More Pain, Better Sentences

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn
    Picador, 261 pp, £12.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 0 330 45422 3
  • Books by Charlie Hill
    Tindal Street, 192 pp, £6.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 78125 163 8

If Beryl Bainbridge had published, as her last novel, a satirical farce about the machinations behind a famous literary prize, she might have managed to weather the accusations of pique. Better yet if she had held it back for posthumous publication, to show that she could wait out her own ego. Anyone else is likely to be seen as settling a score rather than diagnosing the ills of the literary marketplace. Edward St Aubyn, whose new novel, Lost for Words, is a satirical farce about the machinations behind a famous literary prize, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2006 with Mother’s Milk, but lost out to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

‘Ego’ can hardly be a dirty word when discussing writing, any more than ‘fuel-tank’ could be when discussing cars. No novel can be written without it, though it isn’t exactly a faculty, just a reservoir of motive energy, having nothing to do with destination or direction of travel. From the point of view of the reader, what counts isn’t whether a book got its start from a sense of grievance but whether it ends as an independent artefact.

In the world of Lost for Words the Elysian, ‘the world’s most famous fiction prize’, stands in for the Man Booker. The composition of the panel is the same, with a chairman and four judges. Raising the prize money from £50,000 to £80,000 can’t count as much of a disguise. The fictional sponsor, Elysian, is a controversial hi-tech agricultural company, ‘crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it frost resistant [and] lemons with bullet ants to give them extra zest’, while the Man Group is an investment management business, though the James Man who founded the original company was an 18th-century barrel-maker (his firm supplied the navy with rum for almost two hundred years). Touches such as Elysian’s ‘Giraffe carrot’, so large that a single specimen can fill a vegetable dish for Sunday lunch, suggest a whimsical futurism, though the action is set in 2013 and many of its underlying assumptions seem to date much further back.

It would be perfectly possible to caricature the Booker judges for 2013 or 2006, the year about which St Aubyn can be assumed to care most, though even a shortlistee has no privileged access to their discussions. Luckily there seems to be no such attempt: a cultural eminence such as Fiona Shaw, one of the 2006 judges, strongly resistant to dilution, would be hard to refract safely away from recognisability. So Lost for Words can be acquitted of being a roman à clef, the type of novel Milan Kundera compared to a jacket that everyone immediately turns inside out, since the lining is the only interesting part.

St Aubyn’s chair of judges, a backbench MP called Malcolm Craig, shows no overlap with either Hermione Lee (2006) or Robert Macfarlane (2013). The Elysian judges for 2013 are Jo Cross, a columnist whose criterion for imaginative literature is its ‘relevance’; Penny Feathers, retired from the Foreign Office and attempting to write topical thrillers; Tobias Benedict, an actor; and Vanessa Shaw, a bluestocking academic. The writers in contention (if only in their own minds) include Katherine Burns, a siren who can’t help using men; Sam Black, a tortured soul for whom writing is a salving agony; and Sonny, the 653rd Maharajah of Badanpur, who assumes that The Mulberry Elephant, a vast self-justificatory volume privately published in India, will somehow sweep the field.

If the lining isn’t the point of this garment, then how does it drape, how is it cut and shaped? Lost for Words is a curious production, both off-the-peg and strangely skewed, like some sweatshop version of Vivienne Westwood. There are jokey names (Page and Turner for a publisher, John Elton for an American literary agent with a disfiguring hair transplant) and passages of broad pastiche, such as this from a novel about Shakespeare: ‘“Fye, Will,” said Lucretia, arching backwards and pulling William towards her, “keep thy wit for thy plays, for wit is a poor actor that comes on and plays his part and is heard no more, but the part I would have you play hath more will in it than wit.”’ Has there been a year when such a book would make the Booker longlist, let alone the short? Satire isn’t supposed to make reality look good by the contrast but to skewer it. There’s a perfunctory stab at school-of-Irvine Welsh shock-horror – ‘Death Boy’s troosers were round his ankies. The only vein in his body that hadna bin driven into hiding was in his cock’ – but if Trainspotting missed the Booker shortlist in 1993 (there wasn’t a longlist in those days), why would an imitation do any better in 2013? With Welsh being the best-known chronicler of underclass addiction, and St Aubyn in his Patrick Melrose books documenting the ravages of the same habits in a more privileged milieu, there’s a hint of condescension here.

There are open seams in the plotting. Katherine’s besotted editor, Alan, works on her new novel, Consequences, till the last possible moment: ‘It had been a terrible wrench when he handed the typescript to his assistant to get it biked over to the Elysian people on that final afternoon.’ So the prize isn’t for published novels? It’s hardly a secret that the journey from MS to finished book takes many months, and if book prizes are about anything, they’re about selling books. This wouldn’t matter if it was an incidental detail, but the plot strand doesn’t end there. By farcical misfortune the manuscript actually submitted for the prize is not Consequences but a cookbook compiled (loose word, since she merely instructed the palace cook to cough up some recipes) by the maharajah’s aunt. The Elysian – and this makes it unique among book prizes – seems not to stipulate that it is a prize for published books.

The discussion of the judges’ panel in the book revolves around the question of whether The Palace Cookbook is admissible as fiction, what with postmodernism having corroded all meaningful distinctions or (if you prefer) liberated us from empty categories. Nobody mentions or seems to notice that it hasn’t been published, though the judges must be reading from photocopies. John Elton refuses to represent the work, even after it has appeared on the longlist. Despite ‘universal media derision’ for the shortlist, no one seems bothered that one of the favoured titles isn’t available, and nobody steps forward to publish it. Insult the book trade all you like, but don’t imply that no one in British publishing wants to make money from a sure thing. At this point Lost for Words drifts away from the harsh but habitable territory of satire and into the badlands of travesty or burlesque.


For another view of the book world, just as jaundiced but more far-ranging, it’s worth turning to Charlie Hill’s indignant romp Books, published last year. Book prizes, after all, claim an impossibly innocent relationship with the marketplace, unaffected by non-literary considerations but feeding directly into sales figures. As an ex-bookseller, Hill is well acquainted with ‘commercial pressures, declining literacy rates, the rise of the machines, yada yada’. His particular target is the genre of the male confessional, as practised by the bestselling novelist Gary Sayles, whose bibliography should ring some bells:

Our Legendary Twenties was about a single twentysomething professional Londoner looking for love. Cutting the Cake concerned itself with a late twentysomething professional Londoner unsure whether or not to move in with his girlfriend. Man, Woman, Baby took as its central thrust the dilemma faced by a thirtysomething professional Londoner whose wife was expecting a baby that was missing a big toe.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in