It’s hard work, reading breathless accounts of long-ago gossip from parties you weren’t invited to, or descriptions of boozy lunches from days gone by. In Circus of Dreams it’s clear that John Walsh had a fabulous time on the British literary social circuit in the 1980s; perhaps the rule is that the more enjoyable the soirée, the less suited it will be to later recollection.
The reader may raise an eyebrow when imagining Walsh and the novelist Graham Swift emerging from a drunken lunch “sloshed and euphoric, like John Wayne and Lee Marvin singing ‘The Moon Shines Tonight on Pretty Red Wing’ in The Comancheros”. (I think Swift is Wayne in this scenario, and Walsh is Marvin, but frankly the whole thing seems a tad unlikely.) That reader may sigh when Walsh, invited to a party at the Chelsea flat of Lady Caroline Blackwood, reports: “I had to pinch myself to stop blurting out, ‘Oh my God you were married to Robert Lowell – what was that like?’”
Of course, by then said reader will have already survived a description of Lady Caroline’s two daughters as “real beauties at 20 and 17, with their plump cheeks and lips, their mother’s feline eyes, and their air of well-bred contempt for the stammering men to whom they were introduced”.
Walsh has been literary editor of the Evening Standard and of the Sunday Times; decades ago he edited the magazine of the Independent, which was truly wonderful in its time. Circus of Dreams is a collection of disorderly tales about – well, his “Adventures in the 1980s Literary World”, as the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin subtitle has it. The book is a paean to a bygone era, so near and yet so far, when publishers and newspapers had plenty of cash to lavish on books and writers – those who made it into the privileged inner circle, anyway – whether that meant handing them advances, throwing them parties or commissioning reviews regularly enough, and at a decent enough rate of pay, that an author might hope to make a living by actually writing.
It is a portrait of the long 1980s, from 1978 to 1992. In 1979 the London Review of Books was founded in response to the shuttering for a year of the Times Literary Supplement. The same year the Literary Review was launched and Granta was transformed from a student publication to a national magazine, its premiere issue entitled “New American Writing” and edited by Bill Buford and Pete de Bolla, both then academics at Cambridge. Granta set out its brutal stall in an editorial: “It is increasingly a discomforting commonplace that today’s British novel is neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting.”
But just a few years later, in 1983, Granta would announce its first round-up of “Best of Young British Novelists” (BOYBN) with fiction by up-and-comers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Buchi Emecheta and Salman Rushdie. As Walsh notes: “The 1983 promotion made literary fiction cool, visible and aspirational as a career choice, in a way it had never been before.” A quarter of a million (a quarter of a million!) additional copies of the featured books by the BOYBNs were sold. The BOYBN initiative has continued every decade; the latest crop, to be chosen by Tash Aw, Rachel Cusk, Brian Dillon, Helen Oyeyemi and the magazine’s owner and editor Sigrid Rausing, will be revealed in 2023.
But Walsh reminds us that the Granta list came after another one, less well remembered: a “Best of British Writers” (BOBW) parade that appeared in the Sunday Times in early 1982 with a group portrait by Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret’s ex. Here are some eminent names that have receded a little in history now: Leon Garfield, Malcolm Bradbury, Laurens van der Post. But John Betjeman is there, and Beryl Bainbridge and Rosemary Sutcliff.
Behind both lists, as Walsh writes, was Desmond Clarke, a driven literary promoter whose strategies would guide publishing and book marketing during the booming decade. “The BOBW and its successors made writers visible and then fashionable, on radio and TV, in the newspapers. In the next decade, they’d begin to appear on stage, at bookshop readings and literary festival debates. They began to be brands: marketed for their personae as much for the quality of their new books.”
Walsh’s enthusiasm for his subject is undeniable. As he describes growing up in south London, heading off to Oxford University and then clambering up the journalistic ladder, he is plain about his puppyish passion to discover what it is that makes a great writer. But who is this scattershot book, assembled from newspaper clippings and memory, for? Having myself been a literary editor for a good long stint I couldn’t decide if I was or was not the ideal reader for Walsh’s tales: I already know that Joanna Mackle, former publicity director of Faber & Faber, was renowned in our little world for her taste in millinery; will people who don’t know this care? And how much does it mean, in 2022, that Kingsley Amis was famous for his impressions of President Eisenhower and Lord David Cecil?
The book is a missed opportunity. Walsh quotes the pioneering Margaret Busby, who became Britain’s first black female publisher at the age of 23, writing in the pages of this magazine: “Is it enough to respond to a demand for books reflecting the presence of ‘ethnic minorities’ while perpetuating a system which does not actively encourage their involvement at all levels?”
Her New Statesman piece appeared in 1984; four decades later, change is – perhaps – starting to come. I believe this book would have had more, not less, appeal to the general serious reader if some of the carousing had been cut in favour of further discussion of the ways in which the economic structures of publishing have changed, and not in favour of the writer. In 2018 the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society found that authors’ real incomes had dropped 42 per cent since 2005; according to figures from 2016 from the Publishers Association, authors received just 3 per cent of publisher turnover in a market worth £5.1bn; that same year, profits for major publishers headed towards the 13 per cent mark. Things are unlikely to have improved in the intervening half-decade.
In the 1980s more writers were able to earn a living from writing – though those writers were, of course, largely male and, broadly speaking, of privileged background – Walsh (and myself, in the latter category) included. But here’s a fun fact: I get paid for book reviews such as this one, sure. But as a rule the number of pounds I receive in 2022 is about the same as if I’d written the piece in 1996. I know that because I made those payments myself.
Walsh remains rather too in thrall to the big beasts of his day. You know, the blokes: Amis père et fils, Anthony Burgess, Ian McEwan – though he does admit a soft spot for Angela Carter. I won’t criticise him for wearing his heart on his sleeve. I am dismayed, however, by his lazy closing assumption that the “old novelistic virtues” have somehow vanished from 21st-century fiction. I promise you, John, they haven’t. Despite the hard times that artists are facing – and I don’t just mean that there are fewer parties to go to – we live in powerful creative times. Circus of Dreams recalls the joys of a vanished era, but reading it shouldn’t make us mourn for what’s been lost.
Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World
Constable, 432pp, £25
Erica Wagner was literary editor of the Times from 1996 to 2013. Her new book, “Mary and Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story”, will be published by Faber & Faber in September 2022
[See also: The best books of 2022 so far]
This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer