When fiction improves on fact

Publishers were tired of writers who just wrote. Public profile was as important as the writing

AS THE CONSERVATIVE Party sets about tearing itself apart over Europe, an interested bystander will be the eminent former editor of The Guardian and recent novelist, Peter Preston. By a happy coincidence, the widely discussed alternative to the European Union, joining the North Atlantic Agreement, is close to the theme of Preston's thriller The 51st State. "Fact has a way of overtaking fiction," as he put it in an article to mark the publication of his novel.

But then fiction has a way of overtaking other fiction in an even more striking manner. Reading reviews of The 51st, I was taken back to my own days as a publishing editor. One of my last acts, before dropping out, was to publish a second novel by a talented and ambitious young writer called Michael Stewart. Like Preston's novel, it was set in the near future at a time when Britain has become part of a mighty, expansionist America. It also explored, in fast-moving, what-if fashion, the bastardisation of the culture and the conflicts that followed. Of course, Stewart's thriller was not called The 51st State; its title was The 51st.

Libel lawyers can relax. Not for a moment am I suggesting that a distinguished senior journalist alighted upon an ancient paperback with silver gilt lettering on its cover and lifted its central concept. The idea of Britain becoming America's Airstrip One dates back, after all, to George Orwell. The coincidence merely points up what any experienced writer quickly discovers - that the common pool from which we all pluck ideas and stories is remarkably shallow.

When I first created a witchy children's book character called Ms Wiz, the literary agent of my fellow author Humphrey Carpenter wrote an enraged letter to my publisher pointing out alleged similarities to her client's wizardy character Mr Majeika. Since I had never read any of Carpenter's books, I felt, and was, entirely innocent of plagiarism, but he remained alert. Three or four years later, he found a story line in a later Ms Wiz book that bore a strong resemblance to one of his own plots. Just as he was reaching for the nearest lawyer, he discovered that my book was written two years before his; if any cribbing had taken place (which it hadn't), it had been his.

But the tale of The 51st has another odd twist. For his next novel, Michael Stewart changed publishers and genres, moving into the science-based medical thrillers in which he has since established a strong reputation. Somewhere along the line, the biographical details which appeared in the front of his books included a revised bibliography, which excised the two books I had published, his third book being presented as his first. I recall feeling faintly hurt by this discreet rewriting of history before realising that Michael was right.

The great sea change that the book industry underwent during the Eighties and early Nineties, during which publishers became bigger, hungrier and more fiscally responsible, altered for ever its relationship with authors. While publishing houses had never been particularly generous or scrupulous in their dealings with writers - the image of the tweedy, unworldly book- loving editor was always something of a myth - the idea of developing talent, book by book, had been central.

Now a new, hard-eyed, short- term, market-led approach set in, and editors became beleaguered figures, fetching and carrying for their bosses in the sales department. The product was everything, the right concept at the right time demanding huge advances and publicity budgets, no matter how inexperienced its author might be.

In fact, perversely, inexperience became a positive asset. Publishers were tired of writers who just wrote. They began to see that a novelist's public profile - young, good-looking, talented in other fields, preferably with a slightly rackety lifestyle - was every bit as important as any written words, possibly more so. A first novel represented pure, unsullied potential. Once that virginity was lost, without the expected level of sales, then editors began casting elsewhere.

So, as the international publishing establishment gathers for the great annual works outing that is the Frankfurt Book Fair, there will be little surprise at the news that two of their number are currently offering pounds 600,000 to an unpublished author on the basis of a single chapter. After all, Amy Jenkins is not only young and attractive but, as the creator of the television series This Life, she is on the media cutting edge.

Meanwhile, an increasing and unprecedented number of novelists with talent and a critical reputation are unable to find a home for their work. The cultural price of publishers' stylish new image may be higher than they think.

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