This may be the nature of any widely sought desireable thing in limited supply, but in America, literary fame behaves like money.
The most obvious similarity is that, like money, literary fame clusters. It gathers itself to itself. Naturally, given the numbers involved, most new books never get reviewed by the handful of reputation-making outlets in American letters–almost all of which are based in New York City, which also happens to be home to several of the country’s most famous writers. (This may be another example of fame/money’s clustering effect, of the importance of putting yourself where the money’s at, so to speak.) A few books get reviewed once, perhaps “briefly noted.” Yet there are, every few months, an elite one or two authors who get multiple reviews and interviews, from the same coveted media outlet. These are your top 1%. It’s a nice place to be, I imagine.
Literary fame doesn’t just cluster with the few; like money, it makes more of itself. Once you are part of the top 1%, you can use the attention to increase the attention. The next book, and the next and the next, don’t have to be of the same quality as the book with which you first hit it big. The fame itself will guarantee a certain degree of attention to your subsequent ventures. It’s a familiar situation: a writer hits the fame-jackpot with an early or debut work, then turns out not-as-good-but-still-good books for the next several decades. Every few years, the new book generates a spike in chatter, perhaps the national award that the earlier book didn’t win. The chatter may even mention how the new work is not as good as the earlier work (we used to see this routinely with the work of the now-“retired” Philip Roth; it was almost a ritual among his critics, even among his admirers).
Denigration hardly matters; chatter is the currency of fame, and even a low-risk venture will pull in a good deal of revenue. A fairly minor Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Namesake, most likely got the attention it did because it followed her Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection. In retrospect, I cannot imagine it getting very far as a debut from an unknown; I sensed myself reading the book differently because it came from her. Literary fame can work this way: It can prime readers to perceive the follow-up work’s quality, opening them up to a work they might have judged more skeptically otherwise. (It certainly works this way with publishers considering a manuscript.) This is just another way fame makes more fame. I note that the opposite is also possible—you might approach a writer’s follow-up with a can-he-pull-it-off-again skepticism—but even the resulting negative chatter is more chatter than a nobody gets. It’s not what they say about you, it’s that they talk about you at all.
Let’s remember that the lucky work hard, too—only for them, the reward is proportional to the work. And sometimes (let us be honest) out of proportion: I leave the reader to name his or her favorite example of that particular phenomenon. The quality of the writing plays into reputation-making, just as the shrewdness of the idea plays into money-making, but it’s quite obviously only one factor in a larger, unpredictable phenomenon. The importance of luck is a near-certainty among unsuccessful writers, and at least a suspicion among the successful ones; there is scarcely a single serious reader who doesn’t know of at least one living writer who should be much, much better known, reviewed and read and adored and awarded.
The role of luck is pretty much objectively demonstrable when it comes to the timing of the windfall. Some good writers show up and are justly adored from the moment they publish, like the luminous, possibly Nobel-Prize-destined Jonathan Safran Foer. Others have to rely on sheer doggedness, like the British author Emma Donoghue, who wrote excellent books for decades until Room made her name on both sides of the pond.
The have-nots of literary fame, like the have-nots of the economy, work hard, too, but they never get lucky and strike it fame-rich. These are the proletariat, the 99%: the midlist novel writers, the short story writers who publish in zines and reviews, the Notable Local Author, the #134,233 in Sales on amazon.com, the remaindered, the warmly-reviewed (though never in the New York Times), the well-received. The only consolation to American fiction’s 99% is that, though they’ll never hit it big, they’ll never be quite as bad off as the poets.
Such are the economics of fame—and don’t hope for a revolution, because writers themselves don’t dream of a classless society. It’s the same reason there wasn’t a revolution in late capitalist America circa 2008. The 99% sincerely believe that, if only the “system” of recognition could be improved and made “fair,” merit would receive its reward; the inequality would persist, but they would enjoy their rightful place in it. The 99%, at some level, fantasize about joining the 1% even though, at some level, they poisonously resent it. Sound familiar? This is also known as the American Dream.