Paid a humiliating whack by Hollywood

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WHY DO intelligent writers become involved with anything so crass as a Hollywood studio? Sabine Durrant's article in the arts pages last week told the story of Ian McEwan's script, The Good Son, which was taken over by the Macaulay Culkin machine. Its author was eased out of control, ending up unable to shape the film but offered the chance to write the 'novelisation' of the end product.

Durrant mentioned two other British writers, William Boyd and Martin Amis, who had had their fingers burnt in a similar way. But Boyd, McEwan and Amis are not fools. They are writers who sprang, as it were, fully armed for their lives as novelists.

Amis, with whom I worked for some time, was never anything so tentative as an 'aspiring author'. He was more a kind of Heathrow above whom the novels were stacked, waiting to land. He impressed, or depressed, you with his ability to put in a day at the office, then spend a couple of productive hours at the typewriter before finally hitting the town.

Of all writers I have known, he was the best equipped to combine a professional life (as an editor) with his creative work. Yet he disrupted everything with a bid for financial independence (which is what film work so often represents) and now refers to the experience as a humiliation.

As far as I know, McEwan never had any other profession than his pen, which makes him unusual. It does not mean, of course, that he has always been independent. He has no fewer than three films opening this autumn, but they represent the culmination of a long period of work. The Cement Garden, for instance, was first published 15 years ago.

Film work has this mythical appeal, that it can solve the problem of financial independence, and this mythical downside, that the studios chew you up and spit you out. Insert a mythical self into this picture, and you get a charming story: If I went to Hollywood, I'd go with my eyes open; I'd know the score; I'd know how long to hang around.

And if this mythomanic self goes on to say: 'And anyway, screen-writing is a doddle', then it seems to me you have the perfect set-up for a bruising humiliation. After all, nothing lucrative is going to be a doddle. If it were, you wouldn't get near it for the crush.

Not even the crassest form of writing is a doddle. People often talk about writing Mills and Boon romances for the money, but how many people do you know who actually needed a bit of money, sat down one weekend and wrote a romance, sent it off and got this mythical moolah by return of post?

Robert Graves gave the impression that writing I, Claudius was a doddle when he said that he wrote it because he needed some cash to pay off a debt. But if you think of all the people who have since tried to repeat the trick, you will see it was no doddle.

Martin Amis, when he was first writing a film script, told me that he found writing dialogue a doddle. No doubt he did, but subsequently discovered that writing dialogue for the human equivalent of velociraptors was not so much of a doddle. Now he is quoted as saying that 'you get paid a whack but you earn it over and over in work and humiliation'.

Presumably the first thing to be humiliated is that mythomaniac little self who thought he would ride into Hollywood and make off with the payroll. The second part of the humiliation is to do with the creativity.

Creativity does not divide up easily. I cannot say: my creative self is the bit that writes fiction, my professional self is the one that handles the scripts. One's creative life has a total economy. Every part is interconnected.

Nor is the relationship between the parts fore-ordained. For instance, one writer may value, even cling to, a professional life on precisely the grounds that it solves the bread-and-butter problem in an honourable, useful way, leaving the writing self free of financial worries and career qualms. How's my reputation today? How are my sales? Where's the next idea going to come from? Other writers yearn to shed their unwanted professions. Just as some male writers would be lost without their wives, while others seethe under the bedclothes, thinking: 'If it hadn't been for Gwen, I'd have made it by now.'

Suppose a novelist who knows absolutely that a novelist is what he is and wants to be, as in the case of an Amis or McEwan. So he makes every effort to protect and promote his own creativity. One might choose to write a film script to buy, say, five years of leisure for the next novel. That may be how the creative economy works.

Or it may be that the writing of scripts has a different significance: this is the activity I prefer to engage in in order not to be obliged to write novels all the time. I do not feel that I have to prove that I exist, by churning out regular novels. But I do wish to spend my life profitably in other ways.

It would never occur to me to say: what a pity Christopher Hampton has been lost to the stage, and spends all his time on those scripts. I would assume that he would, given the desire to write an original play, be perfectly able to do so. But he doesn't have to.

In a similar way, it has always seemed to me that Harold Pinter was lucky to have so many things he could do other than the playwriting. One can guess there might be a sense of release, to be able to lay down one's pen as a playwright for a while and turn to something really quite other, such as the film script of The Go-Between.

Utterly single-minded and single- talented artists can be lucky in a way, knowing and wanting only one skill. But the multi-talented are lucky if - but this does not always occur - they have a secure base in one of their talents. If they feel cursed, condemned to be actors when they are really playwrights, or valued as novelists when they should have been poets, or vice versa (as in Larkin's case), then, of course, much unhappiness will follow.

The only wise basis for working in film is the feeling that this is what you really want to do. One can bear failure, without too much humiliation, if one feels one was honestly engaged, that this was a reasonable deployment of one's creative powers.

'Expect disappointment,' then? Unfortunately, disappointment is by definition the thing you didn't expect to feel, the thing you promised yourself you wouldn't feel, the thing you swore to your friends you wouldn't feel - the thing you are feeling now, now the velociraptors are failing to return your faxes and phone calls.