If American fiction has been swarmed over recently by so-called chicklit, British writing has been dominated by its tougher sibling, ladlit. It is hard to enter any London bookstores — memorably disdained by V. S. Naipaul as now resembling “toyshops” — without being assailed by a dictator-size poster of some bullet-headed pugilist, his lips pursed in a macho moue, the apparently unhappy author of a novel whose title is invariably a punchy single word, such as Porno. The ideal title might be Dumpbin, because the quality of most of these books is almost beside the point; they exist as easy windows onto their authors, who have found themselves in print largely because they are so young, and whose promising juvenility represents the real raison d’ÃƒÂªtre of the publishing event. In a world in which one can still be a “younger writer” at forty, to be twenty-five and a published author — or, better still, nineteen — is to be indeed a mere chick or lad, loaded with metropolitan gold.
In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson defined Grub Street as a place inhabited by hacks and writers of “temporary poems,” and of course publishing’s current superficiality will not last. Nevertheless, it feels long enough, and perhaps Muriel Spark, now in her eighties, fears that she will not outlive it. Her new novel, The Finishing School, satirically assails, among other things, the culture of spectacle that has grown up around novel-writing, and in particular around novel-writing by attractive young people. In a Swiss finishing school run on distinctly liberal lines are gathered nine pupils, most of them girls.
. “Oh, I’m a hard-working, obsessive type,” he says with happy matter-of-factness. “I go to my office, then I stay there 10 hours. I’m working all the time. I have no holidays. Book tours, ha, these are my holidays.”