It's an unwritten rule - maybe even a written rule - that columnists shouldn't write about other columnists, let alone columnists in the same paper. But there were a couple of examples in last week's NS that I couldn't resist.
Ken Follett finished his diary by plausibly describing Marcel Proust as "literature's greatest fusspot". Any modern novelist who has corrected page-proofs will know that they are nowadays accompanied with heart-stopping threats that time is short and that you are allowed to correct only typographical errors. Anything else will be charged for out of your royalties. But Proust treated this stage as just another draft which inspired him to add huge snaking paragraphs, and paragraphs within paragraphs. The printers could hardly make head nor tail of it, and then Proust died and his brother took over seeing the books through the press. Scholarship has spent almost a century trying to make sense of these often inconsistent scrawls.
Follett mentioned that Proust had written the famous first sentence, "For a long time, I used to go to bed early", then cut it and finally reinstated it - thus, in Follett's words, "saving for posterity what must be the least arresting first line ever written". Yes, and in next week's diary, Jeffrey Archer will explain why "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" is a crappy beginning to a sonnet.
Arresting? What is an arresting beginning? Perhaps this: "Behavioral science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth." That's The Silence of the Lambs, needless to say. It's not exactly arresting, more like a bill of fare pinned outside a restaurant. It tells us two things: first, that the book is going to be about serial murder; and second, that the serial murder department is on the bottom floor of the Academy building, which is a boring fact except that it shows that Thomas Harris has done his research.
Flicking through my thriller shelf, the most arresting opening sentence I found was in Lee Child's Die Trying. It begins: "Nathan Rubin died because he got brave." Martin Amis wrote that the title of a novel can be too clever, and I wonder if the opening of a novel can be too arresting. Child's opening reminds me of a reputed instruction from Sam Goldwyn to a screenwriter: "We'll start with an explosion and then work our way up to a climax." It's as if Child thinks you might put the book down if there is even a sentence of build-up before the first moment of violence.
Jonathan Miller once said that one of the beauties of Proust's In Search of Lost Time is that it couldn't be filmed because so much of it is about habitual action, what I used to do, what would happen each morning, what my grandmother was always saying. Proust's first sentence is a perfectly economic introduction to the most uneconomic of books, to a 200-page overture to a 3,000-page book, an overture that will consist of repetitions and digressions, all somehow recalled in the ambiguous world that hovers between wakefulness and dreams.
In the same diary, Follett says that he dislikes the Booker "because it never goes to a popular bestseller". This is obviously untrue. Midnight's Children and The Remains of the Day have both sold millions of copies. Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha had sold more than 100,000 copies in hardback even before it got on the shortlist. Follett probably means that the Booker has never gone to a bestselling genre novel - a whodunnit, a thriller, a romance. This familiar argument is usually put forward for two distinct reasons: the first is to claim that, say, a Dick Francis novel is as good "for what it is" as, say, a Graham Swift. The second reason is, more belligerently, to claim that it's all snobbery, and that John Le Carre (who, incidentally, doesn't allow his books to be submitted for the Booker) is just as good as Graham Greene. Lord Gowrie is always quoted on the dustjackets of George V Higgins's enjoyable thrillers claiming, absurdly, that he is "one of the best novelists alive". (Sadly, even the alive bit isn't true any more.)
I sometimes think that writers such as Follett, with all the success and the money, feel a particular resentment toward writers who don't sell and don't even care that they don't sell. It's not just the old cruel Hollywood saying, "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" It's not just that Proust was wilful, that he didn't court success, that he was elitist; worse still that, 100 years on, people are still buying his books. He succeeded on his own terms and, in the end, on Ken Follett's as well. The bastard.