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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When is a gig not a gig? When it’s a multimedia performance art display…

Viewer / Bastard Structures / Beaumont Hannant – Bar Lane Studios Basement, York, 13th May 2011

The walk through town was hell as I cut my way through drunken weaving tossers in shiny suits and smashed bimbos who’d fled the races in search of more booze, food and amusement. The races might be good for the local economy, but that’s about it. As I headed up Mickelgate through the teaming hoards of plastered fuckwits, I encounter a familiar face. it’s the bearded eccentric techno wizard Tim Wright, one half of York techno should-be legends Viewer.

‘You’re going the wrong way,’ I tell him.

He explains that he needs food and is on a mission, so I wish him luck in his quest and continue onward to the venue. The Bar Lane Studios was, once upon a time, York’s Sony Centre, and I purchased my current stereo, including turntable, from there, back in 1998 or thereabouts. It’s now an art gallery and studio setup, beneath which there’s a basement that’s home to live music, theatre and more. At the door, there’s a cluster of people smoking and chatting, and there emerges a skinny guy with some wicked chops and a bad shirt. it’s AB Johnson, the other half of Viewer. He greets me, but can’t stop: he’s looking a bit vexed, and not without reason. He needs to find Tim to sort an issue with the projectors. Sometimes, there are things even a hundred yards of gaffer tape can’t handle.

I make my way down into the basement, a brilliant space for such an event. It’s a plain and solid rectangle, with bare-brick walls, flagstone floors and not a lot else besides a PA and a temporary bar with four different varieties of Roosters beer on pump. This definitely gets my vote, and by the time I’m halfway down a pint of the Mocha Stout at 4.7% ABV, I’m less concerned about the prospect of one of the projectors stuck to the ceiling falling on my head. There are a fair few people I’m acquainted with present, so I mingle and talk bollocks at them while superstar DJ Beaumont Hannant creates a pleasant ambience.

It’s around 9pm when Tim Wright and his collaborator Theo Burt take up their stations behind their laptops stage right and the venue is plunged into darkness for their Bastard Structures show. It’s not ambient, and nor is it entirely pleasant, and that’s a good thing. Put simply, this is multimedia art at its most absolute: the visuals drive the music, with the shifting shapes actually triggering the sounds, and it’s neatly arranged to alternate between pieces by each artist, interspersed with truly collaborative crossover pieces. Wright’s works are stark and brutal, Merzbow-like walls of noise and dark, penetrative frequencies assailing the aural receptors while harsh strobe effects and black and white images flicker scorch the retinas in the most abrasive, unforgiving fashion. Burt’s pieces contrast well, being lighter, playful even, easier on both eye and ear and more clearly designed for amusement, and the crossover pieces bring the two styles together to dizzying effect. A chap I know later remarked that he enjoyed ‘the fun ones’. Needless to say, I preferred the ones that inflicted pain on my senses and fucked with my head.

Bastard Structures

 

Time for another pint as I’m working my way down the bar and around the people I’m familiar with, and then Viewer are up. The projections – more brain-bending optical shapes that hypnotise in no time and completely suck you in – provide the perfect backdrop to the duo’s sassy, savvy brand of pulsating techno indie pop.

 

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When I say that Viewer are cynical, I don’t mean calculated or contrived: the lyrics, penned by AB, to songs such as ‘Dumb it Down’, ‘White Noise’ and ‘Sunrise’ are sneering swipes at society, at conformity, at, well, take your pic. Johnson’s vocal style – which falls between Mark E. Smith, and, as another reviewer has suggested, Lou Reed – seems as much at odds with the music as his image and lyrics, and it’s precisely because of these contradictions that Viewer are such an interesting proposition. AB is also a great front man who looks entirely at home on stage – again, in complete contrast to Wright, who lurks in the shadows, hunched over his laptop and remains seated. He knows exactly what he’s doing, of course: namely controlling the thumping beats and solid basslines that provide the foil for Johnson’s quirky delivery and showmanship.

 

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All the while the geometric patterns roll endlessly, searing their shapes into the retinas of the onlookers. It’s a groove alright, and by the time they closed the set with a reprise of ‘Suicide Girl’, my senses were tripping in overdrive.

 

Viewer – All the Pretty Young Things

Back up on street level, the world had gone mad, with the racegoing revellers wreaking drunken carnage in a shiny-suited remake of one of Hogarth’s scenes. Somehow, as I weaved through the inebriated shouts and squawks, the men standing in shop doorways pissing over their own snakeskin shoes, and the flashing blue lights of approaching police vans and ambulances, the unsettling juxtaposition of two very different sides of life on the same street seemed perfectly apt.

 

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