Most of you know the Sturgeon Principle: 90% of everything is crap, with 5% being okay and 5% being great. Audiences, not critics, tend to favor things from all across this spectrum, and in fact most of them tend to favor things in the middle rather than the top (or the bottom). "Critical darlings" are often just that: favored by critics, but not savored by many others.
The obvious lesson to take away from this would seem to be: if you want to be read, aim for the middle. Don't write total crap, but don't write stuff that's only going to be of interest to a self-selecting few, either. It's taken me a while to really suss out what that last bit means, because for too long it felt like an argument against writing anything challenging or highly personal.
When people talk about writing that's "challenging" or "personal", there's a couple of different streams that come to mind. The first is all the "difficult fiction" folks, from Joyce on down to Don DeLillo and Pynchon and David Foster Wallace and so on. The second is folks who were ostensibly working in some conventional vein, but exploded it from the inside. In mystery/thriller fiction you have Georges Simenon; in SF you have Phil K. Dick and Stanisław Lem; etc.
You can probably guess which of those two I cast my sympathies towards most directly. There's some difficult-fic folks I cherish, although for highly personal reasons (e.g., William S. Burroughs, the Patron Saint of High Literary Weirdness). But for the most part I gravitate towards people who could be identifiably associated with a genre, even if their end product is a lot less like the rest of what's in that genre than one would expect. For one, it means their work has a veneer of readability and recommendability; for another, it makes them better role models.
Highly singular creators are wonderful, don't get me wrong. (Again: Burroughs.) But they demand to be approached on their own terms, and that makes them harder to integrate into the general algebra of how writing works as a whole. They are worth studying, but not emulating. And from all I've seen, people who set off with the intention of being placed in the Difficult Canon often achieve that at the expense of most everything else that could be said about their work. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is indeed a singular work of fiction, as is Joseph McElroy's Women And Men, but beyond that they are more emblematic of how high literary fiction has become more of an insular and exclusionary hobby for a self-selecting elite than anything else.
It's hard to not make this sound like an argument against ambition, or being a maverick, or something of that stripe. What I'm arguing most against is the idea that those things are more important than the act of creating something that welcomes others in and blesses them with something they can connect to. Difficulty should be a water one refreshes one's self and others with, not an ocean to drown in. It's a nice byproduct of the ambitions of a work, not its goal.
Other Lives Of The Mind