Media: Publish and be damned clever

When journalists turn to fiction, as they inevitably do, they should steer clear of the newsroom. By DJ Taylor
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The Independent Culture
The late Jeffrey Bernard, who wrote The Spectator's "Low Life" column for 20 years, used to say that the achievement of which he was proudest was not having written a novel. The implication - that there is a line to be drawn between "hack" and "serious writer", and that the distinction is one that the average hack can be proud of - isn't one that commends itself to the current generation of young journalists, most of whose members are itching to forsake the newsagent's barrow for the Dillon's display window.

In fact, this spring's publishers' catalogues positively bristle with offerings from cool-eyed ornaments of the Daily X and the Sunday Y.

For example, former Sunday Mirror editor and newly appointed Tory spin doctor Amanda Platell has her first novel out in the early summer. Telegraph man John Preston's novel Ink is already in the shops. Polly Samson's collection of stories, Lying in Bed, is out shortly from Virago, with a novel promised for next year. Sunday Times columnist Zoe Heller produces in June, while The Mail on Sunday's Suzanne Moore is apparently readying herself to deliver.

Searching to explain this torrent of print, compiled on afternoons off from Wapping or Canary Wharf, one stumbles on the simultaneous lure of cash and cachet. There never was a journalist - Bernard excepted - who didn't wish to aim higher; to use the bread and butter world of Fleet Street as a stepping stone to serious literature.

On the other hand, many of the columnists now blossoming into print have been actively encouraged by publishers. Hot, new literary talent is always in short supply, and practically any journalist who shows the slightest spark of originality and, in addition, commands a regular following, learns to expect polite letters beginning "Dear X, I am a great admirer of your work and wonder if you have ever thought of writing a novel..."

There are, of course, immensely respectable historical precedents for this. Both Dickens and Thackeray - to take only two 19th-century behemoths - began their careers as newspaper hacks. Graham Greene's first novel was written between stints sub-editing on The Times, and Frederick Forsyth served an apprenticeship in the King's Lynn office of the Eastern Daily Press.

In the recent past, several household names have paid their dues in Fleet Street before proceeding to the best-seller lists. Veteran hacks will remember the youthful Sebastian Faulks as arts correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, while Robert Harris, whose work Archangel is currently crowding out Waterstones' shelves, was a political commentator for The Sunday Times.

Unsurprisingly, this tradition of novelists spending their formative years on the subs' desk has produced a distinctive genre of journalists' novels about journalism. Thackeray's Pendennis (1850), for example, offers a rather sanitised conspectus of the early-Victorian newspaper world. George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891), alternatively, is a work of stark realism, full of down-at-heel hacks contemplating suicide in their cheerless garrets.

The foreign correspondent's novel begins with Evelyn Waugh's Scoop (1937), subtitled "A Novel about Journalists" and featuring the megalomaniac newspaper proprietor Lord Copper, owner of The Daily Beast. Ferdinand Mount's The Clique (1978) opens early in 1965 among a group of notebook-wielding carrion crows assembled to cover the impending death of Sir Winston Churchill.

Given the pull of the genre and the time-honoured advice to aspiring novelists to "write about what you know", it's relatively uncommon for journalists' novels to stray too far beyond the workplace.

Wendy Holden's Simply Divine, published earlier this year, covers the world of fashionable party-going which Ms Holden had observed during her time on Tatler. Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, widely supposed to be the model for "Champagne D'Vyne", was supposed to be mildly annoyed.

Amanda Platell's novel is thought to contain a boardroom revelation or two. One exception to this pronounced roman-a-clef tendency was AA Gill's Sap Rising, which shyed away from the subjects of television and overpriced restaurants for the machinations of a Kensington garden committee.

Other novels simply grow out of their author's column. Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary famously began in these pages. Similarly, Isabel Wolff's The Trials of Tiffany Trott started life as a Telegraph column detailing its singleton author's trawl through the dating agencies in search of Mr Right. A successor, The Making of Minty Malone, appears this summer.

But the staple of the genre - the journalistic caper novel, full of bungled scoops, missed deadlines and sexual embarrassments - continues to flourish. Last year's highlight was Andrew Martin's Bilton, which featured a lifestyle journalist with a serious attitude problem. This year's variations are long-time Fleet Street habitues Tim Heald's Press Gang, and Preston's Ink.

While the latter tends to the macabre, starting with a body fished out of the Thames and including interludes at graveyard and mortuary, it does contain a classic genre joke: a newspaper in which hacks who fail to meet their deadlines are sent to the basement to work on the Queen Mother's obituary.

The question facing the critic who is confronted with this acreage of print, produced by people whose faces (and opinions) are already familiar at the breakfast table, is: are they any good? The answer is: it depends. Sap Rising was widely adjudged to be appalling: many reviewers said so, the author was extremely cross and a good deal of fun was had by observers.

Ominously, perhaps, a good many novel-writing journalists never make it beyond the first attempt. Either the effort is too much, or the exercise reveals itself simply as a vacation from the proper job. Bryan Appleyard, for example, has remained silent on the fiction front since his debut, The First Church of the New Millennium, in 1994.

But there are successes - both Lynne Truss and Mark Lawson manage to keep joint careers afloat.

Finally, there is a somewhat smaller category of journalists one wishes would write novels, or in the case of Telegraph editor Charles Moore, were allowed to publish those they had written. (Moore once took six months off between jobs to write a novel called The Real World, but it was supposed - at any rate by the libel lawyers - to contain a portrait of the Tory guru Sir Alfred Sherman, and never appeared.)

In the end, motivation is all. Writing novels - whatever anyone who has never written one may think to the contrary - is hard. Combining works of fictional genius with two newspaper columns a week or shifts on the subs' desk, takes a stamina that many of Wapping and Canary Wharf's finest may not possess.

Significantly, perhaps, Graham Greene's first act on learning of the success of The Man Within was to offer his resignation at Printing House Square. Thackeray, whose gentlemanly instincts were sometimes offended by having to associate with low-class hacks, eventually left his job on Punch, claiming that he was "too big to pull in the boat". Certainly, a skim through the best novels about journalism soon demonstrates that most of them were written by people who had already left the profession.

DJ Taylor's biography of Thackeray is due out in September. The paperback of his novel `Trespass', is out soon

Reporters reviewed

Simply Divine by Wendy Holden, former deputy editor of Tatler

The Independent: Efficiently written, the novel cracks along to its happy ending. It never makes you laugh, though: always something of drawback in a comic novel.

The Telegraph: When Champagne (a character who writes a column on a glossy magazine) lands a huge advance for a novel - "Money for old rope," snorts another - one recalls that Holden has already been buxomly rewarded for this slovened, creaking prattle. Holden's literary model is clearly Jilly Cooper before she discovered graphic sex.

The Trials of Tiffany Trott by Isabel Wolff, columnist on The Daily Telegraph

The Independent on Sunday: Bridget Jones has a lot to answer for. We have been assailed by far too many columns and novels, all too obviously pitched as Bridget-with-a-twist: an older/younger/ cleverer/thicker/classier/more down-market etc singleton.

The Times: Tiffany divides her time between Hampstead, where she has glasses of wine with her friends and talks cliches about relationships, and the Ritz, where she meets, through small ads and blind dates, caricatures of dysfunctional men who won't commit. Another eked-out cocktail from the original Bridget Jones concentrate. Enough - it has become very sickly.

Ink by John Preston, arts editor of The Sunday Telegraph

Evening Standard: Cliff the cretinous columnist, Johnny the foppish diarist and industrial Gavin who never says a word - are instantly recognisable types. It features a brilliant scoop de theatre and it makes you think but, above all, it makes you laugh.

Archangel by Robert Harris, former Newsnight reporter and political editor of The Observer, now columnist on The Sunday Times.

Mail on Sunday: The secret turns out to be not that shocking and a plot that involves a mystery and a chase is hardly original. So what is it about this book that had me rationing my reading so as to make it last longer and left me disappointed when it ended so abruptly? Harris is a master of background, a setter of places and people that are so gripping in their own right that the plot becomes almost incidental. He uses his journalist's skills to create an atmosphere of absolute authenticity.

The Independent: Archangel is page-turning entertainment. The background, in Stalin's Russia as well as the present, is utterly authentic and presented with an ease and relevance not always achieved by Harris's competitors. However, a certain portentousness in the writing, and the fact that it is longer than it need be, seem to imply that Harris and his publisher want us to take Archangel seriously, both as a novel with literary stature and as an analysis of Russia. This won't do.