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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Ignorance is Bliss – All Cock, No Bull

What’s the big deal with ‘antiques’ ‘dealer’ Kate Bliss (née Alcock)? Is she the new Carol Vorderman, some kind of so-called ‘thinking man’s totty’ for daytime TV viewers?

There’s a reason I ask… Some time in 2011, I banged out an off-the-cuff blog post about daytime TV show Secret Dealers, in which I commented on the absurdity of the show’s title in relation to its actual premise. There was a brief flurry of comments, primarily attacking my flippant criticism and largely missing the point, as is usual. After a few days, all fell quiet and like pretty much everything else I post, it sunk without trace – until a few days go, when suddenly hits on my blog skyrocketed. All the hits were on this singe post. This has now continued for the best part of a week.

This was unexpected, and I was compelled to undertake some cursory research into what may have prompted this upsurge in my post’s popularity. Had she died? Thankfully, no. Divorced? Not as far as I could tell. Given birth again? Nothing to suggest as much. In fact, news on Mrs Bliss is scant, with little in circulation that’s later than 2010, and precious little on her painfully sparse Wikipedia entry (not that I can talk. I don’t even merit a Wikipedia entry).

People are asking – and I know this because my analytics tell me so – ‘why did kate bliss leave secret dealers’. I don’t know. I don’t care. My blog does not have the answers. They’re asking ‘when did kate bliss leave secret dealers’. I don’t know. I don’t care. My blog does not have the answers. They’re also simply searching for ‘secret dealers kate bliss’. Why? What is wrong with these people? Do they have some sort of thing for slightly bug-eyed, big-chinned bottle blondes in their late 30s, with an Oxford education and detailed knowledge of antique jewellery, in particular silver? I don’t know. I don’t care. My blog does not have the answers. She’s certainly no Catherine Southon. So what’s the deal? I don’t know. I don’t care. My blog does not have the answers.

 

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Kate Bliss. No, really, she’s all yours mate.

 

But I do have questions. Really. I mean, TV career (such as it is) aside, she’s clearly doing ok. She has her own firm for a start, and the media coverage she’s received in recent years can only have boosted its profile (even when her estimates have proven wildly inaccurate. She’s invariably closer to the mark than Flog It! host Paul Martin, who’s completely fucking useless). How else do you account for her company’s fees (which are anything but bargain (hunt) basement)?

  • Hourly rate                 £140+VAT

  • Minimum fee              £150+VAT

  • Travel expenses         40pence/mile +VAT or public transport at cost +VAT

Guess what? I don’t know. I don’t care. My blog does not have the answers.

 

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

‘Pretentious and Dull’: Celebrating Ballard’s Lone Stars

Negative reviews have long been something of an obsession of mine. Having grown up reading Melody Maker and the NME in the late 80s and early 90s, it was the out-and-out slatings that I found made the most entertaining reads. In many ways, these reviews were a leading factor in my deciding I wanted to become a music journalist. For the first reviewing job I applied for, which happened to be at my local paper, I sent a deeply scathing review of a recent gig I’d attended, because I felt it provided the best means of demonstrating my flair for description and finding creative ways of saying the bands were shit.

I was elated when the section’s editor rang me to tell me I’d got the ‘job’ (I say ‘job’ as it was unpaid, an ongoing feature of my reviewing career which now spans the best part of twenty years). My elation was countered by no small degree of horror when he went on to tell me he loved my submission so much he was going to run it.

It was a vital lesson in writing, and at a relatively tender age (I was about 18), namely that if you’re going to write something, you have to be prepared for people to read it. The paper received a number of letters of complaint, the first review to have elicited such a reaction in its entire history.

Still, it wasn’t the first time my writing had received complaints. A couple of years previous, during the summer holidays, I had produced a newsletter of sorts, a parodic ‘gossip column’ type affair about people from my school. It went by the title of ‘The Parish News’, and I simply printed up and posted out copies to various friends and people I knew. Unfortunately, one (female) recipient shared initials with her mother, who opened the correspondence, and, taking offence at the references to her daughters breasts, decided to call the police about this ‘offensive’ publication. They turned up at the back door while I was cleaning the porch for pocket money, and delivered some stern words. They couldn’t tell me who’d complained, of course, but I spotted one of the, coppers was holding the envelope they’d been handed by the complainant and read the address, and made the simultaneous discovery that bobbies aren’t always the brightest. They also told me in no uncertain terms that I was to cease the publication of ‘The Parish News’ or anything similar. I gave them my word and they went on their way. I was a lot more careful with the distribution of the subsequent three issues of the quarterly A4 one-pager.

Since then, very little’s changed in many respects. I learned quickly to develop a thick skin when it came to comments regarding my work, and for every detractor there are many protractors, and besides, I’m of the opinion that it’s better to be slated than ignored – although that doesn’t stop me bailing in, feet first with all guns blazing when I receive a particularly feeble or otherwise irksome CD in the mail. It’s good to let off steam to flex my muscles that are primed for serving up vitriol, and I still believe the bad reviews are the best.

Unfortunately, many reviews on the Internet, be they reader reviews or fan reviews or little blogs or zines, are extremely poorly written, and the one-star reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, etc., are nowhere near of the standard of the scathing reviews penned by good journalists who possess wit, humour and an extensive vocabulary. It was this strain of review that was a key inspiration for This Book is Fucking Stupid, and long before I decided to write / assemble the book, I’d developed the habit of skipping straight to the one and two star reviews of books or CDs I was considering buying. Sometimes I’d find myself embarking – unintentionally – on extensive one-star journeys, reading all the terrible reviews of books I’d read or by authors I like. And really, most of them are truly terrible. Invariably, it’s abundantly clear that the reviewer is only semi-literate, and needless to say they’ve generally missed the point of the book completely.

I’ve recently been on something of a Ballard trip, and it’s perhaps not surprising that despite the glowing critical reception his works have received, many ‘everyday’ readers have been less impressed. tvpunter’s comments on Amazon.co.uk concerning High Rise – a book I found powerful and quite affecting – are in many ways typical:

1.0 out of 5 stars WE-1984-, 8 May 2011

By tvpunter

This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)

That kind of novel that potrays the middle classes in turmoil as oppossed to the state controling the masses..a metaphor for today in 2011..did’t work for me.

Clearly, spelling ‘dos’t’ work for him either, and reviews like this reveal more about the reviewer’s deficiencies than the shortcomings of the book. The point is, I’m aware that Ballard is guilty of the occasional lumpy sentence and sometimes the action scenes are so hastily sketched it’s difficult to discern precisely what’s happened. Consider these features endearing, small imperfection that are essential to the unique style of Ballard’s writing. Therefore, while not all of his books have had the same effect on me as The Atrocity Exhibition, I nevertheless find myself marvelling at the way in which he constructs his narratives, and I’ve not once – thus far – found a Ballard book to be ‘disappointing’ – unlike Thomas Hunter of Banbury:

1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 11 Nov 2011

By Thomas Hunter (Banbury, UK)

This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)

This book started so well, painting a great picture of a realistic brave new world on the French Riviera, and setting up an intrigue that promised to blossonm into an exciting mystery. But then it all went wrong as implausibility piled on top of implausibility. JGB thought he was building tension but instead he was building incredulity, finishing off with a pathetic ending that made me think the whole experience had been a waste. My first Ballard and probably my last.

The one thing that’s always struck me about Ballard is his ability to signpost the future. The London Riots of August 2011 immediately brought to mind High Rise and Millennium People. But the trouble with writing the near future is that for many, it will seem far-fetched and improbable, in much the same way Smellgrovia finds aspects of Kingdom Come ‘silly’.

1.0 out of 5 stars Pale Imitation, 21 May 2007

By Smellgrovia (Blackheath, London)

This review is from: Kingdom Come (Hardcover)

I am a huge Ballard fan and so am sorry to say that I really did not enjoy this. I agree with other reviewers in feeling that Ballard has done this so much better in other novels such as Cocaine Nights. I thought the shopping mall run riot was silly at best, and I just could not get involved with the characters or plot. By the end I was skim reading just to finish the damn thing – never a good sign.

2.0 out of 5 stars gratuitous, 17 Nov 2010

By biskit

This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)

i knew this book was supposed to be alarming, thought provoking etc., but i didn’t bank on the feeling of impatience and horror. never one to abandon a book half way, i kept on through gritted teeth. I have since passed dwellings that have made me think of this book, but that can be its only legacy. a fear that the hell within this book could become reality is what makes one read on, but beware the same is true for other stories of the horror genre. this is not a convincing tale, people going to work as normal and then setting up war zones in their own block of flats? i dont think so!

We live in silly times. I suspect many inhabitants of inner city areas would liken their tower blocks to war zones. Many considered 1984 absurd in its day, and no one got Nova Express, yet these books are now very much reflections of the society in which we now live. It’s a pity the authors weren’t around to witness recent events – or perhaps it’s a blessing. Sometimes, it’s not pleasant to find you were right all along.

I wrote This Book is Fucking Stupid as a means of addressing the dichotomy that runs through the whole field of reviewing as it’s emerged in recent years. Readers rarely seem to agree with critics, yet purchase books on the strength of the reviews its received – and then complain, feeling that they’ve been in some way misled by the critic’s positive assessment of any given text.

1.0 out of 5 stars One for the Daily Mail readers, 28 July 2008

By Bryan (Newcastle)

This review is from: Millennium People: Novel (Paperback)

If it’s a satire, it’s lacking wit, insight and humour, and if it’s not satire it betrays a staggering naivete. Characters are poorly drawn, but even in their one-dimensional state manage to be either wholly unsympathetic or downright offensive, and the world they inhabit is one seen by the most blinkered Daily Mail reader, where school fees are an important economic indicator, and the death of Jill Dando can shake the country. (The inclusion of a version of the Dando murder is so bizarre it’s almost funny, but not quite enough). The point of the book, such as it is, is facile – professionals have a function in society – but by presenting their closed world as the entirety of society, and not giving us any shade, or any tension, against their short-sightedness, the book’s never going to work unless you can actually sympathise with their views. And if you can, then I pity you. There’s also a nearly quaint 1960s radical feel – the giveaway line for me was a reference to a ‘shared lover’ – the uneasy balance between permissiveness and misogyny bringing the bearded conservatism of 60s student to mind. (The idea of overpriviledged revolutionaries obviously chimes with the theme of the book, but I don’t think that’s a deliberate echo).
There are some nice prose flourishes, but a handfull through the book, which mostly reads somewhere between plodding and clunky, while the dialogue is risible. If I’d not read some early Ballard, I’d say his editor hadn’t paid attention to an esteemed author’s manuscript.
Overall the book is a re-tread of High Rise, and suffers that book’s problem of a fundamental misanthropy based on a wilful acknowledgement only of the most venal side of humanity, that expressed in the broadsheets and world cinema of the London middle class. That could work if it was sufficiently stylised (and much as I disliked High Rise, it nearly worked through the conceit of staying within one building), but this wants to operate within a real world, but completely fails to acknowledge one exists.
If you like your writing dull, your authors solipsistic, and your themes akin to being battered over the head with a rolled Telegraph, then fill your boots on this one, but otherwise, there’s nothing to see.

Another key aspect of This Book was recycling. In these times of austerity and while green issues remain to the fore, I’m still the keen advocate of recycling I was a decade or more ago. I was raised to waste not, want not, and I’ve spent most of my writing career working to this ethos. Just as William Burroughs cut up Naked Lunch to create much of what would subsequently become the Nova trilogy, so a large proportion of the material that became THE PLAGIARIST and From Destinations Set began life as a novella entitled Destroying the Balance. This novella became my ‘word hoard’ so to speak, and I decided it was a more than fitting text to recut, re-edit and reconfigure in order to produce This Book. And why not? By reworking a pre-existing text, I’m joining a lineage of great authors who did precisely the same. Of course, not all readers appreciate what could be considered formulaic plotting, although no-one seems to complain that the bulk of crime, horror or romance novels all follow the dame formula.

1.0 out of 5 stars A waste of time and effort…, 4 Oct 2001

By deborah.daley@marshallcavendish.co.uk (London, UK)

This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)

I bought this book as I was going on holiday and needed something to read. It was a haste decision based on the rave reviews and the fact that this book had won an award. I did not find this book to be exciting, tense, thrilling, visionary, etc. This story of a man tracing the footsteps of another man’s killing spree is written in such a way that I wasn’t immersed in the story – I didn’t care about any of the characters, the plot was unbelieveable, long winded and consisted of twists that I had been guessed early on. It was only when I got to page 371 that I felt the story had some real feeling or was exciting – this isn’t a good sign in a novel.

Another thing was that there were too many poetic terms for describing things throughout the story. This is a talent of Mr Ballard’s that he utilised to the nth degree. I challenge any potential reader to open a page in this book and read – you’ll see that it’s difficult to keep track…

Why is this author praised as some kind of genius? Reading the synopsis of his other books it looks suspiciously like he rewrites the same story over and over again – perhaps he is a genius…

There is of course a fine line between genius and insanity, and if dumb is the new smart and the rewriting of the same story over and over again is the height of creativity, then This Book is Fucking Stupid is the very definition of a work of genius. What’s more, I’ve long said that plot’s overrated, and while a substantial number of truly important works of literature dispense with plot completely (again, The Atrocity Exhibition, Naked Lunch are obvious leading examples), while others relegate plot to a secondary or even tertiary position (I’m thinking instinctively of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work here, although again, there are many others) but of course what I really mean by this is that a truly great book needs a lot more to it than plot, and readers who read for plot alone are missing out on vast portions of the experience reading can provide. How often does plot as of and in itself make a reader pause for thought to assess their own lives, beliefs and the world around them? Still, even a good plot is wasted if the readership’s incapable of following it without it being spelled out. Perhaps more complex novels should come with plot-line summaries, and, better yet, a diagram with the key events in sequential order, just to make sure no-one gets lost along the way.

1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious and dull, 24 Mar 2008

By A. Auburn (Cambridgeshire, England)

This review is from: Millennium People: Novel (Paperback)

This is among the worst books Ive ever read. I couldnt follow the plot,and the language was over pretentious and unexciting. I have heard alot about J.G. Ballard but he is highly overrated and dull.

Ultimately, any writer has to accept that they’re not going to please everyone, and in fact, few would want to. I’ve made my decision: I’m going all out for the one-stars. I want to produce an entire oeuvre of ‘worst books ever’ than crush my soul churning out potboiling bollocks about knights or espionage. Let’s face it, the paperback fiction chart is grim and endlessly samey. Where’s the variety? Where’s the writing that challenges the reader and the status quo? I’d rather sit with Ballard in the ‘pretentious and dull’ corner of the literary world than be adored by the masses who loaf around on the beach reading Shopaholic or dross by Dan Brown. Stupid? Career suicide? Perhaps, but then so’s the idea of writing to become rich or famous. Fame and fortune are even more overrated than plot, but again, you’d have to venture off the bestseller list and read something other than celebrity autobiographies to find that out.

 

J.G.-Ballard-at-home-in-1-002

The late, great J G Ballard and his untidy bookcase

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

Christopher Nosnibor Banned from Social Network.. for Networking

Back in the MySpace days, when I was refusing to sign up to Facebook before peer pressure and a mass exodus meant I had to move in order to maintain my virtual profile and contact with many of the people who I’d met but who had since migrated, there used to be a running joke about Facebook that centred around the absurd premise of only networking with people you already know.

Having accumulated over 1,300 ‘friends’ (who probably are electric) since setting up my account, it’s probably fairly obvious that I’ve exchanged friend requests with a lot of people I’ve never met, never heard of and know nothing about. I do, however, tend to share a number of mutual friends with these ‘strangers’, more often than not on account of common interests and publishing.

Sometimes, I may not be actively seeking friends to add, but will fire off the odd friend request because, well, because Facebook tells me to. Granted, I’m entirely responsible for my own actions, but the feature whereby Facebook suggests friends is undeniably a less than subtle form of suggestion. Now, I’ll concede that it does list these suggestions under ‘people you may know’, but when you’ve got a significant number of mutual friends who move in the same circles, then you’re into ‘friend of a friend’ territory in a rapidly diminishing virtual world.

Still, to cut a short story shorter, it would seem that one of my requestees decided they didn’t know me and didn’t want to and told Facebook as much. Consequently, I received a notice informing me I was banned from sending any friend requests for a week, and furthermore, I was required to revisit the terms and conditions and tick a box on a declaration stating that I wouldn’t send friend requests to anyone I didn’t know, ever again. I was given the option to cancel all of my outstanding friend requests, or just those sent to users with whom I have ‘few’ friends in common, which was generous, but note the use of the word ‘few’ – not ‘no’. What qualifies as ‘few’? it’s all relative, surely. If a person only has 10 friends and five are mutual, it’s relatively many, but few in real terms. I know, I’m intentionally missing the point to an extent.

Moreover, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the irritation and antagonism serial spammers cause, or the threat to personal security the scamming spammers represent, but I nevertheless find this suspension approach absurd, because it’s not hard to distinguish between a human who’s a heavy user and a spambot.

Can you imagine the same scenario playing out in the real world: for example, delegates milling around at a conference not speaking to one another or introducing themselves to others? Shuffling up to the buffet and not speaking to someone because they don’t already know one another is hardly networking, is it? Or imagine a freshers’ week at university where no-one strikes up a conversation with someone just because they look interesting or they’re wearing a particular band T-shirt or whatever, because they don’t share an arbitrary number of common friends already. It’s unfeasible, and life simply isn’t like that. Social networking isn’t like inviting random strangers into your house just because they knock at your door: the clue’s in the name.

So is this an indicator that despite what Facebook claims to be, and despite the fact we’re supposedly living in a shrinking world with a wider society, what we’re actually doing is growing more insular, more fearful of ‘strangers’ and spending our time indoors not meeting new people, preferring instead to only associate in virtual life with people we know in real life? This would also suggest that social networking is, in fact, the precise opposite of what its name implies, and it would be more accurate to describe it as anti-social not-networking. Staying may well be the new going out, but forgive me for wanting to get out more while I’m staying in.

 

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Farcebook: absurd ‘guidelines’

 

And if you’re loving my work, This Books is Fucking Stupid is published on April 1st.