Why authors need to be nimble and adaptable

Does anybody remember prog rock – largely a Brit invention of the early seventies defined by the Hammond Organ, Minimoog, and a certain sense of pomposity.

It was killed stone dead, by punk, new wave and synth-pop. Most of the proggers kept a hard core of fans, but the audiences weren’t as big as they used to be.

Except for Genesis. In one dramatic burst they reinvented themselves as pop stars, transforming their music from dribbly 20-minute Mellotron solos to catchy little numbers like ‘Land Of Confusion’, satirising the Cold War, or ‘Invisible Touch’. And during the ’90s these ex-proggers pumped out hit after hit.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.
The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

It was a case of ‘hey, did they do THAT?’ And, ‘hey – they’re CAPABLE of that!’ I mean, who’d have thought?

But of course they were capable of playing pop – they’re musicians. Other proggers adapted too. Check out Rick Wakeman’s 1982 synth-pop parody, skewering The Buggles:

Genesis’ transformation highlights something true of all the arts – including writing. Reinvention is the key to longevity. And we shouldn’t necessarily classify the capabilities of a writer by what they are usually known for. You know – so-and-so is a ‘military historian’ and therefore incapable of writing anything else. That, of course, is the underlying assumption – reviewers, critics, even editors, like to pigeon-hole writers, often as being a certain ‘type’ of author, or for whatever they last did.

Writers who have the chops – who know what they’re doing, and who have made words their servants, can usually adapt themselves to anything. Look at Isaac Asimov, who was equally at home writing novels, non-fiction across a wide range of fields, and rude limericks.

I think it’s all the more vital, today, for authors to have that versatility – to be able to reinvent themselves, to be able to adapt to new markets and new genres. The publishing paradigm has changed dramatically in the past five years. It’s going to keep on changing. And it’s important for authors, if they want to stay in the game, to change with it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


10 thoughts on “Why authors need to be nimble and adaptable

    1. It’s back these days. And I follow it (I saw Wakeman, live, in 2012 – an amazing concert). But there was a period in the late 1970s – which I’m referring to in the post- where it went out of fashion. The genre has also been extended in Europe; current European operatic/orchestral metal (which I also listen to) owes a great deal to the legacy of Messrs Wakeman, Emerson, Anderson, Collins etc.

  1. I wouldn’t use the phrase killed stone-dead, I’d say Prog Rock was buried alive, because if you knew where to look it was possible to dig up the still-twitching bodies of some these bands. I remember getting hooked on Eloy in the early 80s, and Yes went through more line up changes than Chelsea in a Champions League run.

    But you’re correct in saying that success was maintained by evolution. In the 70s both Yes and ELP touched chart success with four minute songs, but Genesis turned it into a permanent state of affairs. I’ve heard of idiots who say writers should stick to one genre, but if you can write and research you should be capable of producing good literature in any format.

    I think you should invite suggestions for the literary equivalent to Tales From Topographic Oceans!

    1. I used a certain hyperbole in the phrasing! 🙂 I’m reading Rick Wakeman’s autobio, ‘Say Yes’ at the moment, and from his perspective that WAS broadly what happened to prog in the late seventies. Though I think ELP did all right with ‘Works’ about the same time – I seem to recall them on TV performing ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ in the Montreal Olympic stadium, in fur coats, mostly using Emerson’s GX-1. And Yes got something of a hit in 1978 with ‘Don’t Kill The Whale’ (four seconds under the mark at 3:56).

      Yes, absolutely I should invite proposals about TFTO!

    2. Further to this, I’ve now read the section in Wakeman’s autobiography where he describes recording ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’. Apparently the band couldn’t decide whether to do it in the country or in town and ended up filling the studio up with bales of straw, a painted cow, and a picket fence around the drum kit to give it a kind of country ambience. Apparently Wakeman’s keyboards kept having to be dismantled to remove stray dead insects that had arrived out of the straw, and his suggestions that the band would go down with Foot And Mouth disease didn’t go down well.

      Clearly the same would be achieved for an author by balancing their laptop atop a hay bale (and accepting the likelyhood of some small yet annoying bug making its home in the USB port…)

      1. I saw a documentary on the history of Yes and heard the same account. Part of Jon Anderson’s increasing strangeness. On the subject of Yes I think it’s worth noting the recent death of Chris Squire. In my opinion one of the best bass players of all time.

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