Hollywood stalks Monica Ali, BritLit's Booker favourite

The author of 'Brick Lane' has been making a name for herself as 'the new Zadie Smith'. But it can't be long now before she is known as 'the new Helen Fielding'. By James Morrison
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To the cigar-chomping studio executives they are like gold dust. No sooner is a new British literary sensation announced than they are being tracked by Hollywood talent scouts.

Now Monica Ali, the Bangladeshi-born writer who was last week installed as the bookies' favourite to win this year's Booker Prize, has become the latest in a long line of young British novelists to be tempted by a multi-million-pound film deal.

Her bittersweet debut novel, Brick Lane, is the object of a fierce bidding war between rival film-makers eager to capitalise on the buzz surrounding her status as the publishing industry's closest thing to a "new Zadie Smith".

On the face of it, Brick Lane is hardly the stuff of blockbuster movies. It tells the story of Nazneen, a teenage girl from Bangladesh who ekes out a painful existence in the shadow of a domineering husband twice her age in a cramped flat in London's Tower Hamlets.

However, in recent years, the call from Hollywood has become an almost inevitable rite of passage for a succession of young British literary sensations of whom Ali is merely the latest. Alex Garland's The Beach, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and three out of the four novels thus far by Nick Hornby have all been turned into successful movies. For some it has even gone on to provide a new, and lucrative, career. Garland, who stopped writing novels following lukewarm reviews for his second book, The Tesseract, is now on the verge of becoming a major Hollywood screenwriter on the back of his script for the apocalyptic low-budget British sleeper hit 28 Days Later.

While the UK publishing industry is eager to embrace the attention lavished on its rising literary stars by the major film studios, not everyone is so happy. This week sees the presentation of the first Saga Award for Wit, a new book prize aimed solely at writers over the age of 50. It has been conceived as a riposte to what its organisers regard as the unfair bias of other prizes towards youthful, photogenic authors.

Their views are unlikely to trouble Ali, the mother of two who, at 36, is undoubtedly Britain's most in-demand novelist of the moment. Last week's Booker nomination capped an extraordinary year for the author, who began it by appearing on the influential Granta list of most promising young writers - despite the fact that, at the time, she had yet to publish her first book.

Ali, who is currently touring America promoting Brick Lane, was unavailable for comment, but her pursuit by Hollywood studios eager to turn her novel into a film was confirmed by her New York-based agent, Nicole Aragi. Ms Aragi said: "Monica was on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, and when that happens to a writer people connected with Hollywood are on the phone. We've had lots of general queries about movies. It's something one hopes will come about with a really intelligent director involved."

Steven Gaydos, the executive editor of Variety, said that, like Fielding, Garland and Hornby before her, Ali had almost certainly been "tracked" by Hollywood for months. "Knowing about new talent first is one of the most important activities in Hollywood, whether that's directing, acting or novel-writing talent," he said. "Hollywood executives know everything that's going on in London, and they normally know about it at the time of the original deal. If a London publisher signed a deal with a writer today and the story they were writing sounded like great movie material, that information would be in Hollywood's hands before the ink was dry."

He added that many of the so-called "bidding wars" for the rights to dramatise books as films or television series were generated by publishers themselves. "It's in the publishers' interests to create a bidding war," he said. "They call Miramax and then they call another company and tell both of them, 'look, on 30 July I'm going to let you read this'. This creates a buzz around a writer."

Hollywood may be brimming with enthusiasm for Ali, but those involved with the Saga award are less effusive. Sir John Mortimer likened the publishing world's continual search for the next "bright young thing" to the television industry's obsession with capturing youthful viewers.

"Chasing the youth market is ridiculous," he said, adding that publishers were wrong to assume that young readers necessarily wanted to read the work of young writers.

"Rumpole actually has quite a young audience, particularly among students," he said. "We shouldn't be encouraging young people to read things like Harry Potter. They should be reading Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Evelyn Waugh."

Ned Sherrin suggested that, in always obsessing about finding the next Zadie Smith, publishers were neglecting older and often more accomplished writers. "There are quite enough awards for the younger generation," he said. "We hear far too much about the young these days."

Referring to the Saga award, which is aimed at the year's "wittiest" book, rather than necessarily its finest, the broadcaster and raconteur said: "Older people are funnier, but the idea of this prize is not to prove that there are no funny younger writers - just to balance out the many awards for younger people with one for older people."

Not all of the Saga judges agree with the view that younger writers are hogging the limelight, however. James Naughtie, the co-presenter of Radio 4's Today programme, said: "The idea that older writers aren't appreciated is a bit daft. I can understand that some people feel that the prize industry is over-influenced by 'flash' things, but Beryl Bainbridge and Edna O'Brien have been writing for 45 years and they're still getting on the shortlists."


Zadie Smith (27)

The buzz then: A publisher's dream, the Cambridge graduate with exotic good looks and street cred to match was signed for £250,000, aged 24. Her first book, White Teeth, was shortlisted for the Orange and Booker prizes.

The buzz now: Threatened to quit writing after her "difficult second novel", The Autograph Man, got lukewarm reviews. Has started her third book.

Alex Garland (32)

The buzz then: The art graduate's debut, The Beach, was a hit among backpackers, then a less successful film with Leonardo DiCaprio.

The buzz now: Mixed reviews for his follow-up, The Tesseract, prompted Garland to turn to screenwriting. Has earned big plaudits for his screenplay for 28 Days Later.

Sarah Waters (37)

The buzz then: Her rumbustious debut, Tipping the Velvet, was described by one critic as "a lesbian Rake's Progress", and later turned into a BBC2 drama

The buzz now: Fingersmith, her third novel, received the best reviews of her career and was shortlisted for both the Orange and Booker prizes. She is tipped to win next time.

Patrick Neate (32)

The buzz then: The Cambridge graduate and sometime DJ hit the big time with his second novel, Twelve Bar Blues, which beat both V S Naipaul and Ian McEwan to be named Whitbread Book of the Year.

The buzz now: His quirky yet lacklustre follow-up, The London Pigeon Wars, left many critics bemused - and the public even more so.

Richard Mason (24)

The buzz then: His first novel, The Drowning People, was snapped up by Michael Joseph for £200,000 when he was a 20-year-old Oxford undergraduate.

The buzz now: Reviews for the finished novel were mixed, although it sold solidly in paperback. Book number two is said to be on its way, but the jury remains out on whether he will eventually deliver the goods.

Arundhati Roy (43)

The buzz then: The author and political activist's epic family drama, The God of Small Things, was a global phenomenon, winning the Booker and selling six million copies.

The buzz now: She famously told her Booker audience she would probably never write another novel. Six years later, she still hasn't relented.

Amy Jenkins (36)

The buzz then: The writer of cult TV drama This Life was tipped for great things when she signed a £600,000 deal with Hodder and Stoughton.

The buzz now: Her first novel, Honey Moon, bombed with critics and failed to take off with readers.