Complete fiction - but very familiar

Novel of literary London comes out after lawyers have their say, writes Suzi Feay

The book that became a literary sensation before it was even published - A Vicious Circle, Amanda Craig's devastating portrait of the rivalries and jealousies of some of the country's leading literary figures - finally hits the bookshops tomorrow. But not before it has been censored by the libel lawyers.

Written in the style of the grand Victorian novel, the original version of Craig's novel concerned the struggles of two women: Mary, a poor, self- taught Irish girl, and Amelia, the glamorous daughter of a newspaper tycoon. Both fall in love with Paul Pinsent, a ruthless but stylish literary journalist. But Craig's former boyfriend, the Sunday Telegraph critic David Sexton, put paid to plans to publish the tale when he warned that he might sue, claiming the Machiavellian book reviewer Pinsent was a thinly disguised attack on him.

It has taken months of legal negotiations, the withdrawal of the book by its original publishers, Penguin, a substantial rewriting of the fine detail of the novel and an auction race between other rival houses to get A Vicious Circle into the bookshops. In the revised version out goes Paul Pinsent - and in moves Mark Crawley. Craig has been forced to change not only the main male character's name but also his appearance, origin, job, the location of his flat, his kitchen's contents, the publications he freelances for and one incident of oafish behaviour. Even his fridge and Baby Belling have changed - from a second- hand one to a "a gyp-room fridge and a slo-cooker".

When the news broke that Sexton had written to Penguin, threatening to sue over resemblances he detected, Craig airily commented: "About the only similarity is that they both have a second-hand fridge and wear Italian clothing."

Mary Quinn, a cast-off girlfriend who takes her revenge, has also had her hair colour changed from red to brown. "I think he thought that she was too identified with me," says Craig.

She insists no one person was the model for "Mark Crawley". "It was never my intention to libel this man, and I don't think I did. It's ridiculous to say because my character comes from such-a-place, went to Cambridge and to London to be a journalist it must be that person." The latest version of A Vicious Circle contains a stern disclaimer: "Any resemblance of the satirical archetypes in A Vicious Circle to real-life people and events is ... not only wholly unintended but entirely wrong."

Wholly unintended? The walk-on parts so gleefully portayed are a feast for the journalists and critics who set forth on the trail of the real- life counterparts of literary London.

There's Merlin Swagg, novelist and presenter of an influential TV arts show ("he only has established authors on Snap, Crackle, Pop! and he's much too soft to give them a hard time"). There's dodgy press baron Max de Monde of MDM newspapers, a loathsome fat bully who uses face flannels as toilet paper and flies around in his company helicopter. And there's Ben Gorgle, "portly Canadian editor of Grunt ... bearded, balding, bespectacled ..." The very alliteration seems to point us inexorably towards Bill Buford, the former editor of the literary magazine Granta.

Some people were flattered to find themselves in the novel. A couple of good-natured journalists (John Walsh and Christopher Silvester) happily proffered themselves as candidates for the role of Ivo Sponge, literary editor, lecher and wit. Craig, whose latest version makes Mark Crawley a political pundit while Sponge becomes a literary critic who wants a top Westminster job, claims Sexton has behaved decently. The real villain for her is Penguin, which, she says, dumped her novel without giving her a chance to rewrite.

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