The biggest names, Google n-grams, and SF author popularity among non-SF readers

Emphyricist

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I've mentioned repeatedly that I have an impression of six names in SF constituting a tier of writers unto themselves, insofar as popular awareness of them goes. People who generally may have no familiarity with SF have often heard of the "big three": Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, while literarily-minded people who "don't read science fiction" will still sometimes read Bradbury, Vonnegut, and Dick. Dick is to some degree the odd one out, since popular awareness of him stems from the adaptations of his books into films, and yet literary snobs are happy to read him.

I got into an argument in another thread (which I also started and don't want to derail) over my assertion that Dick used to be "second-tier" in another thread, by which I merely meant that he didn't initially have the name-recognition of other SF writers until Hollywood started adapting his books. I presented a Google n-gram which demonstrates my point, as well as the distinctiveness of five of these authors. Robert Heinlein appears to occupy the second tier, however this appears to be because results for "Robert Heinlein" and "Robert A. Heinlein" are almost exactly evenly divided. If you were to add those results, he would presumably score similarly.

It occurred to me that there are several science fiction writers who are often mentioned by people who don't read much science fiction. Margaret Atwood is someone who usually comes up in conversations about gender studies rather than science fiction; I've never heard anybody say "I don't usually read science fiction but I like Margaret Atwood," the way I've heard people do with Bradbury, Dick, and Vonnegut. While, like Bradbury and Vonnegut she doesn't consider herself a writer of science fiction, unlike them she's written only two science fiction books, and only one is widely read. This puts her probably closer to George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: a writer of a a particularly powerful piece of dystopian fiction who does not make a habit of writing science fiction.

The other SF writers people multiple people who don't read much SF have mentioned reading are Ursula Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, and Douglas Adams. I've also met a lot of people who've read Ender's Game, but this seems to be because it was required for a class, and I don't think I've yet to meet one who remembered who wrote it. Ursula LeGuin presents a similar problem for Google N-grams to Robert Heinlein, which two spellings of her name almost equally common, however even if you added the results together you wouldn't approach the popularity of what I think of as "the big six."

I present this n-gram, which has all of the names mentioned except Ursula LeGuin. We see that indeed the dystopian writers occupy a tier above the ones I think of as "the big six" (I've removed Heinlein on account of the aforementioned problems), though Orwell and Huxley have always held such a position, while Atwood's celebrity appears relatively recently. We also see that Ellison, Gaiman, Adams, and Card pattern below the "big six," but that Adams has enjoyed a steady rise in popularity which resembles a delayed version of Dick's. It's possible that I might be talking about "the big seven" in a few years, particularly since n-grams only go up to 2008, and most people I know who've read Adams have probably done so in the last decade.

I'm discussing all of this because I feel like, in this case at least, there's a fairly solid basis for asserting that those six (or seven, if you want to count Atwood was one of them and Orwell and Huxley in their own league), are in a class of their own, at least so far as notoriety goes. I'm not asserting that it means they're the best; the only one of those six (or nine) who numbers among my own top favorite authors is Arthur C. Clarke. But they're broadly accessible, and I enjoy them all.

However when I try to use n-grams to gauge tiers beyond that, it becomes less easy, since once I get beyond the second tier (SF authors who won a lot of awards), Google n-grams is often dealing in absurdly small sample sized, finding only one result of H. Beam Piper for example. I like Google n-grams as a rough tool, but it seems only useful for judging popularity at the highest level. Arguably you can also distinguish a few writers such as Ted Sturgeon, L. Sprague DeCamp, Harlan Ellison, and Douglas Adams, who have at various times risen noticeably above the second tier while still not approaching the first. It's also useful for identifying trends: it's gratifying to note that Jack Vance's popularity has seen a slow but steady uptick.

But the point of this is: I think that to some degree, it's useful to distinguish levels of notoriety among SF writers, and I think that there are objective ways to do it. Google n-grams is one way, but I'm sure there must be others as well.

And on a different note: can anyone find any writer who predominantly writes in SF yet approaches the popularity of the big six? I will note that Jules Verne doubles the popularity of any of the big six currently (though Asimov surpassed him at his peak), and H. G. Wells collapses the table such that all SF writers except Orwell, Verne, and Huxley look pretty much the same. However they basically founded the genre, and I think a lot of those mentions refer primarily to their influence. I don't know anybody who's generally not into SF who has read them.
 

Tom Hering

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I agree that Dick wasn't known outside the genre during his lifetime (he died the year Blade Runner was released), but he was certainly recognized within it. From Wikipedia:

  • Hugo Awards
    • Best Novel
      • 1963 – winner: The Man in the High Castle
      • 1975 – nominee: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
    • Best Novelette
      • 1968 – nominee: Faith of Our Fathers
  • Nebula Awards
    • Best Novel
      • 1965 – nominee: Dr. Bloodmoney
      • 1965 – nominee: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
      • 1968 – nominee: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
      • 1974 – nominee: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
      • 1982 – nominee: The Transmigration of Timothy Archer
  • John W. Campbell Memorial Award
    • Best Novel
      • 1975 – winner: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
  • British Science Fiction Association Award
    • Best Novel
      • 1978 – winner: A Scanner Darkly
  • Graoully d'Or (Festival de Metz, France)
    • 1979 – winner: A Scanner Darkly
One could also look at the Wikipedia article on all-time bestselling books (titles that have sold millions of copies). Only two SF genre works make the list: Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and Herbert's Dune. So I think you could add Herbert's name to your list of SF authors who have been well known to general readers.
 

Emphyricist

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There were a lot of people recognized within SF. Dick is unusual in that he gained widespread popular recognition posthumously to a level that no author author has managed. Google n-grams indicates that Frank Herbert patterns like any other acclaimed SF writer who isn't well-known outside the community. (By the way, there's two links in my previous post to n-grams illustrating what I'm talking about as well. I realized links don't show up well with the stylesheets used here; I will try to remember to underline them when I use them.)
 
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TheDustyZebra

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Only two SF genre works make the list: Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and Herbert's Dune. So I think you could add Herbert's name to your list of SF authors who have been well known to general readers.
Do you think Herbert's name was known, though, or just Dune? I suspect that one might fall into the same category as Dick, in the way that everyone knows Blade Runner but not Dick. And everyone knows A Clockwork Orange, but probably follow it up with Kubrick, rather than Burgess. Sometimes the authors get lost when everyone knows a film.
 

Emphyricist

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That's a good question, and the same one I had for Orson Scott Card and Ender's Game. As for A Clockwork Orange, most people know the movie and not the book. It's even clearer with Blade Runner, where most people know the movie but not Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I think it doesn't count that people have seen something based on an SF book unless they then go and read the book. And that seems to have happened with Dick. It doesn't seem to have happened with any other writer, but then I don't know of any SF writer who has been adapted as often as Dick has.
 

J-Sun

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Regarding Le Guin, don't forget that, like Robert A., she's also Ursula K. Le Guin. (I think it's a pond thing - I think she's mostly "K." in the US while UK publishers mostly drop her initial for some reason.) So she would actually have four primary variants. (I think I said somewhere something about the same big threes you mention except that, IIRC, I saw Vonnegut as successfully detaching from "SF" so put Le Guin in his place. But I think that was more in a "favored by academia" context than a "non-SF fans" context. I think it works for both, though. I don't mess with the Google stuff but it's nice to understand there's some statistical corroboration.)
 

Emphyricist

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I knew about the K. initial issue and mentioned it. I tend to use "Ursula LeGuin" when I talk about her because that's what most people I've met use, even though I'm American and the books use her middle initial. Actually, I think that the only writer whose middle initial I use regularly is Arthur C. Clarke.
Ursula LeGuin presents a similar problem for Google N-grams to Robert Heinlein, which two spellings of her name almost equally common, however even if you added the results together you wouldn't approach the popularity of what I think of as "the big six."
The two spellings "Ursula LeGuin," and "Ursula K. LeGuin" together exceed results for Ted Sturgeon (who himself exceeds results for most of the best-known SF writers in the field). However what I never noticed until you pointed it out is that her last name is actually spelled as two words. Unlike with Robert Heinlein, the spelling "Ursula K. LeGuin" dominates her other results, and if you add all her spellings, it looks like she compares to the big six.

When I think about it, she's one of the names people who don't usually read SF have often heard of; though I can't recall a time anyone's ever said to me "I don't usually read science fiction but I like Ursula K. Le Guin." But I'm not sure anyone's said that to me about Asimov or Heinlein either. Based on Google n-grams, the "big six" should be the big seven and include her, which I'm happy about since she's the whole reason I started reading science fiction.
 

Tom Hering

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I hadn't heard of Google Books Ngrams before reading this thread. During a search of the subject this morning, I came across an article in Wired that looks at some of the problems associated with ngrams and their use:

"Popularity Contests
One of the traps in using ngrams to divine the popularity of people, ideas, or concepts is that a book only appears once—whether it’s been read once or millions of times.
The Lord of the Rings is in there once, notes Dodds, and so is some random paper on mechanics. The two texts are weighted equally. It doesn’t reflect what ... people are talking about so much as what people are publishing about ..." The Pitfalls of Using Google Ngram to Study Language
 

hitmouse

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Isn't the idea of the "big 3" a bit time-expired? It had some (debateable) meaning in the 60s and 70s, but is rarely heard of these days. Heinlein, in the main, can seem a bit quaint in the 21st century.
 

Emphyricist

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I hadn't heard of Google Books Ngrams before reading this thread. During a search of the subject this morning, I came across an article in Wired that looks at some of the problems associated with ngrams and their use:

"Popularity Contests
One of the traps in using ngrams to divine the popularity of people, ideas, or concepts is that a book only appears once—whether it’s been read once or millions of times.
The Lord of the Rings is in there once, notes Dodds, and so is some random paper on mechanics. The two texts are weighted equally. It doesn’t reflect what ... people are talking about so much as what people are publishing about ..." The Pitfalls of Using Google Ngram to Study Language
It's useful as a rough heuristic, based on the law of large numbers. Of course it presents some other issues, for example Harlan Ellison's work as an editor and Ted Sturgeon's as an agent may and probably do inflate their numbers, which stand out only slightly from the other second-tier authors. Likewise, I'm sure that L. Ron Hubbard eclipses everybody, but since he's mostly known for founding Scientology, that would tell us nothing. I know nobody my age who've read his books, and the people of my father's generation who have have been universally unimpressed.

In this case, I'm confirming an impression I already had, namely people are often familiar with "the Big Three" even today, and I've heard people say "I don't usually read SF but I like Bradbury/Clarke/Dick/Vonnegut." I also observed that people who haven't read much SF have often heard of LeGuin, Ellison, Gaiman, and Adams, as well as Ender's Game without being able to name Orson Scott Card. (I think it's often assigned reading in schools, since it appears on the "favorite books" lists which mostly include the likes of The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird.) Frank Herbert may be in a similar position regarding Dune, though possibly less so with my generation. The only people I've met who've talked about Dune have been science fiction fans of the Boomer generation.

What n-grams suggests is that there is in fact a clear divide between the six writers I initially described plus Ursula LeGuin, vs. pretty much everybody else. We also see a tier above that for Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley, and Jules Verne, with Orwell and Wells occupying tiers of their own. I suspect that Verne and Wells are known mostly for their formational influence on the genre, and should perhaps be described as a "zeroeth tier," (though Wells was the third SF author I read after LeGuin and Asimov and I've read a fair bit of Verne as well) while the three writers known mostly for a single dystopian novel (Orwell, Huxley, Atwood), seem qualitatively distinct.

Isn't the idea of the "big 3" a bit time-expired? It had some (debateable) meaning in the 60s and 70s, but is rarely heard of these days. Heinlein, in the main, can seem a bit quaint in the 21st century.
There's no question that Heinlein is my least favorite of the "Big Three," and it's a good question how much of his fame is among SF fans who really love him rather than the population at large. I remember reading an interesting piece by John Scalzi about how a certain group of SF fans view Heinlein as the be-all and end-all. I also think that it's possible that people who don't usually read SF but watch a lot of "sci fi" might be likely to read Heinlein, for most of those types of people I've met though, Ender's Game and some Asimov seem to be the only non-novelizations they've read in the genre. However I do think that the idea of "the big three" is outdated. I started this thread partly arguing for the "big six" as a more useful term and would now expand it to "the big seven."

The other reason I started this thread, is that there are clearly "tiers" of fame within SF, within the community, within literary circles, among the general public. Obviously most of not all of those people who've won major awards (and I count inclusion in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame as an award, since it was chosen by ballot with the only excluded stories being a second Heinlein story in one volume and "A Canticle For Leibowitz"—the novella version—to which they could not obtain the rights) are distinct form most of those who haven't, but you also have some fairly obscure writers who've won awards (or more often, an award), while some (the big seven) who clearly stand out. Then you've got cases like Mack Reynolds, who wrote consistently crowd-pleasing fiction but never won a major award, or Walter Miller and Daniel Keyes, who were (unlike Atwood, Huxley, or Orwell), predominately writers of science fiction yet were literary one-hit wonders, but oh what hits they scored.
 

clovis-man

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Regarding Le Guin, don't forget that, like Robert A., she's also Ursula K. Le Guin. (I think it's a pond thing - I think she's mostly "K." in the US while UK publishers mostly drop her initial for some reason.)
The K stands for Kroeber. Her father was Alfred Kroeber, known as the father of American anthropology. So I guess you could say it's an American thing.
 

psikeyhackr

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Interesting Link:

I presented a Google n-gram which demonstrates my point, as well as the distinctiveness of five of these authors. Robert Heinlein appears to occupy the second tier, however this appears to be because results for "Robert Heinlein" and "Robert A. Heinlein" are almost exactly evenly divided. If you were to add those results, he would presumably score similarly.
Arthur C. Clarke still beats Heinlein by a small margin with both names. I found that surprising.

psik
 

Bick

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Arthur C. Clarke still beats Heinlein by a small margin with both names. I found that surprising.
I don't find that at all surprising. Arthur C. Clarke is/was well known outside SF circles. Honestly, I don't think Heinlein is (or was).
 

dask

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The K stands for Kroeber. Her father was Alfred Kroeber, known as the father of American anthropology. So I guess you could say it's an American thing.
Using the middle initial on published works is an American thing? Brian G. Turner, is this true?
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I think clovis-man was referring specifically to the K for Kroeber being of more significance in America than in the UK. And not just because of Alfred Kroeber. Theodora Kroeber, his wife, was a famous archeologist, too, though he was the more renowned.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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In general life, so many of the official forms we fill out in America ask for a middle name or initial, it's true that a lot of people end up using an initial as part of their everyday signature.

But when it comes to author names, I can't think of very many who use a middle initial and at least half of those are British. (And the American half are mostly women. I wonder why. Because it makes them sound more serious, maybe?)
 

HareBrain

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But when it comes to author names, I can't think of very many who use a middle initial and at least half of those are British.
This is a pretty good list, though it includes those who use several initials rather than a combination of forename and initial. From what I can tell without looking up the ones I don't recognise, most of the combination ones are American (including those who use a first initial and then a middle name, e.g. M Somerset Maugham). But there aren't as many as I thought. Are there any British ones you can think of that they've missed?

This is an interesting article on the subject:

They’re Dropping Like Middle Initials
 

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