Towards the end of his life, VS Pritchett was asked what lesson he had learned from his long and distinguished career. “Just this,” he said. “Sooner or later, everyone wants to be respectable.”
For authors, respectability can be a difficult matter. When they first start writing, they tend to see themselves as wild outriders, set apart from the social herd. Becoming socially accepted is the very last thing on their minds. Soon, though, words become work. Sights are lowered. The grand, world-changing ambitions are modified towards something rather more achievable and modest: survival.
At some point, the idea of being respected for the work that one does no longer seems entirely absurd. The Pritchett dictum is on the way to being proved.
Yet becoming a respectable author is less straightforward than might appear. There is, of course, a literary establishment but it is sometimes difficult to locate and even more difficult to infiltrate. Some authors ease their way into its ranks with their first book; others scratch and fret for their entire lifetime without ever quite being accepted as “one of us”. Talent, charm and even good looks are sometimes not quite enough. One needs to make the right moves, and be seen in the right places.
Follow the weather-vane
In every generation, there are writers, editors, journalists and arts administrators whose eyes are so firmly fixed on achievement that they seem bound to succeed. For them, friendship is essentially a tool for advancement, and this aspect of their characters, while unattractive, makes them useful weather-vanes: look at them and you will be able establish the outlook for your career. If they seek you out in company, you are on your way. If they acknowledge you, then your career is still in good shape. If they cut you dead, then a cold front is almost certainly on its way.
Those who wish to acquire respectability would do well to put up with this kind of behaviour. Stick close to your weather-vane. Smile through your humiliations, and the sun may shine on you once more.
Be a member
There are purists who believe that writers should not sacrifice their individuality by joining things. An organisation of authors, in their view, is as nonsensical a concept as a herd of cats. They quote Graham Greene’s remark that he never felt comfortable within a literary establishment, forgetting one important fact: he was Graham Greene.
For the rest of us, organisations are important. This mighty society gives us strength and solidarity. Being part of English PEN helps support free speech and less fortunate authors. The beating heart of the establishment, though, is the Royal Society of Literature, a body which represents writing and reading with all the heft and confidence which authors rarely feel as individuals. It has a luxuriously produced magazine and puts on ferociously intelligent talks by favoured writers. As a member of the RSL, you are halfway to respectability.
Become a fellow
To travel the rest of the way, fellowship is necessary. Once a year, the Royal Society of Literature publishes a long list of those who have been elected as fellows, followed by a slightly longer list of members. It is the literary world’s equivalent of Royal Ascot, with a firm division between the VIPS in the Royal Enclosure and the ordinary racegoers who throng the Silver Ring.
Any author with dreams of respectability should be in the Royal Enclosure. Exactly how elevation to fellowship takes place is something of mystery. There is a committee, it is said. Authors are proposed, rather as would-be members of the Garrick or Chelsea Arts Club might be. The candidates work might be discussed around the table with contributions from committee members as to his or her personality and general attitude.
Being elected a fellow, the authorial equivalent of promotion to senior management, is not easy but, once it is acquired and the all-important letters “FRSL” can be added to your name, respectability is assured.
Do unto authors as you would have them do unto you
Reviewing careers may be built on a talent for cut-throat viciousness but, in the end, the cruellest young Turk discovers, usually when he publishes his first book, that there is a case for generosity. After a while, kindness to one’s peers – an enthusiastic quote here, a puff in the Christmas books of the year lists there – becomes a simple matter of old-fashioned courtesy, the literary equivalent of a gentleman tipping his hat.
It helps to be seen at the right parties. Your presence at the launch of books by respectable authors – AS Byatt, Sir David Hare, the Duchess of Devonshire, Philip Hensher – will eventually confer respectability through a process of osmosis. It never hurts to be seen shopping at Daunts or at the London Review of Books Bookshop but, paradoxically, too regular an appearance at the Groucho Club can count against you.
The literary world appreciates wit in the pages of a book but only in the context of intelligence and seriousness. Laughter for its own sake is regarded as highly suspect. In all dealings with fellow authors, your conversation and prose will benefit from a light dusting of irony, but outright jokes and any kind of laboured facetiousness should be avoided at all costs.
The English fondness for aggressive, self-deprecating modesty is distrusted within the literary world, being seen as a form of inverse boastfulness. To Sir Victor Pritchett’s aphorism might be added this item of contemporary, agony-auntie advice: to be respectable, one should first respect oneself.