Cosy little book circle

It is not often that we get a fresh thought on cultural matters, so Jason Cowley deserves to be congratulated on his article about the poor condition of British fiction ("Blame it on Amis, Barnes and McEwan", 4 June).

In it, he accuses me of irrationality in attacking the mediocrity of so much fiction, though, perhaps just a little oddly, then goes on to agree with virtually every word. What was he up to? Cue a sentence to be treasured. Marr's views, he said, "ought not detain us for too long - because he has never exhibited an active, rigorous engagement with modern British fiction, as either a critic or a writer of fiction".

There's the rub. His complaint was not the critique, but that someone outside the circle of self-appointed books-page chaps dared speak. It was, in fact, a squeak of outrage in a demarcation dispute, an official complaint from the Victoria Station branch of the Amalgamated Union of Pot-Boilers, Back-Scratchers and Allied Industries. "State of the novel? Geroff. That's our job, mate." So much for the poor old Common Reader.

Cowley is interesting despite himself, because his evident irritation highlights the narcotic and dispiriting effect of cultural specialisation, in which anyone who is to be taken seriously finds a niche - fiction, popular science, media studies, whatever - and sticks with it. Plenty of people a lot more talented and interesting than I am have suffered from this narrow-minded, rather jobsworth approach. I don't think it adds to the gaiety of the nation, but at least we have the thing out in the open.

Andrew Marr
London SW14

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come