Few things so thoroughly test the will to live of Writers of Unsuccessful Books (such as this columnist) as the inexcusable success of others, and why they are so favoured.
Any tour of a bookshop by us WUBs reveals slain pine trees groaning beneath the weight of the pink-covered works by authors who may simply be described: TOP: Twenties, Ovaried, Photogenic. And if they're not T or P, but are still O, then there's always the Orange prize for women writers only (which is announced today: imagine the outcry from those well-known literary feminists Fallopia Whynge and Ovaria Fume over a man-only literary award).
The 'Daily Telegraph' last week gave a half-page splash to the first novel of a TOP named Georgina Bloomberg. The author is 28 and already famous, being the very successful show-jumping daughter of the even more famous Michael Bloomberg, the Wall Street billionaire and mayor of New York. Moreover, no doubt emboldened by family success, her sister nurtures serious political ambitions. Georgina Bloomberg's debut work of fiction is about -- well whaddya know -- a successful show-jumping daughter of a Wall Street billionaire, with a politically ambitious older sister. The fair Miss Bloomberg has even been interviewed at length about her "writing" by the 'New York Times', dear God almighty. So how was this possible? All was revealed in the 'Telegraph' story: "Bloomsbury, the publisher, said the idea for the book came from an agent."
Of course it bloody did. (Pause to vomit).
Traditional publishing is dying, and the market-driven, agent-led TOPification of books is one reason why. However, market distortions are not just at the TOP level of pulp fiction. It is now the norm for established writers to gushingly review one another's books: in Ireland, it is Colm/Sebastian/Joseph/ Anne, in Britain it is Julian/ Ian/Sebastian/Martin, interlocking literary torcs upon whose burnished gold the sun of mutually warm critiques never sets.
Which is why at this time of year, I almost welcome the annual outbursts of toxin from VS Naipaul, at whatever festival he is attending. Last week he announced at Hay that no woman writer would ever be as good as him -- to an entirely predictable fury. He is a quite refreshingly horrible man. He doesn't write to be successful or to be popular. He has no eye for a market, or an idea of what a market is. This is not a touching and beguiling naivety, so much as ignorance about the real world, which in scale is probably every bit the equal of the ignorance of the delightful Miss Bloomberg. But presumably unlike her, Naipaul exults in his ignorance as proof of his superiority, where in reality it is simply a pathological disorder.
Naipaul is a monster. His monstrousness is not made in any way more charming by his lack of guilt or shame. By his own account he repeatedly betrayed his young and vulnerable wife with prostitutes.
He is the kind of vile man who is murdered in the opening pages of a whodunit, and at the end we find that every single character we have met in the book, including the investigating police officers, plus Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Roger Ackroyd and Sherlock Holmes, have all entered the general and thoroughly deserved conspiracy to kill him.
Yet Naipaul is a sublime writer. No living novelist comes near him. It is an inexplicable paradox. The only other "modern" novelist who was so unpleasant was also perhaps the only English writer over the past century who was his match: Evelyn Waugh. He too was a monster: a posturing snob, a sneering bully and -- like Naipaul today -- an alpha male whom no one could ever best in social interaction, merely because of his status in the human hierarchy. This is a fact of life that confirms our condition as exalted chimpanzees: it is always impossible for lower status animals to defeat higher status animals in social conflict. No one left Bismarck's or Hitler's or Stalin's or Churchill's or Cheney's or Rumsfeld's offices slapping their thighs and chuckling triumphantly: "By God, I got the better of that dormouse."
WAugh's misanthropic life came to an end just as Naipaul's literary career was beginning, almost like a transmigration of abominable souls. Nonetheless, wise observers ought to judge the literary merits of both men solely for their written words, whereas their spoken utterances, full of hatred, bigotry and snobbery, should be treated with contempt.
But of course, the world is not wise, which is why Naipaul's recent and very silly boast, that no woman writer would ever be as good as him, has been making predictably loud headlines, with a drearily predictable indignation from Fallopia Whynge and Ovaria Fume. This is stupid: his opinions are neither worth repeating, rejecting nor reacting to, in any way. They should, like Miss Bloomberg's literary ambitions, and those of all her fellow TOPs, be totally ignored. Alas, that is not the way life on this planet works, which is what we poor weeping WUBs know all too well, as we watch Bloomberg make No 1 in Tesco, while Naipaul is the overall bestseller in Hodges Figgis, and Writers With Ovaries enjoy the Orange.