Brought to book by the literary establishment

The book fell open at page 471, and there I was, laid out drily between Robert Henryson, the 15th-century Scottish poet, and Philip Henslowe, the Elizabethan theatrical diarist
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The first thought, oddly, was a strange sinking feeling, a kind of "oh, God" dread. I looked at the little paragraph, and what I felt was not what you might have predicted. That smug complacency came more slowly, and incompletely. I felt a sort of detachment, a certain lack of enthusiasm. Somewhere in one of Douglas Adams's books, a blue whale is conjured into existence 10 miles above the earth's surface, and as it falls, its last thought is, inexplicably, "Oh, no. Not again." And that, more or less, is what I thought.

The first thought, oddly, was a strange sinking feeling, a kind of "oh, God" dread. I looked at the little paragraph, and what I felt was not what you might have predicted. That smug complacency came more slowly, and incompletely. I felt a sort of detachment, a certain lack of enthusiasm. Somewhere in one of Douglas Adams's books, a blue whale is conjured into existence 10 miles above the earth's surface, and as it falls, its last thought is, inexplicably, "Oh, no. Not again." And that, more or less, is what I thought.

It was Margaret Drabble's new The Oxford Companion to English Literature, which I'd been sent, to review. I'd been picking through it idly, looking at this and that, seeing who was in and who was out, when, by a kind of obscure bibliomancy, the book fell open at page 471, and there I was, laid out drily between Robert Henryson, the 15th-century Scottish poet, and Philip Henslowe, the Elizabethan theatrical diarist.

philip hensher, (1965-), it said, with a brief, correct summary of my career and books. "Is that it, then?" I thought. You write three small, clever novels that the reviewers seem to like, though they are never likely to trouble the bestseller charts; you write for the newspapers and gain a sort of ephemeral reputation for elaborately eccentric rudeness; and then suddenly you wake up and you're part of English literature.

Of course, it's flattering. Like Shirley MacLaine in Sweet Charity, the pundits of the canon don't pop their cork for every man they see. And there's no point in pretending that I didn't immediately embark on a giggling anti-tour of all my contemporaries (Alex Garland, Alain de Botton and, my personal bête noire, Amanda Craig - yes, especially her) who apparently aren't quite there yet.

It just seems a bit early. My fogeyish generation is probably the last one for which literature stops about a century ago. I don't think I read a single book by a living author when I was at university, and for my finals didn't write about anything written after 1832. English literature, for me, is something written by dead people; I can't help regarding the sort of people who want to write their theses on Kingsley Amis, let alone Martin, as second-raters who aren't up to Spenser.

So, to be regarded by the distinguished authority of The Oxford Companion as falling within the loosely drawn boundaries of the English canon gives me a distinct anno Domini sensation. No serious writer writes a book without the hope that it will last and, at some point, be seen as a contribution to the national literature. But that's a small and probably unrealistic hope. And no one ever wrote a novel hoping that it was going to be taught in universities or be the subject of an academic thesis - that thought, in fact, fills me with distaste.

I know this sounds an odd and a ridiculous thing to complain about, and you're probably thinking, "I wish I had your problems." But I was not writing literature, and it feels odd to see yourself from the outside, looking as hardened and august as Hoccleve. I can remember which chapter of which book I wrote when I was seriously drunk; I can recall killing off a character for no reason at all, other than that he was beginning to bore me. That, surely, isn't how literature is made. Literature is what other people do, the product of serious decisions by dead people. The only reason I write is that I can see and sense a book that I'd like to read, and it's one that I cannot find in the library.

Every time you see a photograph of yourself with your friends, there's always a face you don't quite recognise. And it's your face. That's what this feels like: snapped, unawares, in an attitude you can't quite recognise and couldn't reliably strike again.

* hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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