Magazine article The Spectator

Building on Success

Magazine article The Spectator

Building on Success

Article excerpt

Alain de Botton has done it again and I hate him. A few years ago, I decided to make him my friend as a way of warding off the bitterness and jealousy I might otherwise have felt about his increasingly nauseating success. And for a while it worked.

He still is a friend, up to a point. We still have dinner together; we still fancy each other's wives; we could still conceive of having a gay relationship together if, one day, we end up stranded for ever on a Lost-style island or we're the only people to survive the Apocalypse; we still ring each other up now and then to bitch about all the successful writers we hate, and about how vile writing for a living is and how much more fun it would be to be entrepreneurs. I do very much fear, though, that with his new book, The Architecture of Happiness, and tie-in TV series, The Perfect Home (Channel 4, Saturday), the gap between us has grown too large to stomach.

The mistake I made with Alain, I now realise, is to have assumed that, like me, he was just another sweet, charming, bumbling fellow trying to make a living by his pen as best he could in a cruel, uncaring world. But in fact it's not luck that has got him where he is. Nor, though he is very clever and writes beautifully, is it talent.

What's really made him so successful are the business qualities he has presumably inherited from his father -- a canny understanding of how markets work and an utter shark-like ruthlessness.

I saw some of his sharkiness in action when he gave a lecture the other day at the Royal Institute of British Architects. Parts of the audience were mildly hostile, notably the architects among them who objected to their turf being trodden on by an outsider, and started asking him awkward, jargon-filled questions about his failure to address the fundamental issue of 'space', and suchlike. With a smile, Alain told them what fascinating questions they had asked, and then proceeded to squash his enemies like cockroaches, variously suggesting that they were mad, paranoid or had missed the point so completely that there really wasn't time to deal with their fascinating digression in this lifetime.

The canniness you can see in the way he has managed his career. His first books were literary novels, a genre he got out of early when he understood long before most of us that this would be the first thing to go when publishers began ceding all their power to their sales and marketing departments. His non-fiction choices may have seemed accidental, self-indulgent, even, but they were always carefully thought through -- not a book called Proust's Theory of Literature and Happiness but one (with exactly the same content) called How Proust Can Change Your Life, in order for it to be mistaken by Americans for a self-help book; ditto The Consolations of Philosophy. …

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