Writing - a critical condition

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Mark Lawson's article about the fate of Simon Gray's Cell Mates, the play abandoned by Stephen Fry, and all those who were aboard her offers one of the most vivid accounts I've seen of the crisis faced by actors and playwrights when the critics swoop, and a play is rightly or wrongly perceived as a flop. I only dispute his conclusion. It would surely be possible to produce actuarial tables, he says, establishing playwrighting as the killer among literary pursuits. That's why playwrights fall off the perch in their forties. While by contrast novelists, whose lives are serene, make a custom of living into their nineties.

True, there's nothing in the novelist's life to compare with that very public moment when the first-night curtain is down, the reviews appear, and the writer, actors, producers and investors stare instant success or failure in the face. But Martin Amis's new novel, The Information, out this week, comes much closer to the truth. Of two novelists who start as friends, the bad one gets good reviews, world fame and sales, the better one gets bad reviews and rising humiliation. Driven to seek revenge for this act of crazy cultural arbitration, he takes it out on his friend - now his enemy.

I suppose all writers in all genres have a dream about critics, which may be shared by the public too. They are high-minded, disinterested souls who exist to sift good from bad, to raise the tone of literary debate and examine artistic standards, to read, to consider, to understand. Oh yes? The bulk of criticism isn't about what's good or bad, but what's in or out. A good proportion of critics are less attentive to the discrimination of true judgement than they are to the impact of their own bylines. And a large amount of criticism is directed by fashionable and extraneous agendas.

Criticism has always been arbitrary. It may today be more arbitrary than usual, as newspapers target specific cultural audiences and attempt to gratify them. And novelists may not suffer in public, but they do suffer. Most dread their reviews. Some take air tickets to remote destinations to avoid them. Some claim never to read them at all. But nearly all of us return, like criminals, to the scene, to find out what effect we have had, what destruction has been wrought, quite often on us.

As for longevity, well, the most famous literary nonagenarian was George Bernard Shaw - though, true, he was a critic as well as a playwright. William Golding may have been a great survivor, but he fell silent for some 10 years, and not least because all he wrote was considered inferior to his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Evelyn Waugh raged at all his reviews, good and bad, and gratefully died at 63 in the lavatory. And novelists, too, have frequently been driven into silence, or to suicide.

The truth is that there is only one sensible career choice. Don't be an actor, a playwright, or a novelist. Be a critic. Then you'll probably live forever.

The author's forthcoming book is `Dangerous Pilgrimages: Trans-Atlantic Mythologies and the Novel', to be published by Secker - a work of criticism.