Magazine article The Spectator

When They're Not Scratching One Another's Backs, They're Scratching One Another's Eyes

Magazine article The Spectator

When They're Not Scratching One Another's Backs, They're Scratching One Another's Eyes

Article excerpt

Amanda Craig has written a novel about literary London which its publishers have withdrawn. Actually it seems to be less about literary London than the collapsing NHS and, as Ms Craig has described it herself, `the horrors of being a single mother on a council estate'. But this earnestsounding novel does have a swipe or two at book reviewers and their mores, and it is this which has led to the book's withdrawal. David Sexton, who graces the pages of this magazine, has written to Penguin - the publishers who had intended to publish A Vicious Circle-complaining that he is the model for one of the novel's more disagreeable characters.

Any suggestion that a novelist has written a roman a clef invariably draws forth howls of protest from the writer concerned, who does not like it to be thought that he or she has such feeble imaginative powers as to be forced merely to borrow from life. In an article in the Guardian, Ms Craig asserts that 'these characters are all figments of my imagination'. Those who know Mr Sexton and have read the book are not so sure. It is also pointed out that a character in the novel called Ivo Sponge bears more than a passing resemblance to an obscure literary hack called John Walsh. In an article in the Independent, Mr Walsh lists some similarities between himself and his presumed literary alter ego: both have curly hair, dress like dandies and are lapsed Catholic exgrammar school boys; both are sons of doctors and both are gossip-writers turned literary editors.

As I understand it, Ms Craig believes that literary London is an incestuous world in which writers either reward their chums with ecstatic reviews on the books pages or settle old scores under the camouflage of literary objectivity. Authors who lie outside this backscratching little circle are likely to be ignored. I doubt there are very many unregarded geniuses, but Ms Craig's account otherwise sounds perfectly convincing, if somewhat overdone. The wonder is that she should affect to be so critical. She herself is part of this set - indeed so much part that when she comes to write a novel (A Vicious Circle is her third) she borrows characters from it without in some cases even bothering to change the details. Her distaste evinces more an impatience with several former friends than a deepseated rebellion against a world of which she remains part.

The question is how those who do not belong to this world should be on their guard against the slanted review. Of course a little inside knowledge can help. When the historian Andrew Roberts reviews a book by his fellow historian and friend, John Charmley, as he did in the Sunday Times of 15 September, the outcome is almost bound to be pleasurable for Mr Charmley. Outside the literary world, it was gracious of Sir John Junor to write so ecstatically in his recent Mail on Sunday column about the first issue of Punch, edited by his old friend and lunching companion, Peter McKay. In general, however, knowledge of the characters involved is no more than a useful aid. My own rule of thumb is to be on my guard against any review which is extravagantly nice or nasty about a living author.

It is often not very difficult to ascertain the true motives behind an attack on a writer or a book. It was obvious, for example, that A. N. Wilson's recent very amusing assault on Humphrey Carpenter in the Evening Standard was at least partly based on personal knowledge of Lord Runcie's new biographer. …

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