A cautionary tale

The lot of the writer today is one of insecurity, wounded pride and dwindling returns


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The book the Secret Author most enjoyed reading last month was Marcus Berkmann’s illuminating memoir How to be a Writer (Little, Brown £16.99). The title is deceptive. Rather than producing one of those dreadful self-help manuals full of jauntily-written tips on how to catch the commissioning editor’s eye, Mr Berkmann has simply compiled a chronicle of the 34 years he has spent as a freelance. 

How to be a Writer, Marcus Berkmann (Little, Brown £16.99)

The encouragement usually offered to tyros is in painfully short supply: this is an overcrowded profession, he grimly maintains, and the last thing anyone involved in it wants is a crowd of interlopers trying to dislodge those still clinging precariously to the coalface.

But there is another way in which How to be a Writer differs from practically anything that gets written about bygone book — and magazine-world life. 

Whatever the resentments that may fester quietly beneath their surface, most literary memoirs are, in the end, emollient — see, for example, John Walsh’s recent Circus of Dreams — and cocktails with Harold Pinter generally crowd out the morning in the gloomy bedsit with a pressing deadline to meet.

Berkmann’s account of his career to date is, alternatively, a despatch from the sharp end: a world of arbitrary sackings and wounded pride, of writing well-received books that sell in their thousands and also complete turkeys that sell in their hundreds.

There is a particularly awful moment in the early 1990s when our man, with three regular weekly columns to his name (in the Spectator, Independent and Daily Mail) is congratulating himself on being a bachelor boy earning £50,000 a year only to be summarily fired from two of them and have his income instantly reduced by a factor of 70 per cent. 

A few years later our hero’s fortunes fall even lower — “Thrust aside by Fleet Street, latest book not selling, writing a not-very-good screenplay, earning buttons, and not even forty!” — to the point where the offer of a monthly film column on the Oldie looks like the answer to a journalist’s prayer.

All this gives How to be a Writer a terrific air of candour. Insecurity burns off the page, and it’s to Berkmann’s credit that, among the selection of Greatest Hits brought in to bulk out the text, he prints pieces that he reckons not to have worked (“not too good, is it?”) alongside material that still seems to shape up. 

And all this is to ignore the frequent, dreadful moments in which he knows that he is taking a wrong step even as he takes it. The episode in which the Mail tries to turn him into a pop star, only to find that he can’t actually sing, ends with him sitting in the studio canteen “weeping with frustration”.

What is Berkmann’s advice to the aspiring writer who fancies making a career out of Grub Street? None of his injunctions is spelled out in so many words, but the most obvious would seem to be a necessity to cultivate the thickest of skins. 

Many a literary apprentice is expected to write for free

However talented and reliable you may be, his message runs, your progress, or lack of it, will be attended by a series of grievous humiliations. 

No job you are given will ever be secure and you are liable to be thrown out into the street at a moment’s notice by an incoming editor with friends he wants to put in your place (there is another awful moment here in which Berkmann tries to work out how many times he has been sacked, gets to the early teens and then loses count).

Then there is the need to preserve your integrity. Make any kind of name for yourself in journalism and there will come a moment when someone will ask you to do something that you don’t want to. Berkmann’s comes when an unnamed newspaper asks him to write a hatchet job on Michael Parkinson. Quite liking Parkinson, Berkmann declines. He never hears from the newspaper again. 

On the other hand, the need to preserve your integrity should never crowd out a willingness to make compromises. You may yearn to write highbrow criticism for the TLS, but if they disdain your services you might have to make do with the wine column of the Macclesfield Advertiser. Meanwhile, the money has got worse, to the point where many a literary apprentice these days is expected to write for free. 

It might be wondered why anybody in their right mind would want to pursue this kind of existence, and why Berkmann (who by the early 2000s has a partner and two children to support) didn’t try for a job as a loss adjuster. The answer, of course, lies in that eternal quest for freedom, of not wanting to sit in offices in EC2 being ordered about by idiots in suits. 

No undergraduate sedulously at work in the creative writing department of one of our newer universities can afford to miss this book — even if the likely effect will be to drive them shrieking into the arms of some other employment.

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