A ROW over the publication of an account of Kingsley Amis's last days has had a seismic effect on London's literary world - the latest result is the break-up of one of Britain's leading literary agencies, Aitken, Stone and Wylie.
Last week, the agency became Aitken and Stone. Andrew Wylie, probably the most famous literary agent in the world, and so celebrated for his ruthlessness that he is called "the Jackal", had left. His client list includes Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie, V S Naipaul, Saul Bellow - and Martin Amis, Kingsley's son. Nobody will comment, but the literati are in little doubt that the row over the dying days of Amis senior triggered Wylie's move.
It began when Eric Jacobs, Kingsley's biographer, offered his diaries for publication within a week of the novelist's death last October. He had kept them as an aide-memoire since 1992 and they recounted Kingsley's prodigious capacity for drink, his "outrageous" demands for attention and his addiction to Coronation Street.
The Amis family objected. "How you look and behave when you are dying," said Martin, "are not normally for publication within days of the death." Jacobs agreed to withdraw them.
But, when the Amis family decided that he should not edit Kingsley's letters, Jacobs was furious. He had agreed on the project with Kingsley, he said. He would publish the offending diaries after all.
His agent, Gillon Aitken (the Aitken of Aitken, Stone and Wylie), brokered a deal with the Sunday Times. Henceforth, all is speculation. Literary insiders reckon that Wylie would have left the agency rather than jeopardise his relationship with Martin Amis, his most spectacular capture. Amis was poached from a rival agency only last year on the promise that Wylie would get him a pounds 500,000 advance for his novel, The Information.
Jacobs, however, insists that, though he does not know what led to the split, "it's nothing to do with Martin and me". And other literary insiders think that any row over the Jacobs diaries was merely the culmination of a longer-running dispute. "There have been a lot of financial complications," said one insider.
So what will Wylie, an American who also has a base in New York, do now? London's agents are nervous about him being on the loose. His favoured method of gaining writers is said to be approaching them at parties and asking whether they would like a million dollars for their next novel. When they nod their heads, he reputedly replies: "Well, I've already made it for you. You just have to say yes."
The fear is that Wylie may now set up his own worldwide operation and snap up even more high-profile authors. "Agents are notoriously edgy and insecure about their relationships with their clients," said one source. "When someone like Wylie is hovering they start panicking and locking their doors."
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