Choosing between the plot and the author's potty training

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The Independent Online
THE other day, a critic wrote: 'People in TV sitcoms never seem to watch TV, just as people in books, never read or review books.' He was nearly but not quite right, as you will see from this extract from the novel I am currently writing, 'The Confessions of a Book Reviewer'.

'Do you think we ought to lay off the pop psychology bit for a while?' said Roger. 'Pop psychology in biographies, I mean. We've been giving it a bit of a hammering recently. Shall we let it rest?'

It was late in the evening at the Grateful Library, the little pub where we book reviewers like to go after work. You don't think that book reviewers do any work? Oh, but we do. Not only do we have to open the book we are reviewing, but we have to read some of it. Then we have to write a review of it, or at least find an old review of some other book that would do service again, recycled. Then we have to traipse round to one of those bookshops known only to book reviewers where you can flog review copies at half price, and then stagger off to the Grateful Library to spend the money on recuperation. It's not exactly hard work, maybe, but it is time-consuming, I can tell you.

(What happens to the review copies bought by the shop? Well, I'm afraid they get sold to libraries, usually, cheaper than the libraries can buy them anywhere else. Hence the nickname of our pub, the Grateful Library. Libraries are happy to pay the bookshop less than the full going rate for a book, and the bookshop is happy to offer them mint condition copies. That's why we reviewers are so careful not to soil our review copies. I knew a book reviewer once who put on surgical gloves to read books with. Going a bit far, if you ask me.)

'So anyway, what do you say we lay off the pop psychology bit?' said Roger again, as nobody had responded first time round. We all knew what he was talking about, though. There have been masses of biographies recently in which the authors have speculated endlessly about the effect of childhood and parental treatment on their subject's development. You know the sort of thing . . . . Did Edward Heath confront the miners because of the way his father had treated him? Did Albert Schweitzer treat Africans as children because he couldn't handle grown-ups? If Hitler's mummy had been more loving to him, would he have been Mr Nice Guy?

'I quite like a bit of pop psychology,' said Sheila. 'At least it makes a change from the old sex-life bit. Ten, even five, years ago you couldn't pick up a biography without the author spending 10 chapters wondering how many people the subject had gone to bed with and what had happened there. Even people with no discernible sex life, such as Rupert Brooke, had chapters devoted to the absence of it. Now we get their psychological background instead, and I reckon it tells you more about people than their sex life does.'

'But why should people want to know that much about people?' said George. George reviews books about science. There isn't much call for reviews of books about science, so he doesn't get much work. He's quite bitter about it. He says that the literary pages are dominated by otherwise unemployable arts graduates who have no knowledge of or interest in science. He's right, of course. 'I mean, if the reader really was curious about people, he'd want to know more about the book reviewer as well, wouldn't he? But he never does, does he? Do you think I would be more interesting in my book reviews if I mentioned my sex life or the psychological damage done to me by a drunken, domineering father?'

'With all due respect,' said Roger, which is what people say when they are going to be disrespectful, 'with all due respect, George, you are not the sort of person people will ever want to read about. People like to read juicy details about famous people, not about people like you.

'If you married an American divorcee, nobody would want to read about it, even though you are a fascinating person. When Edward VIII did it, everyone thought it was fascinating, even though he was the dullest man who ever lived.'

'This is getting us nowhere,' said Sheila. 'Let's get down to business. Are we going to be nice about the new Kingsley Amis novel, or are we going to tear it to bits?'

Coming soon: extracts from my new TV sitcom in which the characters sit around all day watching the telly.