The day that I received my first invitation to attend the Hatchards bookshop’s annual Author of the Year party, I felt as if I had arrived. Then, and in subsequent years, being included in that exclusive gathering (the vulgar herd of agents, publishers and book trade journalists was largely excluded) provided a small moment of regular professional reassurance, not unlike the day in February when a respectable PLR payment appears. The party, held on a Wednesday in May, often coincided with a football tournament I organised. I would arrive in Piccadilly, red-faced, now and then limping heroically. What a full and varied life it was.
This year, quite suddenly and brutally, I slipped off the list. I was no longer an author of the year. It was a bit of a shock, to tell the truth. I had recently and unusually had a new book on the Hatchards front table; reviews for it had been rather good. What can have happened at the author of the year committee meeting? Were there winces and sighs when they reached my name? I imagined someone – a chippy new buyer who fancied himself as being on the literary cutting edge, probably – suggesting that perhaps it was time for someone new – younger, hungrier, an adornment to the party. And that would have been that, now and forever. Once you are a former author of the year, there is no going back.
The problem with the writing life, and the reason why the little treats and privileges it offers assume an exaggerated importance, is that there is no career structure. The nearest we come to an annual assessment, a pat on the back from the management, can often be something as silly as an invitation to a party.
Writing for a living was never going to be a conventional job. Even at that heady moment of one’s first publishing commission, only a fool would see it as heralding regular employment. Becoming a professional author creeps up on one gradually, and even then insecurity is never far away. A writer who lives without fear (of idea loss, energy sag, creative burn-out, professional humiliation) is an amateur. For those who do it for a living, anxiety is what gets them to the desk every day.
So, bobbing about in choppy waters, we grab on to passing debris to stay afloat. An invitation to the right publishing party offers a kind of validation. Someone, in a distant publicity office, has surveyed the scene and had decided that her guest list needs you. Because the launch parties of friends do not, for obvious reasons, provide career reassurance – friendship is nice but has nothing to do with professional advancement – the number of truly significant social events in the literary calendar is surprisingly small.
Enjoyable as they are, annual parties held by the Society or by English PEN are no help to the insecure about his or her career. They are simply not exclusive enough. Christmas gatherings held by publishers or newspapers are better career-indicators but have the niggling disadvantage that anyone on their list of authors or reviewers tends to get automatically invited.
It is the big, non-specific parties that matter. The Spectator’s summer party is said to be rather special. The Literary Review of Books must have some kind of grand gathering where the inner circle sneer at those of us on the outside. Then there is – was, in my case – the Hatchards Authors of the Year party.
Away from the social scene, there are other ways for anxious authors to gauge their rank in the pecking order. Publishers, recklessly disregarding all standards of environmental correctness, still scatter proof copies of forthcoming books among the book world’s movers and shakers, hoping that someone important will take a liking to one and send out ripples of approval and anticipation. The true luminaries are asked for pre-publication quotes.
Being on these mailings lists can be a mixed blessing. Deborah Moggach, former chair of the Society, was once so inundated with proofs that, in a spirit of literary generosity, she left a pile of them on a bench on Hampstead, hoping that book-hungry members of the public would help themselves. Later that day, a Hampstead resident, clutching the books, was on her doorstep: he had found a publisher’s letter addressed to her in one of them and was concerned that she had mislaid them. The unwanted proofs were back, like homing pigeons.
Publishers’ lunches, once part of the everyday life of an author, have become an increasingly rare privilege, and as a result are now a useful form of career validation. It is not the food, gossip or even the drink that matter so much as the fact that an editor has decided that you are significant enough to be entertained. In these days, when publishing executives spend their working days brain-storming marketing initiatives, having a few snatched moments to discuss what you might write next is proof enough that professionally you are in good shape.
Some writers believe, with Flaubertian purity of purpose, that the only career structure is the work itself, that advancement and promotion are to be found within, or at least on the page. A good chapter is a bonus; promotion is to be found in the satisfaction of a book written well: the only true boss is the muse. The other perks – parties, proof copies, lunches – belong to the market-place.
That position, I think we can quietly agree, is rather too smug for most of us. We need our professionalism to be acknowledged from the outside. Painful as it is to admit, the nearest we can get to recognition, a sense of professional progress – or at least survival – lies in a contract for future work, a place on some publications list. What little career structure there is for an author is largely controlled by our old friends, the book publishers. Damn.