re famous if the number of people who know of you is higher than the number of the people you know of. Everything else about fame is elaboration.

So let me go back to my initial statement, that I am not, in fact, actually famous. Well, in fact, by the definition I just outlined, I am famous. Since 2005, I’ve sold a hell of a lot of books; the people who read them have some inkling of who I am. A certain subset of those readers have gone out of their way to buy more than one of my books, and for a certain subset of those readers, I am one of their favorite authors. Even if we were to consider just the third set, it’s a number of people larger than I could credibly get to know in any real sense.

So I’m famous after all!


The thing is, by this definition, so is your high school principal, if you went to a large school. The definition isn’t wrong, but it’s not all we mean by “famous,” or really what we think of as “famous.” Your high school principal isn’t famous like Gal Gadot (to pull a name out of a hat) is famous; neither am I. So what else is going on with fame, besides more people knowing you than you know?

Those other things include but aren’t limited to: General positive associations about you (if it goes the other way, you’re infamous), actual recognition in public, a personal investment in you and/or the things you do, and a certain amount of fictionalization of your being. The first three of these are easy enough to grasp. The fourth one means that people create version of you inside their head, which may or may not be the person you are on a day-to-day basis, which they then use to model how they feel about you, and use to imagine how you are thinking about things and why you do the things you do.

So, Gal Gadot: Most people think positively of her, because she’s playing Wonder Woman, and who doesn’t like Wonder Woman; a large number of people would notice her if she were walking amongst them; people are invested in seeing more of Gadot, as Wonder Woman if nothing else; and I’m pretty sure people who know of Gadot have a version of her in their head (the one in my head seems generally nice). Add on the sheer number of people who know of her, and guess what? She’s pretty famous overall.

What about me? Well, I’m famous to an exponentially smaller number of people than Gal Gadot, but still enough that I can’t keep track of them all, so that’s our starting point. I think most people who think of me think positively of me, although I know of people who don’t. I’m generally not recognized in public, although on rare occasions I am. Many people are hoping I will continue to write books. And, I speak from experience that there are all sorts of fictionalized versions of me out there, some of them, uh, highly speculative versions of me. So I’m famous-ish? If Gal Gadot has “A”-list general fame, my level of general fame is around “H” level at best.

An even more simple version of this is what I call the Supermarket test: Can you go to the supermarket and shop for any period of time without being bothered? If you cannot, you are famous (or infamous, as the case may be). I can shop unbothered at any supermarket in the United States. Gal Gadot probably can’t. She’s actually famous; I’m actually not.

Which, as I’ve said before, is fine with me. The level of fame I have is enough for my ego gratification, and to open some doors I’m happy to have open. It’s not enough that simply existing in the world is enervating, or that when I meet people I have to always ask myself what they want from me. I don’t have to have bodyguards or assistants to run defense. I don’t always have to be on.

(But you might one day! Maaaaaybe? If any of the film/tv projects get off the ground and become so amazingly popular that they start rewriting common culture, then I might not get to go to the supermarket anymore. But even if the film/tv projects hit the stratosphere — and that is a huge if — I think I’m mostly safe. One, I’m still a writer, not a tv or film star. People are interested in my words more than my face. I’m working in the background, not the foreground. Two, unlike some writers (like Neil or George or Pat), I don’t have a very specific look; I pretty much look like every other balding, middle-aged white dude out there. Three, I mean, I’m almost 50 and I’ve been doing this novel thing for a decade and a half now. I’m way past being the hot new thing. It’s possible I’ll become more famous than I am now, but I suspect that would mean moving from “H” level fame to “E” level fame. You can still go to the supermarket at the “E” level.)

Looking back at 1998 me, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have minded being a little more famous than the 2018 version of him currently is. But the question to ask there is whether he would have wanted that because it’s a level of fame he wanted for itself, or whether it’s the level he expected he would need in order to do the things he wanted to do. My guess (having been that person, and looking back) is that it was about 20% the former and about 80% the latter. The good news for 1998 me is that he got to do all the things he wanted to do with his writing anyway, so that worked out nicely. Likewise, time and experience has suggested that if he had gotten the level of fame he thought he wanted, he wouldn’t necessarily have been happy about it.

It’s good to get some of the things you think you want, but not necessarily all the things you think you want. At least where fame is concerned.

31 thoughts on “1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Seven: Fame

  1. In the beginning, as a fledgling writer, you just hope some one (yes, singular) picks up your book, reads it in its entirety, and tells you how much they enjoyed it. Maybe after writing a few more novels, more people will read your work and you are beside yourself with joy. After that, the singular digits may become double digits. At that point you’re hitting the roof with excitement and your ego maybe starting to grow. You could get used to this. Now after that, who the heck knows? If you become a best-selling author, then you’ve captured lightening in a bottle. If you haven’t but are making a meager living, then that in of itself is a huge accomplishment. You may have a reasonably sized fan base (maybe a few hundred or so). At that point, you may have reached the pinnacle of your career and in your private small world, you have become famous.

  2. I like your rule for ‘being famous’ except for one thing.

    I’m from a small town. If you DON’T get stopped in the supermarket 3 times by people asking about your mother, it’s weird.

    Maybe “Can you go to the supermarket and shop for any period of time without being bothered *by people you don’t know*? “

  3. You are famous to me. I’d probably blurt out a nervous “Good morning Mr. Scalzi” as our carts passed in the supermarket. No demands for a selfie or autograph though, in fact I’d go out of my way not to cross carts again.

  4. I recall a WSJ cartoon from years ago, with two friends chatting over coffee: “I used to want to be rich and famous. Now I don’t know; rich may be enough.”

  5. @ Morgan Hazlewood:I think lots of people are situationally famous. DH has a small following for his Saturday local tech radio show, but if you asked about it or him somewhere other than our island (unless you follow the podcast), you’d get a glassy stare. If you asked people who come to our library, they will probably know me, but again, not off our island unless you know me personally. The weirdest long-distance chance recognition I ever got was a small child coming up to me in the Natural History Museum in NYC and declaring “I know you. You’re the library lady.” She was one of my patrons, whose family was visiting NYC.

  6. Far as I can tell, people you know very well also make up versions of you inside their heads. Sometimes hilarity ensues, sometimes not.

  7. I remember back in college, I was a Heinlein fanatic, had everything he printed and was still in mourning when he passed. A friend that I fenced with went to San Diego with the Navy, and one one of his trips back he was describing some sabre techniques that “Bob” taught him… He had no idea that he was collecting bruises from my idol while I wouldn’t get the chance.

  8. I did notice in the Vulture interview with Michael Schur that he referred to you only as a “novelist,” not an SF novelist, as if everyone would have heard of you, not just us geeks and nerds.

  9. My version of you: The writer deliberately crafts phrases into his writing, specifically so Wil Wheaton has to say those phrases while recording the audio book version.

  10. Famous?
    Infamous in 🇨🇦, due to your persistent snubs in signing tours, is more like it! 😉
    You just wait until you make The Donald’s ‘Enemies List’ (and I’m sure he has one!), and need to split the country real quick! 😱

  11. I got “famous to a few thousand people” back in Usenet days. I occasionally encounter people who have heard of me online. The way I always think of it is that my personal level of fame is about one inch below the level where you merit your own stub Wikipedia article.

    And I’m not sure I’d want it to be any higher.

  12. My main hobby is magic (the David Blaine / Ricky Jay kind), in which it is said “Being famous in magic is like being famous in your apartment building.”

  13. John, arguably, you have the perfect level of fame in that you can choose how to dial up how your fame impacts you on any given day. You can go about your daily life, and not be bothered at all. Or you can go to any Sci-Fi Con and have people go up and ask for selfies with you. That sounds like just the right amount of fame for my tastes.

  14. Also, I had a (very) modest degree of fame when I edited a newsletter for speechwriters in the 1980s-1990s. Pretty much a “big fish in a small pond” kind of fame, but I did enjoy being a center of attention at the yearly speechwriting conferences we held.

  15. I suspect that for you, another angle on fame is much more important than public fame– being known in New York and Hollywood as someone who can get things done, be professional, and contribute creatively. That goes along with the fame you have from being an SF author and blogger, but it’s more about your reputation in the field and it means more for your career and your future income. It’s a more elite kind of fame, an insider kind of fame, that we don’t really have a good word for. You are definitely not a celebrity like Meghan Markle or Anderson Cooper. But you don’t need to be to be a success.

  16. One extra layer: I suspect the people who are aware of who you are might care more if you suddenly disappeared from the world than people who are aware of who Gal Gadot is. If Gal Gadot disappeared from the world, outside of a particular trigger (like a Wonder Woman movie without her), I wouldn’t notice, but even if I didn’t read your blog, I think I would notice (and care more) if I didn’t see a new Scalzi book for a long enough period. I don’t know if this is a function of being famous in a niche (so more depth but less breadth), or me caring more about books, but I do think people can be very famous with a very low percentage of people who are aware of them caring about their existence – the type of fame people have is probably meaningful than the number of people if somewhat wants to derive any self-worth from their fame. Also, I believe I only might recognize you on the street because of pictures on your blog. I believe there are only a handful of authors I could recognize if I saw them – some authors I would not recognize sell a lot more books than you. Recognize on the street is a certain type of fame, but as a writer, I think someone can probably have pretty high name recognition without being physically recognized by most people on the street, which I imagine is a good thing.

  17. Dear John,

    And then there’s the ever-popular “Google metric”:

    JK Rowling – 28M
    Neil Gaiman & George RR – 10M
    John Scalzi and John Sandford (Camp) – 0.8M
    Ctein – 0.064M

    Hey, yay, me!

    It can depend on which pond the fish is swimming in.

    John Sandford and I are both in the Twin Cities and meet up for dinner. We walk into the St Paul Grill to make a reservation. The hostess, a perfect representation of a middle-aged housewifely-type Minnesotan woman in style and manner, asks for a name for the reservation and John says “Camp.”

    She looks up from her book, recognizes him from his jacket photos and exclaims, “You’re John Camp! I have read all your books!” and comes out from behind her podium and gives him a big hug! And then backs off, hugely embarrassed, because Minnesotans just DO NOT DO THAT!

    Really, they don’t.

    John is amused. I am amused.

    We walk back to the Landmark Center where John will be giving a talk. The host shows us around, introduces John to the staff. John introduces me as someone he’s writing his next book with; of course they don’t know me from Adam, but they are nice ’cause I am with the Famous Guy.

    We go downstairs so they can get some publicity photos of John. Host introduces John, John introduces me. The photographer ignores John, rushes over to me and exclaims, “You’re Ctein! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written.”

    I am amused. John is amused.

    But I didn’t get a hug, dammit.

    And writing photography articles doesn’t pay a hundredth as well as murder thrillers.


    Two middllin’ size fish, mebbe, but John’s pond is a lot bigger.

    pax / whatshisface
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery http://ctein.com
    — Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

  18. Hum … i am from another continent, from a country where most of the people dont speak english and i have had irl conversations about not only your books but you as a person.
    I would say you are a least a E level celebrity!

  19. Heh. I’m in a field where I’m actually a C or D level celebrity;lots of people have heard of me, though never met me.

    Though…I have a friend who is an A-level celebrity in the field, and I’ve certainly used that friendship to get where I am.

    And I’m perfectly fine with that and the level where I’m at.

  20. I think you can more accurately be described as “notable,” which to me would be much better than being famous. With your income (7-figure book deal, enviable book sales, decent royalties and paid speaking engagements) most 99%ers would probably consider you relatively wealthy, so I think you’ve hit on a nice combination there, Scalzi. I think we can all agree that it’s good to be you. Thank you for sharing you with us for the past 20 years!

  21. We just had Ann Leckey as GOH in Icon, and she was telling about some award-winning authors, and non of the audience new any of them – because they weren’t translated to Hebrew. So even geeks in cons may not know award-winning authors….
    Scalzi is of course translated. We would love to see you in Icon!

  22. I had never heard of Gal Gadot before seeing the name here, so as far as I am concerned, John Scalzi is way more famous. That’s a reminder that all fame is relative and perhaps suggests that one measure of fame is how far it transcends the immediate domain shared by the famous person and the person who believes them to be famous.

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