Commentary - Martin Amis ate my novel

Gareth Creer smells a conspiracy to keep first novelists out of the review pages

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.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture