In 1984, the 35-year old Martin Amis subtitled Money - still, for many readers, his finest novel - "a suicide note". There must have been times over the past decade when the relative riches that his books have brought (not bad dosh for a scribbler, but peanuts for one of his beloved tennis stars) have seemed like deadly poison. In media eyes, a screen of pound notes - and, since his liaison with the American author and heiress Isabel Fonseca, dollar bills - now masks every literary step he takes. Yet, if Amis has become less a novelist than a figurehead for the new rules of engagement between art and commerce, he hasn't shown much desire to quit his post. Year after year, his progress bears out the winner of the New Statesman's competition for unlikely book titles: "My Struggle, by Martin Amis".
This week, he returned to Random House's literary imprint Jonathan Cape - his publisher for most of the past 25 years - for a four-book deal reputed to be worth around pounds 1m. A crucial but overlooked side of the contract involves the reversion of Amis's valuable backlist - titles such as Money, London Fields and The Rachel Papers - from Penguin to Vintage paperbacks. As well as fiction, the works for Cape may include Amis's own memoir of his annus horribilis of 1985 - when his marriage ended, his father Sir Kingsley died and his life turned into the raw material of a broadsheet soap opera.
Two years ago, he deserted Random House for Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins in a two-book, pounds 475,000 deal negotiated by his agent Andrew Wylie - who must be thrilled that journalists call him "The Jackal" as lazily as they dubbed David Willetts "Two Brains".
But The Information - the brooding and clotted novel of bookish rivalry that accounted for the bulk of HarperCollins' investment - did far from brilliantly in the shops. Tom Rosenthal, publisher at Andre Deutsch, reveals that "the view of the book trade, with access to the wholesale figures, is that The Information was a commercial fiasco. One would be very surprised if it earned pounds 100,000, let alone pounds 500,000."
Even so, Amis has joined a tiny super-league of literary big hitters whose career patterns now have more in common with the likes of Andre Agassi than Angus Wilson. Simon Master of Random House may welcome Amis "back to his rightful home", but the truth is that hot literary properties can now choose to be as mobile as unregulated cash itself.
A hard core of transatlantic agents have hustled this premier division into being. Wylie and Ed Victor are the best known, but publishers react to the pair in sharply contrasting ways. Victor, although a steely negotiator, inspires trust and respect. Wylie, who believes publishers have traditionally sold their leading authors short, elicits less glowing reports. Other figures have helped raise the stakes for a favoured few.
In Britain, the young agent Nick Marston at AP Watt has specialised in seven-figure film-rights deals for popular novelists such as Philip Kerr (Gridiron, Esau) and Nicholas Evans (The Horse Whisperer). In the US, a precedent was set when Mark McCormack's giant IMG agency - better known for golf and tennis champions - signed up Donna Tartt for her debut novel, The Secret History.
In every corner of the leisure market, from basketball to classical music, the power of the agent has widened the gap in rewards between the fat cats and the rest. And, in the shape of Amis and a handful of others, literary fiction now has its own Cedric Browns. To them that hath, shall be given.
Rosenthal comments that "Whenever this happens, the danger is that anything from two to half-a-dozen perfectly decent mid-list authors will get starved." He adds that such deals represent "a grotesquely macho performance for publishers. These people are never spending their own money, but the shareholders'. What they're saying is that `my shlong is bigger than yours.'"
Accountancy aside, is Amis worth this rising mound of cash? As a stunningly original phrase-maker with a drip-feed from the Spirit of the Age, he has few rivals. Dickension grotesques with a knotted argot all their own stalk his pages, their feral humour rooted in a very English comedy of manners. If a writer such as Nick Hornby - with his earnest, decent aspirations - embodies Dr Jekyll for thousands of young-to-middle-aged professionals, Amis does a good job of summoning their Mr Hyde.
Fiasco or not, The Information's obsessive dwelling on the mutual dynamics of success and failure hit some sore spots on its readers. One of the novel's running gags concerns a vast, ungainly book by Richard Tull, its floundering wash-out of a writer. His manuscript provokes migraines and fevers in anyone unlucky enough to clap eyes on it. Oddly enough, The Information itself had just that effect. Its vision of life as a savage Darwinian zoo, where winning and losing alone matter, felt cramped and mean - but still struck some nerve-jangling chords.
Yet, in place of the strenuous wrangles found in Amis favourites such as Saul Bellow, his own quest for the Big Picture amounts to a few vague, cosmological ideas about entropy and a pervasive, rather whiny fear of death. As a moral superstructure, this looks about as fragile as the peeling stucco of the socially polarised North Kensington streets where his books were set and written.
"Wonderful gargoyles; lousy architecture," wrote George Orwell about Dickens. A mid-career verdict on Amis might come to the same conclusion. No character could conjure up his age more vividly than Keith Talent, the horribly funny darts-playing thug from London Fields, with a TV sports commentary constantly playing in his head. Yet that book falls apart into an opaque and mishandled approximation of a murder plot. It sounds encouraging that the new Cape deal's first fruit will be a compact mystery to be entitled Night Train. Hints at its content suggest something akin to Other People, the tightly-plotted 1982 thriller that remains Amis's most satisfying structure so far.
"Every writer," Amis once wrote, "hopes or boldly assumes that his life is in some sense exemplary." If he didn't exist, a culture avid to treat literature as a branch of showbiz would probably have to invent him. All the same, he shows no sign of wanting to withdraw from the scrum.
Henry James once wrote a spooky tale in which a famous author splits into two personas, the social lion and the toiling recluse. For the sake of his future work, the Amis who haunts the Centre Court (and the front pages) should break up with the gifted stylist whose books get all dressed up, and then have nowhere to go. But it may never happen in a climate that, as the price of fame, forbids authors the right to insert even the width of one of Keith Talent's grubby tenners between their Life and Works.Reuse content