OK, a little background here. I have a “pet troll,” who’s like a cockroach that lives under my floorboards, who shows up from time to time to ruin my metaphorical lunch. Recently, Mr. Troll thought it would be funny to send me some screenshots comparing the Amazon ranking of my books to that of, get this, dinosaur porn, and you know what? It was funny! My friends and I all had a good laugh sharing his emails, because, let’s face it, this guy turns trolling into an art form. He really puts a lot of time and thought and heart into his work and I really appreciated that.
But despite a lot of detective work, Mr. Troll really doesn’t know much about me or the business of writing, but his comments did give me the opportunity to ask myself, what does being a successful author mean to me?
If my only goal as an author was to make a lot of money, then I’d have quit writing long ago, because I already have a very lucrative job as a restauranteur. Our Italian restaurant franchise was founded in 1977 by my father and it has been a gold mine ever since. Far from going downhill, as Mr. Troll claimed in his email, last night on Valentine’s Day we broke our ALL TIME sales record. But money has never been a priority for me. Sure, I’d rather not live in a tent if I can help it, but if I can make enough dough for a roof and spend my days doing what I love, then I’m happy. And after almost twenty years of tossing pizzas, I’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t have to work anymore and can just focus on writing.
So if success doesn’t mean fortune, it must mean fame, right? Of course, I’d love it if a million people were reading my stuff, but only for the right reasons. You see, what Mr. Troll fails to understand is that there’s fame and then there’s infamy. I, too, could garner a thousand more readers and a hundred more reviews, if I were writing smut, but that would be the literary equivalent of my becoming Mia Khalifa. If you haven’t heard, Mia is a beautiful Lebanese actress turned porn star who, by the age of 27, has earned herself 3 million followers on Twitter and 19 million on Instagram. Now, I am by no means decrying Mia’s career choices. If having sex on camera makes her happy, or being a dinosaur porn author makes you happy, then good for you. But making it big on social media, or ranking high on Amazon for writing just anything, does not define success for me. My most popular article to date, Why Don’t We Live in a Perfect (Nude) World? has been read by more than 32,000 people, and was published in a magazine and the newspaper. In response, I stopped writing about nudism for a while, because that just wasn’t the kind of success I wanted.
For years, my friends and family have urged me to go mainstream. Never mind dinosaur porn, at the very least, I should be emulating what is trending. Rick Riordan earns ten million dollars a year, after having written, The Lightning Thief, essentially a Harry Potter knockoff. Tempting as it is, I just can’t bring myself to do the same, to copy A Game of Thrones or Twilight or any other bestseller.
I didn’t choose the literary profession to make money or to imitate someone else’s ideas, because for me, writing is an art form, and I consider myself an artist. What does that mean? Here’s a definition:
The purpose of art is to express the artist’s unique view of the world, and through that expression, find meaning in life.
How does writing dinosaur porn, something I have no interest in, even if I were to sell a million copies of it, help me achieve that?
When Cloud Atlas debuted in 2004, it sold a measly 797 copies, while Fifty-Shades of Grey sold a whopping 15.2 million in its 2011 release. Still, if a genie were to allow me to switch places, I would, without a second’s hesitation, go with Atlas’s author David Mitchell than Grey’s E.L. James, even before the Tom Hank’s movie that boosted Atlas’s sales to half a million. Why? Because Mitchell is my kind of author, and because he wrote, what I consider, a beautiful masterpiece. I would even go so far as to choose authors who never saw success in their lifetimes, like Moby Dick author Herman Melville or A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole, than to make millions off something like dinosaur porn.
What does success mean to me? The other day, one of the smartest and most well-read people I know sent me this message:
This, this right here, is why I write, and why I will continue to write to my grave. When I move people emotionally, I know I’ve done my job, and that I’ve done it well. This is what success means to me.
Actually, scratch that. I will have truly achieved success when I have as many trolls as Richard Dawkins.