For instance, Nikola Tesla:
Lots of people don't know who Nikola Tesla was.
He's less famous than Einstein. He's less famous than Leonardo. He's arguably less famous than Stephen Hawking.
Most gallingly for his fans, he's considerably less famous than his arch-rival Thomas Edison.
But his work helped deliver the power for the device on which you are reading this. His invention of the induction motor that would work with alternating current (AC) was a milestone in modern electrical systems.
He died a penniless recluse in Suite 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel. The mainstream cultural fame of an Einstein or an Edison still eludes him.
Two ways to look at this would be external versus internal success. In the former case, Tesla was a success yet by his own measure he was not.
Push this concept into writers where there seem to be at least two versions of success - commercial and literary/critical. Commercial is pretty easy to grasp (e.g. no one does commercial success like JK Rowling or James Patterson) but the latter is harder to grasp.
From Gawker via Andrew Gelman:
RJ Ellory, award-winning author of crime novels such as A Simple Act of Violence and A Quiet Belief in Angels was blasted by fellow crime writer Jeremy Duns for posting glowing reviews of his own work on Amazon under the pseudonym "Nicodemus Jones."
I mean, sure, this is despicable behavior, I won’t deny that, but it’s gotta be harder and harder to make money writing books. Even a so-called bestselling author must feel under a lot of pressure. I was recently reading a book by Jonathan Coe—he’s just great, and famous, and celebrated, but I doubt he’s getting rich from his books. Not that there’s any reason that he has to get rich, but if even Jonathan Coe isn’t living the high life, that’s not good for authors in general. It’s a far cry from the days in which Updike, Styron, etc., could swagger around like bigshots.
- Elaine Ford’s Missed Connections was enjoyable and in my mind is what I would consider a literary success - I don’t really know whether it made the bestseller lists (commercial success) but it might have made that crossover. My measure would be some award either from a society of writers or won an award.
- Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin - again enjoyable and like Oryx and Crake, Handmaid’s Tale and so forth it is clear that she has managed to straddle both commercial and literary success.
- Karen Connelly’s Burmese Lessons and Dream of A Thousand Lives: Without doubt, Connelly is a talented writer and definitely in the critical category. Dream about her life in Thailand and Burmese Lessons about her time in Burma and Thai-Burmese border were entertaining and riveting. These were more autobiographical but the prose carried a sense of polish and finish that made reading parts of them almost lyrical and dream-like.
As Gelman points out it is harder to make money writing books these days and even harder to make a living solely from writing books. Does the author’s sense of self or the author’s goal of being a commercial success that determine the type of books they write?