It’s 1991 and the recession is beginning to bite. Publishers’ accountants are staring at unearned balances, and reputations – for being artistic, for having introduced a ‘new voice’ or style – are about to be shown up for what they are: froth on the daydream, in the unforgettable (and pretentious) words of the French surrealist writer Boris Vian. Everywhere, writers are talking of TV opportunities – or even, as rumour has it that Paramount are about to open a London office, the true daydream, that of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Is the novel dead? Certainly, it appears to have run out of gas; and apart from Martin and Salman and Bookeritis on the part of editors increasingly glued into conglomerates, there’s a flat, weird feeling as culture dies and money, grim reaper of the literati, stands in the corner of every room, scythe swinging at the ‘lady novelist’, the hyper-sensitive or those, in publisher-speak, who were ‘badly agented’ last time round – in other words paid an advance that their rapidly remaindered book failed to earn back.
What to do? As a fellow-writer in the same predicament puts it, each time you pay a bill it’s like breaking off a piece of the fireplace – or cornice – or bedroom door: the house, mortgaged to the hilt and beyond, is consuming itself in order to keep us all alive. Soon, to pay off the debt, the estate agents will have to be called in – and when the debt is paid off, there won’t be much more left than the pile of ashes in the hearth.
The phone rings as I’m coming down the stairs of the narrow – but thankfully appreciating in value – little house in Notting Hill. It’s a grim day in February, the worst season for showing prospective buyers the property: even if I force the reluctant out into the communal gardens and point at the snowdrops prettily blooming in a Valentine shape on the slight mound I sometimes imagine is the grave of a previous unsuccessful author, there are more c
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