Not long ago I was invited to take part in one of those ‘State of Literature’ debates in which the organisers of literary festivals perennially delight. The venue was an arts centre in Lancaster, my fellow panellists were two old friends, the novelists Carol Birch and John Murray, and the ground covered took in everything from how little we all got paid to the philistinism of the cultural landscape around us and the fate of various contemporary writers we admired, now thrown out into the street by no longer supportive publishers. The audience – there were about fifty of them – seemed to enjoy themselves. Apart, that is, from the gentleman who, in conversation with one of the organisers on the way out, declared that what he’d been listening to was ‘just the usual whingeing’.
As it happens, I saw his point entirely. It is a fact that if you put three writers in a room together they are liable to start complaining about poor sales, inattentive editors and a vanishing readership. Celebrity is no salve, and the winner of the Orange Prize