A Week In Books: Roger Lewis reveals the agonies of authorship

By Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 30 November 2002 01:00
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Hardly a week passes without splashy publicity for the kind of social survey that tells you – at vast cost – exactly what you always knew before. The latest shock results from those dark forces at ELBO (the Entity for Labouring the Bleedin' Obvious) reveal that most people feel dissatisfied with their jobs. Dog bites man, you might say. A shade less predictable, perhaps, was the list of ideal occupations presented by these disgruntled wage-slaves. Out of this sample, 14 per cent yearned to be actors, 12 per cent writers, and 10 per cent, interior decorators.

Long ago, the immortal Dionne Warwick spotted the ubiquity of that first dream when she informed us (while seeking the way to San José) that "all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas". Now, even the gas-pumping has gone DIY. Instead, it turns out that the nocturnal guardian of the garage till might harbour wistful fantasies of the ultimate Art Deco-themed live-work space, or the definitive Zeitgeist novel about clubbing buddies.

All things considered, the wannabe wallpaperers can expect a kinder future than the aspirant authors. From time to time, the Society of Authors unveils truly startling statistics to show how little the bulk of its members earn. One memorable moan came from a non-fiction writer who had signed up for a project that demanded much original research. He had also just hired a tradesman to re-tile the kitchen. The bill for the tiling (a couple of days) exceeded the fee for the typing (a couple of years). Dr Johnson once advised literary hopefuls to "mark what ills the scholar's life assail", in an era when the "scholar" designated a self-supporting writer: "Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail". For "patron", read publisher; for the debtors' prison, the contempt of bullying bankers. Otherwise, no change there.

At least those centuries of penury have left a fabulous legacy of scorn and spleen. Literary satire has flourished from the time of the brilliant Elizabethan bruiser Thomas Nashe, through Dryden, Pope, Byron, Gissing and Max Beerbohm, to Martin Amis's The Information. An inspired new addition to the genre has just appeared, although (thanks to an oversight on the publisher's part) it bears a misleading label. Reviewers have been encouraged by Faber & Faber to treat Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis as a biography of the real-life Mancunian novelist and polymath (1917-1994). Thus misguided, they have rightly dismissed the book as a wild farrago of fancy and malice.

In fact, Lewis's Anthony Burgess ought to be read as a hugely entertaining comic fiction that explores all the agonies of authorship, and the toxic connection between biographer and subject – a delirious mixture of William Boyd and Vladimir Nabokov. It closes with a lacerating lament in the voice of an embittered old hack. Modelled on Molly Bloom's soliloquy, this tirade lists the miseries (by no means all monetary) of the literary life. These range from "the hollow praise from editorial directors who only want to talk about their geraniums" to "those flotillas of 24-year-old publicity handmaidens who flirt and laugh at your jokes but whom you'll never in a million years get to fuck because they have fiancés in marine reinsurance or coffee futures in the City who all look like Jeremy Northam" to "literary parties with the same puffy faces and the diarists prowling like the hyenas in The Lion King for gossip".

Quite why Faber's catalogue placed this often hilarious work on the wrong page, we shall never know. The upshot is that lovers of grotesque, off-the-wall book-biz satire may miss out on a scabrous Christmas treat. Between them, Roger Lewis and "Anthony Burgess" could deter a sizeable chunk of that 12 per cent from a fate even worse than debt.

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