Fully booked: fans queue outside Waterstones on Piccadilly for a book-signing. Photo: Getty
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Eyes on the prize: a brilliant satire of the Booker set

A novel about those writers who attract fans so ardent that the work is never enough.

Francis Plug: How to Be a Public Author 
Paul Ewen
Galley Beggar Press, 297pp, £11

The role of novelists has changed immeasurably. They once existed to provide truth and insight into human existence, but the actual writing part now appears secondary. Instead, today’s writer is expected to be a plugged-in social networker, a raconteur who can put middle-class posteriors on folding seats at festivals and win entirely arbitrary prizes funded by investment and communications companies. Often they are paid solely in cheap, warm wine and tiny morsels of food.

New independent publisher Galley Beggar Press understands the absurdity of basing a business on personalities and trend-guessing, having achieved unexpected success recently with Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, an experimental novel previously rejected by major publishing houses. Perhaps this is what has drawn Galley Beggar to Francis Plug, Paul Ewen’s hilarious account of the lonely lives of authors. It is a novel about those writers who attract fans so ardent that the work is never enough; those who insist on “following Mickey Mouse back to the changing rooms to smell the sweat of the red-faced puppeteer”.

If you have ever spent a summer directing furtive punters to the towering pile of 50 Shades of Grey – not because you work in a bookshop but because you are doing signings of your own – then you’ll know how soul-destroying such promotional obligations can be. So I’ve been told.

With the deliberately dull title of London Pub Reviews, the London-based New Zealander Paul Ewen’s debut novel was a collection of outlandish vignettes by a totally unreliable narrator. In the new book Ewen cranks up his deadpan satirical style through one Francis Plug, and catches a vast array of contemporary Booker prizewinners in his firing line. Plug is a memorable and disturbing comic creation, a perpetually drunk and deluded gardener with zero social skills. He lives alone; he loves whisky. Sometimes he carries with him excrement collected from the Mall (“special delivery from the Queen’s horses”) to use as fertiliser. He is a wonderful host.

Plug’s commitment to his own literary career is perversely admirable: rather than waste his time writing, he trawls book signings and festivals to glean tips from a cast of “real” Booker winners on how to be “a public author” for a book that he is clearly never going to complete. However, he does contemplate inserting a singing squid into his non-fiction text so that it can sit next to Plath and Poe in the fiction section.

Ewen actually went to these events, in character as Plug, and has the signed books to prove it. That he survived this picaresque autograph-hunt through bookshop back rooms, bars and Hay-on-Wye tents without being incarcerated, sectioned or severely beaten was lucky. For Plug is the carrier-bag-toting fan that all writers fear; and his banal, Pooteresque eye for detail and ear for scathing one-liners are memorably poetic.

A S Byatt’s face, we are told, resembles “an illustrated personification of the wind”. Howard Jacobson has “big frizzy hair, as if his head were a cushion and the stuffing has been pulled out of a tear in his scalp”. And V S Naipaul, who “says some really crazy things, and yet is still held up in esteem”, has “lightly oiled hair that resembles a glistening fish pulled from the sea and caught beneath the dazzling sun”. In a particularly fanciful episode, Julian Barnes ends a tedious theatre talk by ascending to the rafters by wires, his elbows pistoning “like chicken wings” before his head falls off, and then “out of his neck protrudes a fountain of confetti, and the crowd erupts in applause”.

Suffice it to say that Plug is a cipher for an utterly surreal critique of the Booker Prize. Novelists certainly have form in satirising the world they reluctantly inhabit. Earlier this year, Edward St Aubyn explored the machinations behind a major literary prize in Lost for Words – but this was a book for those au fait with the circuit. Plug is for the genuine outsiders and he pricks the pompous literary bubble with aplomb.

What Ewen’s subjects will make of these imagined meetings is anyone’s guess. Will Peter Carey, for one, remember the man who turned up at his reading wearing a Camden street bin in homage to Ned Kelly’s armour? As the novel concludes with a near-literal cliffhanger in the belly of the beast – the London Book Fair – Ewen’s dissection of literary life becomes almost too painful to watch. And as a result this might just be a modern comic masterpiece.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” is published by Bluemoose Books (£12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage