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How my literary life became an ever-lengthening index of people to avoid

With the editors to avoid and the editors to endure, book publishers’ parties can be a minefield – thank heavens for the Pogues’ accordionist...

Latest squeeze: James Fearnley of The Pogues performs in New York, March 2011. Photo: Getty
Latest squeeze: James Fearnley of The Pogues performs in New York, March 2011. Photo: Getty

To the summer party of A Certain Publisher. For many years I owed them a book, and so I’d turn up in the spirit of Levin – is it Levin? – from Anna Karenina, who would make a point of going to places where he owed money, just to show he wasn’t scared. I remember once, at another gathering, having someone say to me, “I don’t know how you have the nerve to show your face here,” and, for some reason, I found this rather thrilling. Anyway, even though the organisers of this party have no reason to glare at me (I gather it’s a glitch in the system that gets me invited every year), apart from the fact that the book they published was more of a succès d’estime than an actual success, there are plenty of people there of whom I would be wise to steer clear.

There is, for a start, the small but ever-growing band of writers whose books I have reviewed unkindly. Even though there aren’t many of these, the recipient of a stinker, as I have always suspected, and as experience has taught me, will remember it until the end of time.

Then there are the editors. There are two kinds. Editor Type 1 is the editor of the book you are meant to be writing. You have to deal with these, although the conversation may be pained. Often the relationship with an editor can be more fraught after you have written your book than it was while they were still drumming their fingers on the desk waiting for it.

Also, the question you learn very quickly not to ask is the one with the word “sales” in it. As a more experienced writer friend of mine explained to me a while back, they will be the first to tell you if there is good news on that front. If they have not personally called you up to congratulate you, it is not because they’ve had a busy day. It is because they have little to congratulate you for.

Editor Type 2 is, of course, the editor of the publication you write for. Here, the rule is simply to avoid at all costs, but when the publication concerned is a newspaper, that’s easy, as they move in different circles, usually several miles above the earth, in gold-plated stratocruisers, being smeared in caviar by oiled houris of their preferred gender. The editor the common or “garden” hack has to deal with – the one you file to and who sorts out your sloppy phrasing – is an approachable human being, a rung or two above you but nevertheless recognisably of the same species. They’re fine.

The problem is when working for publications the size of, say . . . oh, I don’t know . . . let’s call it the Modern Politician. The editor of such a publication is approachable; he or she may even have hired you himself. But you must under no circumstances talk to this person when you have taken drink, because you will make a tit of yourself, either by word or by deed, and the memory of this will haunt your days and nights with dread and remorse for years to come. Luckily, the Modern Politician’s chief rival, a right-wing publication called . . . um . . . the Onlooker, was having its own party that night, and they were serving Pol Roger, the bastards, and they may well have invited the Modern Politician’s editor along to that, so no harm done.

The other category of people to avoid is those whose correspondence I have failed to return, whose invitations I have forgotten about, and whom through any number of acts of thoughtless omission I have offended; and the numbers in this category are large beyond counting. First up is Craig Raine, who asks me why I have not replied to his suggestion that I write a huge piece on Gabriel García Márquez, for what I suspect would be a nominal fee.

“Never heard of him,” I say.

In the end, after dodging the extremely large number of people I need to avoid by talking to the accordionist from the Pogues for a very long time (he’s also very sharp, and funny, too, so that’s good), I suddenly find myself talking to a Famous Person who, it turns out, is reading my book.

She has brought her husband along, who is An Even More Famous Person, and, moreover, one who I think, like her, deserves his fame, and I get a bit giddy and tip my glass of rosé over her in my excitement. Things go downhill a bit after that, and as I trudge home, reflecting on the degree to which I have, yet again, made a tit of myself, despite all efforts not to, I think of Samuel Beckett’s wise words from – is it “First Love”? – “The mistake one makes is to speak to people.”

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