Here Comes Success: How I Came to Terms with Being a Minor Cult Author

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.

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Writing about Writing (Again): A Slap of Reality in a World of Fiction

On TV and in films, and even in many novels, writers are often – if not almost always – portrayed as high-profile media types, living the high-life, traversing here and there in sharp suits and fancy dresses, to interviews, readings, launches and high-profile media events. they’re inevitably best-sellers, and vaguely eccentric, and live in nice, even vaguely grand homes or apartments (if they’re American): they get stopped in the street (and, if you’re Castle, at crime scenes) by fans who simply love your books, live and breathe your characters and want to marry you., or at least have an affair.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the literary circles I move in are toward the lower end of the industry. By which, of course, I actually mean they exist outside of ‘the industry’. They work regular jobs, have families and chisel out their works in stolen hours late at night and early in the morning. They do it out of compulsion, a need to purge and splurge, rather than for the money. It almost goes without saying I count myself amongst these. Writing isn’t some hobby or light-relief pastime.

The writers I know and associate with are, believe it or not, more representative of writers than the popular portrayals of writers. With a few notable exceptions – Stephen King, JK Rowling, for example – writers tend to be fairly anonymous. Unlike actors, writers don’t get their faces splashed over huge billboards. Writers aren’t usually the most photogenic of people, which is often why they’re writers and not actors. Do you know what E.L. James looks like? Dan Brown? John Grisham? Jodi Picoult? Donna Tartt? Toby Litt? And these are ‘bestseller’ list authors, not the majority of people who constitute the world of publishing in all its guises.

It’s ironic that actors get paid megabucks for playing out the scenes laid out in the pages of books penned by anonymous writers, and earn significantly more for doing so, given that without the writers, the actors would have no scenes to perform. it’s all about having a face and an image that sells. ‘Game of Thrones’ author George R.R. Martin didn’t get rich posting selfies and posing for Vogue.

Fiction is often escapist: it doesn’t have to be fantasy or sci-fi to take the reader beyond the confines of their hum-drum daily existence. And so it may be that even writers who earn royalties of pence and cents may portray high-living celebrity writers in their works. I have no gripe about that, per se, other than the observation that it flies very much in the face of the first principle of writing, which is ‘write what you know.’ This doesn’t mean fantasy and science fiction are out by any stretch, so much as that it pays to at least research scenarios that exist beyond your knowledge, because a savvy reader can spot a bluffer. Research plus imagination is, of course, another matter entirely and can be the very essence of creative genius.

As such, I resist the urge to yell at the TV when ‘celebrity’ writers are portrayed. Of course, my initial thought is ‘when do these people get to do any writing, given the time they spend travelling around to premieres and being famous?’, but the answer is obvious – namely, the rest of the time. Because unlike the writers I know, they don’t work the 9-5, and their maids and the like take care of the kids while they swan round in the name of ‘research’.

Recent research suggests that the prospects of a writing career are pretty dismal if you’re looking to get rich, even if you do achieve a degree of fame: Prospects.ac.uk report that ‘The median earnings for professional writers (those who dedicate more than 50% of their time to writing) was only £11,000 in 2013, and only 11.5% of professional writers earned their incomes solely from writing.’ The Guardian reports that ‘The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.’

This is nowhere near a luxurious salary. It’s not even minimum wage. It’s certainly well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. It means that writers don’t live in palatial mansion-type homes, resplendent with antique furniture (unless they’ve inherited it) or plush penthouse apartments. They may have heaps of books on their shelves (the majority likely either purchased second hand or sent to them for review or in trade) but the chances are most writers don’t rise around brunchtime and slip on a silk bathrobe before a serving of eggs Benedict and then chip out a page or so while sipping sherry or 50-year old single malt in their resplendent superbly plush leather-upholstered chair at a Louis XIV desk in the prime spot in a mahogany-panelled library. No, writing is work: hard work, even for ‘successful’ authors. And given that in the region of 99% of all books published sell fewer than 100 copies, what hope is there fore the rest of us to break through to the major league?

The rest of us – the writers who can’t even qualify as ‘professional writers’ and who are obliged to work for a living and write on the side, in their spare time… well, what about us? We may be by and large fringe producers of culture, but collectively account for much of the vital undercurrent that breaks new ground and ultimately inspires the commercial mainstream. We’re the lifeblood. We stay up late, typing with our eye bags instead of our well-manicured fingers, using stolen moments to render those ideas that poke and prod and gnaw at us during the ours of the 9-5 into words that will ultimately purge us of the torment of drudgery.

Some, perhaps maybe many, harbour ambitions of the palatial mansion-type homes or plush penthouse apartment with a capacious library suite and luxurious office. Maybe they’ve bought the fictional representation of the author, like the office temp I worked with once – a guy in his early twenties who was convinced he could pen a novel that would become lauded as a literary masterpiece, after which he would never have to work again. I didn’t delight in shattering his illusions, and equally, I don’t delight in the author’s plight, because it’s my plight as much as the next minor-league author’s. This isn’t about highlighting that plight, either. It’s not a grumble and grouse about how artists don’t reap the rewards they deserve, but a meditation on the vast disparity between the fact and the fiction. And what beggars belief is that the fiction, as presented in the media, of the wealthy, famous and esteemed author, is propagated by authors at all levels. After all, ‘big’ films, TV dramas, series and the like are as likely to be penned by breakthrough authors, who are accustomed to the real world rather than the privileged world of the top flight. Where do they get these ideas from?

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see… Originality is dead. Legend and myth isn’t the life of the author. You’re not Stephen King, you’re not Castle. This is not ‘Murder, She Wrote’. This is life. Now write it.

 

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Cramped, cluttered and anything but the image of a palatial literary person’s writing space…. the ‘office’ of part-time literary nonentity Christopher Nosnibor, today.

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk.

Kate Middleton’s Breasts

In the wake of the Olympics and the Paralympics, it was inevitable the news agencies would be looking for items to easily fill the gaping chasm in their columns and programming. It would have been all too easy to have returned to the previous staple of war, global economic meltdown and devious political manoeuvring exposed, but to have pursued that direction would have called a rapid halt to the jubilant mood that still hangs in the air as Olympic fervour dissipates.

Boom! Kate Middleton – or Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge as she’s formally known – with her jugs out! Of course, no British publication would run the pap snaps, and in many ways, that only added to the essential cocktail of ingredients that rendered this the perfect story for the time. The British public love a good scandal and an excuse to puff up with righteous indignation (as evidenced by the Daily Mail reading masses) and have a thing about topless birds, especially celebrities (as the Sun ‘reading’ masses prove) and as the popularity of publications like Heat etc., show, celebrity gossip is what everyone who doesn’t want to deal with the horrors of everyday existence wants.

As this non-story and the frothing furore and debate surrounding it unfolds, I’m reminded – as I often am, in truth – of J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. In particular, the geometry of the media landscape Ballard portrays so vividly, marked out by enormous blow-ups of disembodied parts of celebrities’ anatomies. I’m also reminded of the titles in the appendix sections, ‘Mae West’s Reduction Mammoplasty’ and ‘Princess Margaret’s Face Lift.’ The vapid culture built around a prurient obsession with celebrity Ballard depicted may have been the emerging landscape of the time it was written, but it’s unquestionably more relevant now, in an era when fervent adulation of Pippa Middleton’s posterior has filtered through into even the broadsheet press. And so it comes as no surprise that there’s a veritable media spasm over Kate Middleton’s breasts.

Because I’ve already written extensively on media overload on countless occasions already, and no doubt will again in the future, there seems little point in doing so again here. Similarly, the ethical questions concerning privacy and the press that are proving to be the central focus of this so-called ‘scandal’ have received so much attention, there’s absolutely no point in rehashing it, and even if I felt able to bring something new to the table, it would be lost in the endless currents of hot air already circulating. If I’m going to expend energy pissing in the wind, it’s going to be on a subject I at least feel truly passionate about.

The real question, as I see it, isn’t about whether or not a royal should be able to sunbathe topless without being snapped, but what’s the fuss about? Just as the nation went nuts when Prince William began courting ‘Kate’, as much because she was a ‘commoner’ as anything, so it seems that the idea of ‘young people’ in the monarchy seems to have changed the tide of opinion and enabled the monarchy to shed its stuffy imperialist image, and the only real explanation for this is because people are stupid and gullible – and of course, celebrity fixated.

But celebrity is always about mystique, and all the more so when the celebrity in question is largely inaccessible. The intrigue of what’s under her (high street fashion / designer) clothes therefore becomes heightened proportionally against the likelihood of ever finding out.

In Kate, they were always looking for a new Diana, and in this episode, they’ve got it, and a whole lot more. Woman of the people, hounded by the press… check. But in Kate we have a rather different scenario based on paradox: Kate Middleton is a celebrity, and one who is less accessible than most because she’s royalty. At the same time, because Kate’s a ‘commoner’, she’s more accessible, which gives people a (false) sense of hope. If she gets ousted by her future monarch husband after siring the next generation, then perhaps someone of her own class might be in with a shout… of course it’s all an illusion, the ‘commoner’ image simply a tag that’s been fostered to broaden her appeal. Anyone who thinks they’re going to stumble into Kate Middleton (even if she does eventually find herself out of monarchical favour and free to date dynastic billionaire film producers) in their local Asda is clearly deluded.

But here’s the clincher paradox: Kate Middleton may be the ‘princess of the people’ and more accessible than any of her predecessors, while also being royalty and a celebrity on an almost untouchable level, but the bottom line is that she’s really pretty average. By which I mean that if she wasn’t royalty and a celebrity on an almost untouchable level, she might still be a rich girl, but no-one would pay her any attention whatsoever. What is there that truly distinguishes her from the crowd? She doesn’t even appear to be ageing especially well, with her features often appearing drawn and haggard beyond her 30 years in photographs on-line and in the press. The cult of Kate is purely a reaction to her social status and celebrity. Consequently the intrigue of what’s under her (high street fashion / designer) clothes becomes heightened proportionally against the likelihood of ever finding out. But, against the odds, we now know. The pictures are blurry, the quality disappointing, and the same is true of Kate’s boobs, which are average and unremarkable in every way.

And there you have it. You’ve seen the goods, they’re not much to write home about, and besides, you haven’t got a hope. Now please, move on, get a life and find something / someone else to wank over.

 

 

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Kate Middleton: Ordinary?

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk