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Write to Universal Acclaim? Not Likely

April 3, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 2, 2017

Many writers dream about it, about being the first writer to be universally loved.

What if everyone loved my newest novel? What if it was talked about from country to country and unanimously praised? What if billions of copies were sold in mere weeks? What if everyone—and I mean everyone—found something so profound in it that the world was changed?

Hmm . . .

The truth is, no matter how many people enjoy your stories and tell you that they enjoy them, not everyone will. And those who don’t like them may be more vocal than those that do. At least it may seem that way.

Not everyone will like what you write. Not everyone will like or not like it to the same degree. So you may have diehard fans, so-so fans, indifferent readers, and what might feel like actual enemies who seem to wish you ill each time they see you’ve published. Maybe any time they hear your name.

You can’t please everyone. You won’t please everyone. Not with the same piece of fiction. Not with a particular writing style.

You’ll have detractors and you’ll meet those who simply have other interests. I want to tell you that it’s not personal, the dislike of your writing, but sometimes it is. Sometimes a reader won’t like what you write because he’s envious of your skill or your fame or the fact that you always outscored him in some sport in high school.

Some won’t like your success or your attitude or the subject matter you write about.

Some won’t like the names you choose for your characters or your themes or the conclusions you draw about life.

Some simply won’t like your genre.

It’s inevitable that not all readers will praise your stories and your writing. While it may be fun to dream that everyone will, it just won’t happen. Tastes differ from person to person, between age groups and cultures, between those with one experience and those with an opposing experience.

Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and Ian McEwan have all been praised and vilified. Hemingway, Faulkner, Poe? Mark Twain? Graham Greene or Edith Wharton or John Grisham? Shakespeare? Not all universally admired. Respected as writers? Sometimes. But not always. No matter how popular they are in some camps, some writers aren’t admired in others.

And we all know there’s nothing wrong with that. Some love coffee, some hate it. Neither camp is right; the opinions of both sides have merit.

Even the Bible, one of the most widely purchased books in history, isn’t universally loved. It’s both enjoyed and ridiculed, revered and mocked. It does, however, capture the attention of a whole lot of folks and has done so over a very long period of time. Now that’s something all writers could hope for. Strive for.

Do you want only positive attention or will any attention do? I can’t answer that for you.

I just wanted to remind you that not everyone—not your mother, your wife, your husband, your best friend, your boss, or your child—will be as enthusiastic as you think they should be about your books. You probably won’t even feel the same about your books from one year to the next.

Even your most zealous fans will move on, will be interested in the next story. Or their child’s first words. A new job. A move across the country.

Interests wax and wane. Highs don’t last forever. We get tired of one style of anything if that’s all we’re exposed to.

You must write to please yourself. You must satisfy characters and readers. But you’ll never satisfy all of us. And if you try, you’ll only create a muddle of a story.

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Writing well doesn’t mean including every tidbit that would entice every reader. If you try to include something for everyone, you’ll create a story for no one. I don’t read the same stories my brother does. If you write to please his sensibilities, you won’t be writing to tempt mine. One book will not please us all. It just can’t happen. Not in a book that’s consistent unto itself, that doesn’t try to be a zillion and one different stories. Even a story that’s a million pages long couldn’t please everyone.

In fact, such a book would make no one happy.

So settle it in your mind and in that deep place that dreams: you won’t please everyone. You can change your style to please a new group, but you risk losing established readers. That’s okay if you want to try something new. Just don’t be surprised if longtime fans become former fans. Readers like what they like and they don’t need to follow you if you’re the one who changes.

Of course, readers themselves change. Their tastes may alter over the course of their reading lives. And they may grow out of your stories and your style and your approach.

They may just tire of your genre and want to find something that’s  fresh to them.

Don’t worry;  there are plenty of other readers looking to switch from their favorite authors to new ones. So while you might lose readers over the years, you’ll also gain them.

Keep writing quality stories. Keep up your end. The readers will find you.

Just don’t expect that every reader will find you. Or like you. Or recommend you. Or hold back his negative opinion. Not in this age when we can instantly know who did what and who thinks what at the click of a mouse.

Expect your fans and your detractors to rant about your work. If you’ve written the best story you can, you’ve done your part. You don’t have to give your blood for your fiction, even if some non-fan demands it. Give up a lot of your days? Yes, that’s a requirement. Your nights too.  But when non-fans are calling for your blood, refuse the call.

Give your skills, your emotions, your heart, and your mind. Give your free hours and your sleepless nights. But don’t think you have to give your essence, the you that’s separate from your writing, even if it’s what gives life to the writing. Giving that would never be enough for some of those demanding more from you.

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We are different. With different tastes. And you can’t make one book palatable and tasty to all. Imagining you will or can is like Don Quixote tilting at his windmills—pointless and without a satisfying conclusion because what you imagine to be true is not true and the outcome you imagine arising from your actions will never come about.

It’s not likely you’ll change the tastes and preferences of thousands of readers. Maybe not even a dozen. But you can adjust your own expectations. Dream big, but entertain reality as well. Don’t allow unrealistic expectations to drown true success.

Am I suggesting you resign yourself to a fan base smaller than the whole world? Yes. That’s exactly what I’m recommending.

At the same time, be encouraged that there are still millions and millions of readers who could enjoy your stories. Who might praise you across every facet of social media and in more intimate settings with their friends. Who might just say, “This is one fine book.”

Write for the audience who will enjoy your fiction. Write for your characters who have adventures to explore. Write for yourself, to satisfy the creator in you.

And allow readers to enjoy the stories and genres and styles that move them.

If it’s your fiction that moves them, entertains or takes them to another world, that’s great. You’ve done more than many can hope to do.

Now write something else. Take readers on a new adventure. Don’t expect the whole world to embrace you and your stories, but create stories that can be enjoyed. Write your best story.

Write enticing fiction.

And satisfy those readers who do get lost in your story worlds.

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Tags:     Posted in: A Writer's Life

9 Responses to “Write to Universal Acclaim? Not Likely”

  1. I agree, Beth. We can be quite flippant about the books we read, that is, we don’t hold back in our criticism, so why as writers should we expect anything different from our readers? It’s a hard lesson to learn, but a valuable one as it frees us from having to please everyone. :)

  2. Justin, the knowledge is freeing indeed.

    I’ve heard the recommendation that you should write for an audience of one rather than millions. That way you’re not scrambling to account for every taste and every possibility. That idea has something going for it.

  3. Don’t I know it. Indeed, I’ve known practically since I started writing that my works will never appeal to a large audience, and have grown comfortable with the idea that my books, when published, will probably acquire a small but appreciative cult (if they find any readers at all). Besides, so many of the most popular books tend to be … well … shallow. Sometimes really big hits have some substance, but not too often. I can’t imagine my books being turned into films or television serials (not without myself as absolute creative dictator, anyway, and that’s not going to happen!) but rather dream of getting that fan letter, you know the one, the one where someone tells you your novel is their favorite. An audience of one? Sure … just so long as that one isn’t just the lonely author.

  4. Joshua, I think many dream of those fan letters. Wouldn’t it be nice to know your words have reached someone?

  5. Roopa says:

    So true, Beth. Your article was a neat pick me up for me..

  6. I’m glad to have provided a pick-me-up, Roopa. Don’t you just love the writing life?

    • Roopa says:

      I love it..but it has been a hard earned love, beth. For years I remained wrapped up in my doubts and all the blahs of being judged etc until one day I bundled it all up and threw it out of the window. And i began writing for myself hoping that i would find another me along the way..

  7. Throwing all that junk out the window is a perfect solution. Doubts and fears do nothing to help us get ahead. Not in any endeavor.