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I recently asked a question which cited a book by Orson Scott Card, How to Write Fantasy & Science-Fiction. Orson Scott Card is the author of Ender's Game, as well as many other sci-fi and fantasy books, and I've always assumed he was generally respected as a reliable source on how to write, seeing as he is a bestselling author. I was surprised, therefore, when a user left a comment on the question, as follows:

Consider the source. I would take anything OSC proclaims with a hefty dose of salt.

This implies that OSC is generally not respected as a reliable source. This isn't the only time this has happened:

When reading the Inheritence Cycle, I thought that Paolini did a fine job, especially given his age (minus the boring half of Eldest). When I came here, I found that the general opinion of Paolini was very low indeed.

In order to avoid making a similar blunder with much larger stakes, is there any way I can determine an author's standing amongst the readers? Obviously I could do detailed searches on everyone, looking up book reviews and spending hours browsing forums, but I'm wondering if there is a location that puts it all into a concise 'general opinion' description.

Where I can I find such a description?

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I think there are two questions here. The first (the OSC one) is about the helpfulness of a given writer's advice on writing fiction. The second (the Paolini one), if I understand it right, is about the "goodness" of a given writer's fiction, and (I'm guessing) about the usefulness of examining their fiction for the purpose of learning how to write fiction.

I'll tackle the second question first. If an author's work is popular, and you want to write popular fiction, then there is probably something you can learn from it. For me the example is Dan Brown. I find his writing awful to the point of annoying me. And yet whenever he releases a new book, I buy it immediately, and I can't put it down. So clearly he's doing something that works for me. Given that I would love to write books that people can't put down, I could probably learn something important from Dan Brown's books, regardless of what other people think of his writing. And regardless of my own annoyance at his authorial shenanigans. (If only I had the stamina to fight through my annoyance long enough to analyze what he's doing.)

As for the first question, about a given author's advice about writing, I think you can apply a couple of tests:

  1. How successful are the author's books?
  2. To what extent have other authors benefitted from this author's advice?

I would give more weight to advice from an author who has demonstrated success repeatedly over many years, and less weight from an author with one or two books, or with books with limited sales. Or no books at all. (Note that my interest is commercial fiction. Literary writers might weigh things differently.)

A caveat: People do not always know the causes of their own success. Their advice may (unbeknownst to them) rest on many assumptions and on conditions that are peculiar to them, assumptions and conditions that might apply to you, or might not.

Which leads me to my second test. Can you find other successful writers who attribute their success partly to advice from the author in question?

I know of numerous writers who attribute their success in part to workshops they took from Orson Scott Card. Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, David Farland. And several writers in turn attribute some of their success to things they learned from David Farland.

All of those people have achieved significant success. Of course, the caveat above applies here as well. Their success doesn't prove that OSC's advice is any good in general, or that it is right for you in particular. But it's gotta count for something.

A final note. A single Stack Exchange contributor's opinion of a the worth of a given writer's advice does not imply that the writer is generally not respected. That contributor (whose respect around here is enormously well deserved) was careful to phrase that opinion clearly in the form of a personal opinion. If you get a lot of opinions like that, that adds up to "generally."

Note that I am not commenting on the wisdom of that contributor's comment. I am cautioning only about treating any one contribution (no matter how wise) as "generally."

OSC has said things I abhor. Those things are outside the realm of advice to writers. So I weigh his advice very differently depending on the domain of the advice.

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  • Good advice on gauging the author. I think the question could easily be summed up as 'How can I determine the public opinion of an author?' so I'm not sure how you got two questions. :) But still, good answer! Sep 14 '16 at 19:25
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    Dale, your delicacy and tact are lovely to behold. ;) As the author of the comment which sparked this question, I'll say that my poor opinion of Card's advice is based both on his writing (technically sound, but I disagree with the themes he seems to be espousing) and on his personal beliefs (which are odious and deplorable). It is, as rightly noted, only my opinion, and others may find Card's advice valuable. As far as Card's influence, as it happens, I don't like Brandon Sanderson's writing either! :) Sep 14 '16 at 19:39
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    So I hear there's this basket… ;-) Sep 14 '16 at 19:51
  • @DaleHartleyEmery Please explain that phrase.
    – user5645
    Sep 15 '16 at 5:20
  • @what It's a reference to a recent scuffle in the U.S. presidential race. Sep 15 '16 at 5:32
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I suspect the answer is you can't easily find the meaningful reputation of an author.

The first problem is a question of which authority do you wish to trust on the issue. We'll make a fictional Bob, who is willing to answer this question for you. Send him author names and he'll tell you their reputation. The question of why do you think that he has a better sense of author reputation than you comes immediately to mind and plays strongly into the next point.

No community is a monolith. Some believe that any author with great sales should be respected, others seem to think that any author with great sales is producing trash and should be ignored. Parse it by genre, age, gender and who knows what else and you'll get very different results depending on who you ask.

There's also the issue that authors have more than one reputation. Taking OSC, his politics have a horrible reputation among most people who know them. For some that colors all he does, for others he might be a fine author and might even have good advice on writing, but they'd never want to have dinner with the man.

Given all that, the idea that there might be somewhere you could look up an author's reputation seems daunting.

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If an author is a best seller, presumably the general public's opinion of his writing is high. Even if someone was taking polls on "Do you like the writing of X?", I think books sales are a much better indicator. People are actually willing to pay money for his books. They must think they're worth reading.

I suppose there's the caveat here that many people may buy a book with terrible writing because they think it is "important". Mostly I think this would mean books by influential people on controversial subjects. Like if the president wrote a book on politics, I'm sure lots of people would buy it even if the writing is terrible.

And books written by celebrities often sell well even if the writing is terrible, just because the writer is already famous.

But in general, if a book sells well, that usually means that lots of people think the writing is good.

Any given reviewer may, of course, have a different opinion. But the fact that one reviewer says a book is terrible when 10 million people bought copies of it ... the reviewer may, of course, be right that the book is terrible, but clearly the consensus of the reading public is that that reviewer is wrong.

You don't link to the specific post about Orson Scott Card and I haven't bothered to find it. I suspect the author is referring, not to the quality of Mr Card's writing, but to his opinions on controversial social issues which she disagrees with. It is, of course, perfectly possible and reasonable to say, "X is a brilliant writer, but I disagree with his political/social/religious/whatever views." I've had many occasions when I've been reading a book and thought to myself, "This book is so interesting and entertaining, the writer has such skill at story-telling ... too bad he's using that skill to push this foolish and/or actively evil philosophy. I wonder how many people will fall for this bad idea just because this great writer presents it in a way that makes it sound so appealing." And there are surely many times when an author writes a great book that has absolutely nothing to do with his positions on controversial issues and you wouldn't even know that he's a [fill in group you hate].

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  • Hence my confusion of the Inheritance Cycle. I haven't heard a good word for it (which I admit may be due to fear of speaking out), and everyone who's mentioned it here denounces it. Yet it is clearly popular enough that everyone here has read it. So... ??? Sep 15 '16 at 17:22
  • I've never read it or heard of it, so I have no opinion on the quality of this ... is it a novel? I guess it's POSSIBLE that this is a terribly written book that had great marketing so lots of people bought it, and then they all hated it. More likely, the people whose opinions you're hearing are not a representative sample. Like every time there's an election, I always here someone say, "What! How did X win the election? Everyone I know voted for Y. It must be election fraud!" The real answer, of course, is that "everyone I know" is not necessarily a representative sample of the population.
    – Jay
    Sep 15 '16 at 17:38
  • That is true, and must be the case, although I would imagine I would have heard someone say they liked it by now. It is a series written by a very young author who used his parents' publishing company to get published. The books are a combination of star wars and LotR in everything, including characters, setting, and plot. The only thing different is the dragons he threw into the mix. Sep 15 '16 at 18:09
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    As I've never heard of it, than obviously no one has ever heard of it, so it's not a popular book, and so does not challenge my thesis. :-) BTW your description makes it sound goofy, but then, I suppose you could describe Hamlet as, "A story about ghosts and people fighting with swords and a guy whining about how unfair the world is and stuff, and the characters make a bunch of long-winded speeches to the audience."
    – Jay
    Sep 15 '16 at 18:55
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There is no universal public opinion of any author. People read of pleasure and for edification. There are various pleasure you can get from reading, and various forms of edification. Some hold that some pleasures are higher than others -- aesthetic pleasure higher than vicarious adventure, for example. Some hold that edification is better than pleasure, or is a higher form of pleasure. Some hold that some forms of edification are better than others.

We esteem those authors who provide the kings of pleasure and/or edification that we value most highly. Since different people rank pleasures differently and rank edification differently, and rank pleasure vs edification differently, they admire different authors.

An argument about whether on author is good or bad or better or worse than another author will often turn out to be an argument by proxy about which pleasure or which form of edification is superior.

Advice about how to write tend to have a similar bias. It is how to write to give a particular kind of pleasure, or how to write to give a particular form or edification. But it is seldom qualified this way because most of the people who give this advice start with the belief that the forms of pleasure and edification they value of (naturally and indisputably) superior to all others and therefor the advice they are giving is universal.

The trick in evaluating any advice to to work out the presumptions behind it. If you agree with those presumptions, they you will likely value the advice. If you don't, you will likely ignore it. (Though possibly it might cause you to rethink your own presumptions, which would probably be a good thing. Even if you don't change you views you will understand them, and alternative views, better.

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As other answers already indicate there is no such thing as a public opinion on people. Especially in the realms of internet comments there is a lot of binary opinions either adoring or condemning a public person. A good analysis of the reputation of people in the light of public opinion is way too complicated to be discussed here.

However, I distinctly remember reading a lot of Orson Scott Card's reputation back when the Ender Game movie hit the cinemas. A lot of media outlets as well as the usual internet crowd focused a lot on his faith based views on homosexuality. It even has its own Wikipedia section on his page. I certainly don't want to take any stance on that issue here, but I read a lot about boycotts and general condemning of his stance on the issue and the societies he describes in his books - especially of the Ender series - in mainstream media outlets.

Thus, have in mind that the public opinion about writers that are outspoken about (controversial) topics may very well be subject to heavy opposition in the web. On the internet the ones opposed to something are always louder and it does not necessarily have to do anything with the writers ability to write or give writing advice.

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