The novel is dead; the author’s lifestyle is a thing of the past; the Booker Prize has sold its soul to the American market – over the past 12 months, authors have been heralding the end of the world with all the fervour of a doomsday cult. With all this high-strung pontifictating going on, there’s no denying that the time is ripe for a satire which plays on the varying moral and commercial panics afflicting the literary world these days. And who better to provide it than Galley Beggar, the tiny independent imprint that chucked a brick into the stale pond of the literary award season last year when A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing came from nowhere to carry off the Bailey’s, Goldsmiths and Folio prizes? It should be a perfect match, but unfortunately How to Be A Public Author by Francis Plug never really lives up to expectations.
The premise is simple. Francis Plug, a gardener and would-be author, attends events featuring Booker Prize winners, hoping to pick up tips on how successful writers present themselves in public. In his own words, he is following in ‘the fine tradition of The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series, teasing out methods and tips from the biggest literary names’. So we have a series of interactions between wannabe writer Plug and big hitters like Rushdie, Mantel and Coetzee, in which Plug tries to distil the magic ingredients which separate the greats from the also-rans.
The disruptive element of the story comes from Plug himself – a chaotic, drunk and deluded figure oblivious to the careful formality of these events, and incapable of understanding the way they really work. The novel is divided into episodes, each one centring on a literary event. Typically Plug will turn up late, more or less drunk and make some more or less illuminating comments about the author, before creating a scene by running out of the fire exit, or straddling a keyboard as he does during Howard Jacobson’s reading at a Book Slam. These episodes are linked by similar anecdotes from his own life, generally about starting conversations with kindly older people in bars before frightening them off with his wildly inappropriate comments.
Ewen uses the Plug character to play up the idea of the would-be writer as socially inept and naïve, with delusions of grandeur. Plug has bought into the articles about authors’ incomes, remarking of Alan Hollinghurst that in the seven years it took him to write the follow up to his Booker winner The Line of Beauty, ‘he probably had to sell everything he bought with his Prize cheque in order to live’. Anything which doesn’t fit in with his existing idea of The Author is dismissed: ‘No writer worth his salt is going to own a suit of their own. No way’.
The decision to make Plug the fall guy for the comedy causes problems, though. There is a fine tradition of maladjusted comic protagonists, like Adrian Mole or Alan Partridge, but it is a tricky role to write. Partridge and Mole were mediocrities, everymen who thought they were geniuses. Plug is too bizarre to be relatable, and the writing loses the shudder of recognition that accompanied Townsend and Ianucci’s characters. Meanwhile, the authors themselves often feel like afterthoughts. The chapter in which Plug encounters DBC Pierre at the Betsy Trotwood, for example, is the most boring account I’ve ever heard of anyone doing anything with the Vernon God Little author. It feels like a lost opportunity to have these real-life figures in the text without aiming any of the satire in their direction.
There are moments where the narrative becomes sharper, as in Plug’s comment that ‘despite the odd exception, the only way to live comfortably as a writer, it seems, is to be rich already’. His comparison of a Margaret Atwood signing, where a team of helpers ushered attendees along, handed out post-it notes, and opened books at the right page for the author to sign, to having breakfast at Wallace and Gromit’s house raised a smile, and the times when he did direct the book’s humour towards the authors (‘VS Naipaul gives me hope. He says some really crazy things, and yet he’s still held up in esteem’) worked well, making you wonder why Ewen didn’t explore them further.
Too often, though, the jokes fall flat, or a promising set up is ruined by the interjection of Plug’s erratic behaviour. I get the feeling that Ewen enjoyed creating such a deliberately appalling narrator, skewering Plug’s literary pretentions with awful imagery and malapropisms, and there is some promise in the idea of the deluded outsider revealing the contradictions of the literary world, but sometimes the character needs reigning in to make him believable.
As the novel progresses, Plug’s personal life becomes increasingly chaotic, and his narration less and less reliable. Ewen plays up Plug’s relationship with his client Mr Stapleton, a seemingly uncultured banker, who in fact plays a more significant role in the literary world than the author imagined. Although he is suspicious of any links between business and literature (he is generally scornful of a book dealer who haunts the same signings as him), Plug aspires to Mr Stapleton’s wealth, highlighting the uneasy relationship between art and commerce. This leads to a final confrontation at the Booker Prize ceremony in 2013, which actually plays out very well, making the rest of the book feel like even more of a lost opportunity.
Overall, I wanted more from How To Be a Public Author. Instead of a sharp satire on the modern literary scene, or a subversive riposte to Edward St Aubyn’s Lost For Words, we’ve got a knockabout comedy featuring a delusional author who spends his time playing imaginary games of cops and robbers by himself while he’s waiting to see Salman Rushdie give a talk. There are moments where we see glimpses of a funnier, cleverer book, but sadly they get lost amongst all the farce.
Any Cop?: It’s an excellent idea, but a disappointing execution.