For ten years I lived a lie. Well, a half lie, in truth. A double life of rich pickings as an investment banker in the City when all I had ever wanted to do was write novels - literary novels because, quite honestly, I would rather write stockbroker reports than follow in the brogue-prints of Michael Ridpath and his like.
So I handed in the keys to my sports car and four miserable years later I was learning to live on the breadline again. But I had an agent and two publishers fighting over my first novel, Skin and Bone, a book with literary pretensions that stuck dirty fingers into the fleshwounds of the white, working-class provincial man. It was, according to an early review in the Yorkshire Post, "a good deed in a naughty world". I had invented a hero, given him a voice to represent people who had pricked my conscience every time I received a bloated salary cheque. I had achieved something worthwhile.
My good deed was raved about: from Glasgow to Leeds; from Manchester to . . . nowhere else, actually. For someone who had grown fat on analysing markets, I had made a grave error. Worse, I had been betrayed. I had sung the song of my unsung hero, but the reviewers had cut my throat.
Soon after the hush of Skin and Bone's launch subsided, I went to see Martin Amis reading at Waterstone's, whose window recommended six books from that month's 10,000 new titles. As Amis started to read - his voice dulcet, leavened, rich - I could swear I heard my other and fictional hero going under, drowning in the thousand leagues of "new fiction" desks, not a solitary reviewer throwing him a line.
But solace was at hand. The universally reviewed Amis pondered the joke that, while music critics do not pipe their judgement through reeds or brass, novelists are judged in prose narrative, their own form. How many wordsmith wannabes, he mused, spent their schooldays dreaming of being book reviewers? And that is the baggage they carry.
I had heard it from the master's voice: reviewers are bitter, resentful people. I had a question for Amis, a frail man you could ruffle with a whisper. But as I raised my hand, he became massive. I felt words choking me. Almost voiceless, I croaked: "Do you think a damning review is worse than no review?" He looked at me as if I was talking in tongues. He didn't understand the question, of course. Why would someone not review him? He was famous. And without making a sound, he spoke fresh truth: it was the famous who were trying to harm me. Breathing my air, stealing my light.
The review pages, I realise, are not designed to help people buy good novels rather than bad novels. Bad novels by the famous are better copy, and of course the nation needs to know which novel-by-numbers to buy next.
My hero and I sit quietly atop the stacks of my remaindered and unsullied genius, watching the disease travelling up the food chain as well as down. The reviewers are picking off Amis and Barnes, and we can count on the fingers of one digit the plaudits for their successors. Tension is building; they are readying themselves for Geri Halliwell's searing insight into being 30 and fat, wondering whether that will knock spots off Melinda Messenger's postmodernist deconstruction of her implant hell.
There is a whirlpool of spin below us, in which are vested the interests of newspapers and agents and publishers. From up here, I can get wise, watch the search for the safest and lowest, the dumbest and blondest of all denominators. Watch editors, agents and publishers feeding ulcers as they risk missing the next great teenage navel-gazer.
The air is too thin up here in the clouds of my unsold pile. My hero nudges me, tries to bolster an old delusion. "If there are too many books being published," he asks, "why don't they just choose the good stuff?" I look him in the eye and shove him off my pile, don't even watch him go. For I must construct my cunning plan: the story of a young man interested in football, and a young woman interested in her appearance, but written (and this is the clever part) as if they live on a TV set. Not a book at all, really. But I shall write it anyway, even if no one has heard of me, because tomorrow I start on the reinvention of myself. A greater fiction. I was a heroin addict, don't you know. Honest.
Skin and Bone is published in paperback by Anchor, as is my second novel, Cradle to Grave. Take my word for it, they are both terrific. You read it here first.