Lord of the nation's bad taste

Jeffrey Archer's terrible novels earn millions of dollars from publishers - but upset civilised values
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The Independent Online
Jeffrey Archer is, of course, a blot on civilised life. That he is more correctly known as Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare merely makes things worse - and is a more specific indictment of contemporary Britain. How on earth did we arrive at the state of national consciousness in which it seemed reasonable to ennoble this clown? What did a quiet Somerset seaside town do to deserve this notoriety?

The answers to these questions - political patronage, the power of crude energy, the invincible bad taste of the Tory grassroots, the invincible bad taste of Jeffrey Archer - are well known and easily, not to say repeatedly, listed. The tale of the rise and rise of this improbably thick-skinned fantasist has often been told and his spectacular ability to come back from the most appalling catastrophes still leaves his critics - who are, as we know, extremely numerous among intelligent, cultivated people - breathless with astonishment.

Now, once again, he has surfaced to inflame nerves only just recovered from the affair of the Anglia Television shares. He has done a three-novel deal worth pounds 32m. This figure makes him the most valuable - I use the word in its purely financial sense - novelist alive. Conceivably, he is now the most successful writer ever. Roy Hattersley once estimated that Archer was the most successful since John the Evangelist, a remark that probably had Archer on the phone demanding to know who this John character was. And, Hattersley added, "he has absolutely no command of the English language", reiterating that this success is utterly undeserved.

This is the one persistent theme of Archer's bizarre trajectory through the modern world. Over and over again he is written and talked about in a tone of moral outrage. His fame, his influence, his money are so flagrantly unearned. His position in politics is unearned because he does no more than network and mouth meaningless slogans. His place in society is unearned because he so evidently achieves nothing of value - his occasional charity ventures are marked by strange confusions and complications. And, finally and most painfully, his position in literature, or rather the bestseller lists, is unearned because he cannot write.

"I am a better writer than he," wrote Julian Critchley, "but a much poorer man."

Many people, indeed, are better writers and, now, most people are much poorer. The injustice grates on Critchley as, to be honest, it grates on us all. We work at writing, we work at understanding the world, and this "complete prat" - I quote the Spectator - does neither and yet succeeds in raking in the millions.

There is, I should make clear, nothing personal here; well, not much. My only contact with the man was a telephone conversation some years ago during which he was rude and vulgarly arrogant. Of course, some of the best authors are notoriously ill-mannered. But it seems unwise in so easy a target as Lord Archer.

The first point to set against the excoriation of Lord Archer is that, of course, publishers have their reasons for paying these millions. People, it cannot be denied, read his books in droves, and Archer, thereby, is encouraged to write them. This gives the man an awful confidence. He is known to regard most criticism as jealousy - which, in a sense, it is, though that does not mean it is wrong - and he has no sense of his own limitations. He has seriously suggested that, if he applied his energies to fiction, reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and so on, then the Nobel Prize would be a clear possibility. This hints at one of the most effective guarantees of Archer's continued success, his unassailable ignorance. He knows nothing of Tolstoy except that, like him, he wrote novels. Of depth, of truth, of human greatness, he remains exquisitely unaware. The worrying thing is that he just may know something about the workings of the Nobel Prize committee....

Were it not for the book sales, none of this, not even the peerage, would have the slightest significance. Archer could be dismissed as a fringe operator of the system, a rouser of the bonehead tendency in the Tory party and a fabulously thick-skinned social climber. But the book sales mean that large numbers of people - ordinary people, not Tories, not necessarily boneheads and certainly people without any interest in winning Archer's approval - appreciate what he writes. And this means that, whether we like it or not, he has a real place in the popular imagination and a - the word almost chokes me - talent for giving the punters what they want.

This is, to myself and to many others, incomprehensible. Archer is not just a bad novelist, he is spectacularly bad. His stories are mechanical, his characters non-existent, his prose colourless and his dialogue laughable. I remember hearing his first masterpiece, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, serialised on Radio 4. I seriously believed I was listening to a satire, a lampoon possibly entitled How Not to Write a Novel. But no, this was seriously intended.

The point appears to be that these books are utterly familiar. There is nothing radical, alarming, subversive or difficult here. They are about the modern world as understood by a straightforward reading of the headlines. But they are completely unlike the modern world in that they fit a comprehensible pattern. They are therefore both recognisable and consoling. Strange as the systems in which we live may be, they can be made to work in the context of what we have been bludgeoned into thinking is "a good story".

It is no accident that Archer is always plugged as being "a master storyteller". This is, as it were, the base line - there is no other line - of his appeal. What "master storyteller" means is: relax, this will all make sense, this will deliver all that you expect from the word "story". And what "story" means in this context is that it will be recognisable, it will deliver a world to you which is rounded, complete, comprehensible. It is the opposite of the idea of discovery or revelation. It tells you what you want to hear - that out there, the world still works according to strict, mechanical rules. Quantum theory and relativity never happened, we still live in a universe of Newtonian billiard balls.

This makes people angry because it is not true. It is difficult to say precisely what the world is like, but easy to say that it is not like a Jeffrey Archer novel. And this, I think, is why he is such a consolation to the thinking classes. We may not really know if Salman Rushdie is a great novelist or whether Martin Amis has got it right. But we know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that Archer has got it wrong. His badness is the still point in a turning world. He inverts the entire artistic project - as, indeed, he does the political - by presenting an untruth so flagrant that it becomes a consolation. That this is worth pounds 32m tells you all you need to know about alienation, anomie and the Post-Modern condition.