I regard this as an important breakthrough in personal time-scheduling and have Julian Barnes to thank. I had been trying to give up contemporary fiction for years. My bookshelves creak under a weight of unread classics. Would I ever discover how the Rev Francis Kilvert began his days, whether he preferred nettle to camomile tea? Would the byways of Gilbert White's Selborne remain for ever terra incognita? And as for those mouldering lumber-rooms of Victorian verse - the Rossettis, the Brownings - was it possible even to prise open the pages without contracting housedust-related asthma? Meanwhile Martin Chuzzlewit glared at me angrily in embossed gold on a red leathery spine.
What I was developing, I now realise, was the hitherto undiagnosed condition of fiction deficit disorder. Thanks to the proliferation of new universities, millions now suffer from this condition. They believe that contemporary literature is morally uplifting, a tonic for the psyche and a handy map of the zeitgeist. More importantly, they believe what they read on dust- jackets, the distinguishing feature of contemporary fiction.
My classics, inherited from generations of dusty scholastics, have a leather or board cover, a glittery title and - that's it. No blurbs, no biogs, nothing. So, for instance, there is no ex cathedra pronouncement that Hamlet is a profound analysis of the human condition, nor weighty testimony to the innocent celebratory charm of Mr Kilvert, the crisp, telegraphic qualities of Gilbert White's prose or the penetrating portrait of Victorian mores etc etc contained in Martin Chuzzlewit. When it comes to a shouting match with contemporary fiction, there is simply no contest. Why is this? Let Julian Barnes be called as witness.
During the years of fiction deficit disorder, contemporary novels multiplied across my shelves like an orange plague. The older generation of Murdochs and Lessings and Drabbles were followed by a newer generation of Boyds and Amises and McEwans. The effect was mildly narcotic: gently pleasurable at first, with the odd memorable moment but over the years fading into melancholy and confusion. Then came Flaubert's Parrot, by said Julian. I read Flaubert's Parrot on holiday a few years ago. Correction: I tried to read it on holiday. I took it from caf to beach to bar and back again. I thumbed it till my thumbs frayed at the edges. Who was this chap, why was he looking for Flaubert and where did the parrot come into it? Why did nothing ever happen? Was this a sensible way to spend a holiday? What had inspired me to buy the book?
I'll tell you why. The Sunday Times, the New York Times Book Review, Books and Bookmen, the Times Literary Supplement and the Spectator told me to. So did Graham Greene and a vastly impressive cross-section of the literary establishment. "Intricate and delightful," said Greene. "Prodigal in its verbal inventiveness," said the New York Times. These were names that meant something. I felt I knew them. Why had they let me down?
The penny finally dropped with a neat tinkling sound. They're all in it together. Let me explain. In those far-off days when the likes of F R Leavis preached the notion that fiction was improving, and not a form of stress relief, I used to believe, more or less implicitly, what was written on dust-jackets. I assumed that they were disembodied critical judgments - like Leavis pontificating magisterially on D H Lawrence, for example. It never occurred to me that the people behind the phrases all knew each other, went to the same parties, shared the same dinner tables, read the same newspapers, appeared on the same television programmes, led the same desk-bound, book-bound, frequently London-bound, writerly lives. And, perhaps most crucially, that they all worked for the same literary editors and reviewed the same books - each others' books.
An author's ego fully extended is no joke. The tiniest of critical reservations is viewed as an act of hubristic savagery and becomes a source of life- long enmity. Because they never do anything apart from write, authors are a sensitive lot - foresters are much nicer - and so grudges go deep. Would you risk saying anything unkind about the work of a friend/colleague/contact if you knew they could do the same to you - and indeed might be employing you one day? Anything less than superlatives is regarded as treasonable.
The incestuousness of the literary world no longer surprises me as I have come to believe that all contemporary fiction is produced by three people working under a range of pseudonyms. There is a youngish balding bloke with specs, a fat feminist living in a converted lighthouse and the fey wife of a merchant banker. They get together every six months and decide this year's crop of Youngish Bloke, Fat Feminist and Fey Literary novels. Probably they contract out much of the writing, specifying a theme (no plots, thanks very much) with a few musical notations - not much brio or vivace but a good deal of lentissimo.
Julian saved me from all this. The fiction industry rests on a strange mixture of private conspiracy and public illusion and his parrot, so to speak, pricked it. I noted the Barnes credentials - former deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times ("unfailingly sharp and often very funny," it remarked of F's P), married to well-known literary agent - and drew my conclusions. Since then, I've ignored all blurbs and applied the five- minute test. If a novel takes more than three pages to make its pitch, it's back on the shelf. The best names in the business - Attwood, Amis, Winterson - have failed. I have come to the sad conclusion that only very exceptional writers have more than a couple of good books in them and I'm not going to waste my time finding out which they are. I've just finished The Odyssey. I wouldn't say it was unfailingly sharp, often very funny, or even prodigal in its verbal inventiveness, but it's not at all bad.