Tonkin, Boyd, The Independent (London, England)
Two journalists meet for a drink in a club. After a bit of aimless chatter, one of them glances furtively around and whispers: "Don't tell anyone, but I'm writing a novel." The other lowers her voice and replies: "Don't tell anyone, but neither am I."
If only that story still rang true. If only journalists really did let that half-finished manuscript languish in the bottom drawer. If only chat- show hosts stuck to prime-time flattery, politicians to hot air and supermodels to the catwalk. Not any more. These days, any wannabe celebrity worth a single flashbulb feels the need to try their hand at fiction. Meanwhile, talented writers in other fields - reportage, memoirs, biography, travel - suffer an ache of inferiority unless they have a stab at what DH Lawrence once called "the great bright book of life" - the novel.
The outcome is a culture that makes a fetish of fiction at the same time that it undervalues authors whose gifts lie elsewhere. But fiction is fatally easy to do badly; grinding difficult to do well. I doubt whether a quarter of the 4,986 novelists who published new work in the UK in 1996 had any real aptitude for the art. The rest should remember that the House of Fiction is not the only address on Literature Street. Yet it's not hard to see why the novel has become a sort of default-setting for all literary ambition. People understand how novels work. The media knows how to package and promote them. For clapped-out politicians with shattered majorities or comedians with TV ratings on the slide, nothing pushes you back into the limelight faster than a little light fiction. At least when the supermodel Naomi Campbell published a blockbuster about the fashion scene, she took the precaution of having it written by a competent ghost called Caroline Upcher. So Naomi Campbell's Swan became branded merchandise, rather like Ralph Lauren's Polo. After all, no one seriously imagines that Mr Lauren spends his days sniffing potions in the lab. More annoying are those bona fide writers who turn to fiction to prove they can do it, much as they might try to climb an Alp or run a marathon. Clive James had already proved himself as a scintillating critic and a witty autobiographer. But his recent novels suffer from odd slabs of journalistic detail that might work better as essays or travel pieces. As for Michael Ignatieff, he took refuge from political thought with a soppy Russian saga, Asya, that owed more to Mills & Boon than John Stuart Mill. His second novel did show a drastic improvement - but it sounded much more like a memoir. Among the pack of recent books by entertainers-turned-novelists, Ben Elton's Popcorn is the sole example to justify its wood-pulp. The others should have stuck to the day - or rather, the night - job. One wonders how some of these amateurs would feel if real novelists started to muscle in on their patch. Saul Bellow doesn't do stand-up. Anthony Powell refrains from guest appearances in sitcoms. The 10-year-old Martin Amis displayed some alarming child-star pouts in the film of High Wind in Jamaica, but he did give up the silver screen after that. It would help if the full-time stars of stage, screen, Parliament and pitch exercised the same restraint when it came to fiction. They should follow like seagulls in the wake of Eric Cantona. In spite of artistic bent, the departing sage of Old Trafford shows no signs of attempting a novel. Don't let us down, Eric. The flipside of this cult of fiction is that good writing in other areas holds a second-class citizenship in the Republic of Letters. Yet look at the record of the past few decades, and you find much surer signs of a Golden Age in the the forms that don't depend on imaginary characters and plots. Biography has boomed since modern masters such as Richard Ellmann and Michael Holroyd brought it back to life. …