Amy Jenkins: What comes after <i>This Life</i>?

Amy Jenkins: What comes after <i>This Life</i>?
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The Independent Online

Amy Jenkins, a pretty young woman barely turned 30, was the envy of her generation. As the daughter of the late political journalist Peter Jenkins, and step-daughter of the columnist Polly Toynbee, she had enviable social credentials. But as the "creator" of the cult television series, This Life, she was on a higher plane still - a sort of thinking-person's It-girl.

Amy Jenkins, a pretty young woman barely turned 30, was the envy of her generation. As the daughter of the late political journalist Peter Jenkins, and step-daughter of the columnist Polly Toynbee, she had enviable social credentials. But as the "creator" of the cult television series, This Life, she was on a higher plane still - a sort of thinking-person's It-girl.

She seemed to relish her position as the darling of the broadsheets, and to take understandable delight in being feverishly pursued by the nation's top publishers and film-makers, many of whom offered her hundreds of thousands of pounds for the words that fell from her pen. With hindsight, it seems obvious she was riding for a fall.

Her career had really taken off when the This Life drama of Anna, Miles, Milly and Egg spawned a dozen paler copycat television programmes, and Ms Jenkins became celebrated as the most fashionable chronicler of modern life - "writing the true story of our times", according to one sycophantic blurb. More specifically, she made television executives' hearts beat faster by exposing the self-obsessed, politically neutral, occasionally half-undressed inner-workings of the twentysomething generation. It's not hard to see why the executives were so excited: Jenkins was making drama about, and for, precisely those young professionals whom the baby-boomer television producers and publishing houses wanted to reach, but did not really understand.

And it was Amy Jenkins' fortune - or should that be misfortune? - that her star rose so high in the media firmament at round about the same time that the literary phenomenon of "chick-lit" reached its peak, dominating the bestseller lists. Just as Jenkins was wondering what to do after This Life, there was Bridget Jones making millions for her creator Helen Fielding. Over at Penguin, meanwhile, Louise Moore, the admired commissioning editor, was signing up a new generation of popular young female authors, including Jane Green, Lisa Jewell and Marian Keyes.

Almost inevitably, the notion arose that Amy Jenkins, already famous, might turn her hand to writing a similar sort of a thing. That she might even do it better - with a This Life hard-edge - had rival publishers salivating. The prospect of trumping Louise Moore and Penguin was just too delicious for words.

So Jenkins, who had received just £200 from the BBC for her This Life idea, jotted down a few opening pages of a novel and sent them out to publishers, as a taster for the work to follow. By her own admission, the task took her just a couple of days to complete. "We're in this white limo purring through crowded Saturday-night streets. Like in Hollywood," the novel began. And it was enough to send Sue Fletcher at the publishers Hodder & Stoughton into a state of ecstatic optimism. She dispatched a white stretch limo to pick up Jenkins and carry her to Hodder's offices on London's Euston Road. On arrival, the author-to-be was greeted by a themed wedding presentation, deemed suitable for a book that was to be titled HoneyMoon.

The wooing worked. Maybe because of the limo, but more likely because Hodder offered a mammoth £600,000 advance, and Columbia Pictures paid £300,000 for the film rights - all on the basis of Jenkins' sample chapters. "For a first book, based on a few chapters, £600,000 would be unreasonable," says Louise Moore at Penguin, in what sounds like a contender for Understatement of the Year. In fact, the advance was the most controversial in publishing since the fuss that blew up around Martin Amis's novel The Information. But even Amis, a man often described as "Britain's greatest living author", only got half-a-million dollars, a mere £325,000.

For Jenkins, it must all have seemed like a dream come true. But, as any author knows, good stories contain a twist in the tale - and it was when Jenkins finally sat down to finish the novel that her problems really began. The book was finally handed over but, for all her efforts, it failed to deliver what everyone had wanted and expected - a better, sassier version of This Life. "There was a mismatch between the collective expectations and her ability to produce," says the leading literary agent, Patrick Walsh. Instead of being the "great work" for which Hodder had paid a small fortune, HoneyMoon "was almost like a celebrity novel. Like if Carol Vorderman wrote her first novel, very much that sort of feeling."

The reviews were terrible, even when you make allowance for a fair degree of schadenfreude. "She makes Bridget Jones read like Tacitus," said the London Evening Standard. "Written in an artificial 'golly gosh' way, it manages to be both self-regarding and trite", said the Mail on Sunday. "This book has all the depth of a paddling pool with a leak," complained The Observer. " HoneyMoon is superficial, manipulative, sentimental and trashy," agreed The Sunday Telegraph. Even the plot - about a woman reunited with her true love, while on honeymoon with someone else - turned out to be a straight lift from Noël Coward's Private Lives.

But that was just the critics. Now the readers are having their say - and, four months after the book's launch, it seems that for once they agree with the reviewers. Figures just released show that HoneyMoon has sold just 19,500 copies in bookshops, while My Life on a Plate by the columnist India Knight sold 18,000 last month alone. The research organisation BookTrack confirms that former journalist Jane Green's Bookends is also selling more than four times as well as HoneyMoon, having shifted 94,000 copies since its paperback launch in May.

And it is getting worse. HoneyMoon last week sold a dismal 341 copies in the nation's bookshops, and was only 362nd in BookTrack's paperback rankings (leaving out all the Harry Potters). My Life on a Plate and Bookends, by contrast, sold more than 4,000 copies each and ranked 22 and 24 respectively.

The figures reveal a stark truth: that HoneyMoon, far from trouncing the opposition, has massively underperformed. The humiliation of it! Some are even whispering that Hodder's great hope may instead be the failure that signals the death of chick-lit altogether.

The smugness at Penguin is said to be tangible. The genre's success stories are all well-established Penguin authors, none of whom has achieved a Jenkins-level advance. "Our authors", says Louise Moore, are "not writing in a genre - it is the genre that has built up around them. But it has now become clogged up with people who are not as talented."

At Hodder the message, as you might expect, is upbeat in the face of a bad press. Managing director Martin Neald says that once you take into account foreign sales, internet sales and book-club sales, HoneyMoon has sold 70,000 copies - against a 50,000 target. It is currently retailing for £10, and will switch to £6.99 next year. In total, says Neald, Hodder expects to shift 300,000 copies worldwide, and to make its money back.

Neald, though, anticipates that Jenkins's second novel will be "very different" from HoneyMoon - a comment which is interpreted cynically elsewhere in the book business. "It's a reflection of the fact that they don't believe Jenkins can sustain a second book in the same genre," says a prominent literary agent.

The Amy Jenkins story has another strand, or subplot. A couple of years ago, on the back of the This Life hype, she secured a deal to write a script for Elephant Juice, a movie, to be produced by Miramax. On paper, it was another project which had everything going for it. Daniela Nardini, the actress who played Anna in This Life, was to star, and the French beauty Emmanuelle Béart had a leading role. The plot again concerned young professionals, Daphne and Jules, who both become pregnant by Will (Daniel Lapaine), who is also seeing prostitutes. Other characters add their own complications, and it all develops into a This Life-like ménage à six ou sept.

But now the fate of the movie is shrouded in confusion. The division of Miramax that made it was disbanded, and Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, when he saw it, is reported to have thought it an appalling mess. FilmFour, the other investor in the project, also seems distant from the finished film, and is not distributing it. The release date has been put back repeatedly since last autumn, though it will eventually see the light of day on 22 September. The omens are not good. The Hollywood newspaper Variety described it as: "as phony as a three-dollar bill and about as worthless." One viewer at a test screening last year says the film was: "just appalling. Daniela Nardini was doing Anna mark two, and it wasn't as good. The whole thing fell really flat."

Amy Jenkins is nobody's fool, and it is unlikely that she ever truly believed the hype about herself. And looking back, there were, even in the early stages, indicators that may have made her slightly nervous. After all, she did indeed invent This Life, but the programme only became really successful in its second series, which was written not by Jenkins but by a team of professional script-writers.

So when the giant-sized advances started rolling in, she must surely have had some jitters about her ability to follow through. But she braved it out, with a mass of self-publicity that included newspaper interviews celebrating her beginnings with a stall on the Portobello Road, the silver BMW and the Chelsea house in which she now lives, and the time she spent in therapy. Only occasionally did she appear to have lost her "cool" perspective - though she will perhaps prefer to forget turning up at the launch of HoneyMoon in a wedding dress, or allowing an admiring BBC documentary film crew into her life.

We shouldn't be too hard on Amy Jenkins, nor should we lose too much sleep over her fate. Even some of the literary insiders who are critical of Jenkins's work, also confess to having some sympathy for her. "Hodder didn't give her the [media] training she needed," says Patrick Walsh. "And they could have hired a good novelist to work with her anonymously. That wouldn't have been usual, but when you pay out that sort of money you can make up the rules as you go along." Maybe a million pounds is due compensation for what is turning into a very public humiliation.

In the end, her failure is the failure of an entire industry which thrives on hype, and pays too much, too soon, to too few. And, of course, Ms Jenkins may have the last laugh. When we tried to contact her yesterday, we were told she was "in LA". The next million-dollar Amy Jenkins project can only be a deal away.

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