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March 1, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

How to be a cult author

or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Literati

Cult Author. The words send a frisson of delectable forbidden delight through the core of my geeky soul. The author that you simultaneously want everyone and no one else to read. The person who uncovered the darkest depths of your soul and spilled them forth to examine them prophetically, druidically even. But what makes them so special? How do they have such insight? What sets them apart from Diana Gabaldon and Jefferey Deaver, or even (dare I speak his name) Dan Brown?

Perhaps, just perhaps, we can gain some insight into this.

“Buy the ticket, take the ride.”—Hunter S. Thompson

It is, unequivocally, the readers who make a cult author. Seems like a sweeping statement to make. But consider who we hold up as examples of cult authorship: Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuck, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, J. D. Salinger, H. P. Lovecraft and Kurt Vonnegut—undeniably good writers in their own way. I would contend that, considering the incredible diversity of the material that they work with, it was someone’s personal recommendation that got you to read their work. At this point I will admit to make sweeping generalisations about your reading habits. Suffice it to say that if you haven’t read any of these authors then I would recommend you do. Not that you actually know me from a bar of soap.

The most important thing to remember about any cult author is, for the most part, they didn’t set out to be one. It is hard to imagine Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson setting out to be the voice for the disillusioned masses in the sixties and seventies. But they were. Their message rang loud and clear at the time and, in a lot of ways, continues to do so today. I would posit that there is nary a journalism student who hasn’t been inspired, at least in part, by Thompson’s unflinching disregard for anything but the contrary animal that calls itself the Truth.

It is the voice of these authors that has reached and grabbed the attention of all of their readers. They have offered up themselves and found thousands who find like-mindedness in their views. In a lot of cases the readers found more in the writing than perhaps the authors put there. There have been a number of prominent murders that have been associated with The Catcher in the Rye, for example. It’s hard to imagine how one young man’s tale of New York could inspire anyone to murder, and yet history stands testament to the fact that people have found this, somewhat twisted, message in Salinger’s writing.

All this aside, to be a cult author you need to give the readers something to get behind.

“If you can do a half-arsed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind.”—Kurt Vonnegut

So you want to be the one-eyed man. What vehicle will your insight take? What do cult authors write their missives about? The simple answer is, just about anything. Almost without fail, however, they write a critique of the society in which they live. How metaphorical this critique is can be left up to the individual author. Hunter S. Thompson scorned his society openly. Aldous Huxley posited a future that his current society would develop into. Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, expresses the fantastic in a contemporary setting. Gaiman’s distaste for some of the tropes of modernity is palpable in the moments where real meets surreal, when plausible meets fantastical.

So what should you, as the budding cult-literary-figure-to-be, choose as your setting? Stick to the classics, people. Write about contemporary society. At the risk of sounding trite, write what you know. I’ll go out on a limb here and posit that if you’re reading an article in our esteemed student magazine for a how-to-become-famous guide, then imagination probably isn’t your strong suit… so avoid science fiction. Richard Morgan states “good science fiction or fantasy needs the engine of imagination to drive it…”.

To qualify this somewhat, Richard Morgan is the brightest new rising star in the sci-fi literary world. He is also a favourite author of mine, and time will prove me right when I put forth that he will prove to be as incisive and important a cult author as Orson Scott Card (Yes I’m very aware of the odds, and I will beat them thank you). However, if you do want to dive into the heady freedom that is second-guessing the future, you really should try to have an essential point of difference. There are a million published authors publishing a billion books about everything you can possibly want to read about. So why are so few of them cult authors? Why do none of them stick in our collective consciousness so well?

“I’m afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery.”—Aldous Huxley

Most cult authors’ works are either considered “before their time” or are just flatly disliked by mainstream consciousness. It is a rare cult author who lives out their days in wealth and security. The ones who do so happily are rarer still. Of course the flip side to that particular coin is that, in a lot of cases, the author never wanted to be adored. Chuck Palahniuk once said “I don’t care what they do with my book so long as the flippin’ [cheque] clears.” This, from the man who runs neck-and-neck with Brett Easton Ellis to hold up mirror to contemporary Western society’s dark twisted face. Even H. P. Lovecraft never expected to be read: “heaven knows where I’ll end up—but it’s a safe bet that I’ll never be at the top of anything! Nor do I particularly care to be”.

So, realistically, popularity is not what you should be aiming for. By its nature anything that is easily digested and understood by the mainstream cannot stand outside the comforting firelight of the communal consciousness. A warm seat by the fire precludes the possibility of shaping the community as a whole. No one ever changed anything by doing what everyone else was doing as well. Cult authors are the people who shake our Id by the scruff of the neck and make us re-examine what fundamentally makes us who we are. It is a lonely place to exist in, but it is also an enormously rewarding calling.

“A novelist is free in ways that other creatives can only dream about.”—Richard Morgan

Any author can write about anything they want. It takes the exact balance of narcissism and pessimism to write something that changes lives. You can only ever write down what is in your head. There is nothing you can think of that you cannot write down in some fashion. The harsh reality is that most of what you write down will be utterly inane. But the truest joy there is is finding the shards of diamond brilliance buried in the core.

The thing that makes cult authors so terrifyingly magic is the shards they assemble into a shining whole resonate with so many people for utterly different reasons. Everyone sees the same diamond, but each person finds a different facet captivating. The biggest difference between cult authors and mainstream authors is simply this: cult authors make no apologies for the darkness in our souls. A mainstream writer often has a tragically flawed central character. But they valiantly struggle against their flaws. They do not define themselves by their flaws. A cult author’s character (and by proxy the reader) lives in spite of their flaws. The flaws simply are. They affect decisions made and paths taken, but they continually exist.

It would take a rare person to claim that they were without flaws. They would also be a liar. For the rest of us who do not wish to pursue careers in law or politics, we have made peace with our flaws. This is not to say that we like them, but we have developed ways to live our lives in spite of them. The genius of cult authors is their ability to show us the characters’ flaws and make us see our own alongside theirs. They make us understand our place in the world and, in turn, inspire us to change it and despair that it should be such. Kerouac perhaps best summed up this phenomenon: “I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.” A cult author relishes the ability to show mankind both its darkest aspect and its brightest ideals. The balance of these is the crucible that tempers the significance of an author.

Kerouac firmly held onto the ideal of beauty in all things experiential. Hunter S. Thompson held the truth accountable for all ills and triumphs. Huxley prophesied a societal breakdown of common values. Richard Morgan explores what it means to be a human being in an inhuman world. Salinger understood what it meant to be old before your time. Palahniuck stirs the bile and vitriol of humanity’s indifference.

“An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.”—J.D. Salinger

The reality is that cult authors write for themselves. Most authors do. Yes, you will always be able to find corporate shills who will write anything they are asked to if the price is right, but in the main it’s literally every writer for themselves. So what does this mean to you?

Let’s try to summarise it for you. We could even make it a checklist.

  1. Write for yourself.
  2. Bile and vitriol will take you far but only if it’s readable. The internet is full of writing that is not.
  3. Be brave enough to explore that which is uncomfortable for you. Face the darkness.
  4. Don’t try to be more than what you are. If you can inspire others to greatness, awesome. If you can show others another aspect of life, fantastic. If you can only tell your story but you tell it well, there is room for that too.

No one ever set out to be a cult author. They set out to be a writer and somewhere along the way they felt an obligation to shoulder a burden greater than themselves. They took it upon themselves to show us what is and what this might mean. There is nothing more shunned than a hard, unwanted truth. And the reality is that often the truth will go unacknowledged and unrecognised for year after year, languishing in obscurity. It doesn’t stop it being the truth. If a million people believe something it doesn’t make it true, but if a million people are told the truth it will mean a million different things.

I guess the bottom line is this: cult literature stands the test of time because it reveals a fundamental truth to us when we read it. If you want to join those hallowed ranks you had best find your own truth to reveal in us.


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  1. Zero Lubin says:

    I anticipate this link will contribute to your research. ‘Cult’ does not necessarily has to be gloom and doom – for myself – the work deals with nostalgia, memory and elements of ‘making strange’.

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