I recently got a Facebook message inviting me to join a musician’s fan group: a well-spoken, friendly invitation, ending with “I’m sure you’ll agree [the musician]‘s a sorely underrated talent.”
“Underrated” – I’ve heard that about my own stuff, more than once. More than twice. And even when it’s said, as the musician’s fan said it, with honest admiration for the work, it really used to bother me: as if, in the making of art, there was a contest of attention that it was measurably possible to lose or win, and my work was falling short.
So: value. Public recognition (praise, reviews, invitations to speak, etc.), is one way to keep score. Influence – on other artists, on the wider world – is another. Sales are the most trenchant way, because sales mean that people are buying the work, they demonstrably want it. (Unless people are buying it and not reading it, but that’s a meta thought for another time.) Which is the reason to write, after all: so people can read what you’ve written, what the muse or whomever has given you to say.
So does being underrated mean that my books won’t be read? That’s an honest worry – I want to speak to everyone who can hear me. But is that everybody? Every possible reader? My voice is a singular one (every writer’s is), and the ones who have receptors for it are its natural audience. Having receptors for something doesn’t mean you’ll automatically love it: you might very decidedly not. But you will hear it. And hearing it will make some difference for you, in some way. Further than that, any writer, any artist or maker, cannot venture. We are all mysteries, and our receptors are our own.
I do read reviews, and I do read readers’ comments (the ones I see, or are sent to me). And I do find people who find my stuff to be a total run-on-sentence baroque mess, and other people who fall in love with it, and say so at eloquent length. And at that intersection my work’s found, and heard, and rated, and I can be content.