How to achieve immortality by buying '15-paragraphs of fame'; Week in Books column


Arifa Akbar
Thursday 30 October 2014 12:53 GMT
Fighting prejudice: author Zadie Smith
Fighting prejudice: author Zadie Smith (Dominique Nabokov)

Will you be bidding at the latest “immortality” auction? The one in which the highest bidder will have bought their way into Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest perhaps, or Tracy Chevalier’s next novel in which she has an open spot for a landlady. Or the works of Hanif Kureishi, Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker, Alan Hollinghurst, Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, and more. Not for the first time – though this one surely has the highest “star” voltage – novelists will auction character names to appear in their fictions.

The whole thing is for charity which is a good thing of course, but might it not bring the obvious imaginative constraints that even the organising charity, Freedom from Torture, outlines on its website, for a similar auction in 2000? “One best selling, award-winning novelist said he feared that allowing someone else to choose the name of one of his characters would ‘spook’ his next book, while Martin Amis said the names of his characters were an integral part of his writing.” Jim Crace, participating in 2000, admitted to being initially alarmed at receiving a character name “flatpacked”.

What’s more interesting is recognising characters who aren’t named. At its most playful, it’s a parlour game, at worst, it’s got authors into hot water. David Mitchell’s latest book, The Bone Clocks, features a series of minxish references, including a novelist character not named as Martin Amis though it is hard not to assume Crispin Hershey, a former “wild child of British letters” whose early novel is “Desiccated Embryos” could have been based on anyone else. Oh and he also chucked in his publicist, Nikki Barrow, who is perfectly at peace with a reference as the “Publicity Girl at Hay” who says ‘whoop’ and ‘hurrahs’ a lot. Some might have identifed the real-life counterparts to the prigs and poseurs in Edward St Aubyn’s literary satire, Lost for Words. Meanwhile, Zadie Smith takes a different tack, giving herself a self-deprecating cameo as a “feckless novelist” in On Beauty as does Siri Hustvedt in her latest novel, The Blazing World. All good, clean, clever fun.

Not so much fun when those who recognise themselves get in a tizz. Amanda Craig found herself in bother when her 1996 book, A Vicious Circle, was dropped by one publisher after her ex-boyfriend and literary critic claimed he was drawn as the villain in it. Ironically, some authors who have signed up for this auction have had form on such controversies –Kureishi with his ex-wife on the publication of Intimacy, which dramatised a man walking out on his marriage; Faulks in A Week in December, which featured a sniping book reviewer, R Tranter, whom some recognised as novelist and critic, DJ Taylor. He, in turn, may or may not have repaid the dishonour by naming a seedy detective “Faulks” in At the Chime of a City Clock. It should be said that both writers – and pretty much all mentioned – deny that these characters are sourced from life around them.

Meanwhile, a few steps on from buying your way into a novel, is that far rarer phenomenon for companies to sponsor authors. Remember Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection? I hope she got an expensive necklace thrown in. And I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on – who would need cash-cautious publishers when we’d have books by Chopards and Gucci? Those rich enough to bid in this latest auction should beware. Some novelists who have had names bought extract their revenge by setting out a sorry fate for the winning bidder in their fictions. Their 15 paragraphs of fame, as Crace aptly called it, could come at a price in more ways than one.

Mills & Boon embraces gritty social realism

Mills & Boon is tackling feminism under its new imprint, M&B. Great. Still, it’s not a first. The romance/bonkbuster genre has long had strong women role models – Jackie Collins’s Lucky Santangelo is a personal favourite. Collins does, though, stay away from the social realism that M&B is also embracing, with adoption and single motherhood among next year’s crop of books.

Mea culpa: how not to confuse the Kate Mosses

Kate Mosse, the novelist, has been living with a case of confused identities for decades, it transpired, from a piece she wrote about being mistaken for the fashion model (on Twitter): “I was swamped with ... tweets telling me how beautiful I was.” So I’m relieved she took my email lightly: “Dear Kate, I hear Kate Moss has been writing about you.” Sorry Kate Mosse, not Moss.

Book prices – they are certainly a-changin’

No sooner had I heard of a Rolling Stones coffee table book selling at £3,000, I discovered Bob Dylan’s The Lyrics: Since 1962 was going for £125 (limited run of 3,500 copies). At that price, reviewers had to arrange a meeting with it in its very own room. The book traced every last nuance: how ‘cause the times they are a’changin’ was changed to ‘for the times they are a-changin’. Enlightening?

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