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It’s not their fault you’re still a failure

A new play at the Royal Court Theatre has done something rather dashing and unusual. Ignoring deprivation, globalisation, exclusion, fundamentalism, immigration, injustice and economic meltdown, it has put on a play called Tribes which explores a crisis within one liberal, arty, lightly bohemian, middle-class family – a family much like that of many of its audience, in other words. The play’s author, Nina Raine, is not only all those things but – rather controversially, as it turns out – is also daughter of the well-known poet and academic, Craig Raine.

It seems as if she is in for a rough ride. There are few sections of society more riddled with resentment, jealousy and paranoia than that occupied by the great, keening tribe of would-be writers. They perceive the worlds of publishing, theatre, and even journalism as exclusive clubs mostly occupied by a small, privileged group of people who attend the same parties, sleep with each other, share agents, puff one another’s work at every opportunity and employ each other’s children.

When a newcomer bearing a familiar name makes his or her appearance, he or she, it is believed, will be effortlessly absorbed into this magic circle, perpetuating the system of favours and mutual back-scratching for another generation. This anti-elitist rage is at its nastiest when directed at literary families. No one grumbled when Rufus and Martha, the children of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, started recording songs or when Samuel West, the son of Timothy West and Prunella Scales, made his debut as an actor.

The sons and daughters of established writers are altogether more suspect. There were knowing sneers when Martin Amis’s first novel The Rachel Papers was published in the early 1970s, and it took two or three more novels for him to be taken seriously in his own right. The reaction to Nina Raine has been more nakedly unpleasant. “They are not like us, these people”, wrote one online reader of a broadsheet profile published last week. “They have connections we never have. Doors open for them and close for us.” Another reader complained of “self-seeking luvviedom”, while a third complained about, “a puff piece for yet another junior member of the literary aristocracy”.

No one could deny that the literary world is a cosy place: there is more snobbery at a smart publishing launch in 2010 than you would have found at a Queen Charlotte’s Ball in the 1950s. It is faintly annoying, and undeniably unfair, that those with the right name and connections can breeze their way on to a literary or theatrical agent’s lists after a call from a well-connected daddy, aunt or godfather.

In the end, though, does it really matter? Only talent will help them survive. Fifty years ago it might have been possible for an utter mediocrity to rub along in the outer fringes of the literary or theatrical world on the basis of whom you know. Today, any lack of ability will be quickly and brutally exposed. In fact, those with a pedigree are likely to be treated with less mercy than the rest.

It should be neither a matter of surprise nor cause for scandalised comment when, now and then, accomplished parents produce accomplished children. Here is how it happens: a child attracted to the idea of writing may be encouraged and advised as she grows up by her father or mother. At some point, significantly, she will realise that there is no great mystique to earning a living from creative work. When she becomes an adult, connections may indeed help her on to the first rung of the ladder. After that, she is on her own.

There is no great conspiracy at work here. The advantages of being a young writer called Raine or Waugh or Pakenham are no more unfair on the rest of us than inequalities in other walks of life. Those who have convinced themselves that “these people”, the cosseted sons and daughters of an imagined literary elite, are barring their way to success, have found rather too easy an excuse for their own failures.

Independent, Friday, 22 October 2010