Success is all relative, but it’s the intangible pretty much everyone seems to aspire to. Hardly surprisingly, given that, at least in Western culture, we’re taught from a very early age that failure is the worst thing that can happen to a person, and really, it shouldn’t be considered an option.
The danger of this type of polarised thinking, of course, is that it fosters a fear of failure so great that many would rather not bother trying than face the consequences of failure. And what are those consequences, precisely? In some instances, where the venture requires capital, then there’s the risk of losing everything. Again, that’s based on a very capitalist definition of ‘everything’: even those who lose their homes and wind up with their careers in tatters and barely a penny to their name in the UK, US and many parts of mainland Europe still have more than those in many so-called Third World countries.
More often than not, the primary consequence of failure is disappointment and a loss of face. Is that such a big deal? Arguably, winding up somewhere safe and uninspiring, having taken no risks whatsoever, would be more disappointing than winding up in a similar place while reflecting ‘at least I tried’.
Writing is all about risks and potential rewards, and while it’s likely the popular consensus would be that you need to be Stephen King or JK Rowling, George RR Martin or EL James, or perhaps Karin Slaughter, Lee Child or Stieg Larsson to be considered successful, it generally helps for anyone involved in writing or any arts-based field, to have rather lower ambitions. You’re less likely to have your dreams crushed and therefore be faced with agonising disappointment and the word ‘failure’ echoing through your mind at all hours. Or at least, so I’d like to think.
In my capacity of music critic, I’m more than pained by the way bands regurgitate the mantra ‘we make music for ourselves, and if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus’, but at the same time, I’m conscious that when I write, I close out the notion of audience or readership, because those spectres hanging over my shoulder make me feel self-conscious and ultimately lead to self-censorship. And ultimately, my work is more about artistic success than commercial success. And given the sales figures for my books to date, this is perhaps as well.
Nevertheless, I’ve built, over time, a small but seemingly devoted and appreciative readership. Expanding it isn’t easy, though: whereas with music, the immediacy of hearing a song played live is enough to influence a CD sale at the merch stall, convincing someone to commit to buying and reading a book is much harder.
Bands always sing about success as defined by big tour busses, big riders, cruising in limos, playing stadiums and being mobbed by groupies. Truth is, I know I would hate that. Not that it’s really an issue: none of it’s going to happen.
I started out on the spoken word circuit because I thought it may help sell books, but keeping an audience’s attention while slogging through a story at an open mic poetry night isn’t easy, and nor is finding a story that sits comfortably in a five-to-ten-minute time slot.
Hence, in some part, the evolution of the Rage Monologues. My prose fiction has often detoured into rant sections, and those pieces had proven to be fairly successful in a live setting, although the fact my fiction isn’t really plot or character based does make it difficult to perform in an accessible way.
So I ditched the narrative and cut to the rants. Initially I incorporated these early pieces into my set, and while divisive – to the extent that people would leave the room – people seemed to find them, oddly compelling. So I wrote more, until I had enough to fill a set. And then enough to pick a set from a fairly substantial catalogue. I decided that using spoken word performances to sell books was rather obvious and smacked of struggling commercialism. So I decided to pursue the idea of making art for the moment, visceral performance art with no product.
Weirdly, while there are still people who find my performances uncomfortable, overall, the reception has been extremely positive. And people have actually been asking for print books, hence a limited, numbered ‘tour edition’ of the Rage Monologues, available only at performances. I’ve sold more of these in three or four performances than I’ve sold works in print in total through the twenty or more performances I’ve done in the preceding year and a half.
So what have I learned? First and foremost, it seems people who attend spoken word nights like poetry, aren’t too fussed about prose or narrative, but many of them find a man screaming his lungs out with expletive-laden tirades most compelling. Clearly, people appreciate the sentiments, and I’m tapping into some undercurrent of anger. And perhaps, like the rush of seeing a band play a great live show enthuses people to buy CDs, so my performances – which border on public breakdowns – are infectious enough to achieve the same kind of response.
Weirdly, whereas people used to avoid me after reading excerpts from my novels, seemingly thinking me a bit strange, I’m often rushed by people wanting to talk to me after completely spilling my guts on stage. By coming across as more of a psychopath, it seems I’m actually more approachable.
Does this mean I’m suddenly successful? Hardly. But it does mean that by ditching the established model of touring to sell product and instead focusing on the immediate experience, I’m achieving success of a different kind. It’s no longer about shifting units, it’s about having an impact and reaching and audience.
Meanwhile, I might have expected more footage of my performances to have started cropping up on-line, but no. However, rather than be disappointed, I like the fact that my readings remain a largely unknown quantity, clandestine – you actually have to turn up to experience it. For me, this is much more rewarding than the knowledge my work is drifting around in the mainstream and received passively, without response. A small but enthusiastic crowd who actually appreciate the work for what it is – at least from an artistic, creative perspective – infinitely preferable to being big-bucks wallpaper and mental chewing gum. It may not be everyone’s idea of success, but I’ll take it.