While I was co-producing The Slipper and the Rose many years ago, my fellow producer, David Frost, had cause to give me a rebuke when I had objected to a negative comment in the press. Even though it was a cliché, he insisted it was true; there is no such thing as bad publicity. How right he was!
When Quartet published my first book, Women, some reviewers sharpened their critical knives. In the Sunday Express Graham Lord set out to be deliberately scathing, heading his review ‘A to Z of Women by Attallah the Hype’ and making it the pretext for an unwarranted attack on me. The pontification in his first paragraphs was meant to hurt me as a publisher:
A writer whose book is rejected time and again may decide to pay thousands of pounds to some printer to publish it. This pathetic last resort, ‘vanity publishing’, usually results in the author losing most of the money. But the ultimate in vanity publishing is surely when an established publisher blithely issues his own book as his company’s lead title of the year. This week, to a fanfare of publicity, London publisher Naim Attallah launches his own grossly long collection of interviews with women . . . in the most blatant literary ego trip since Jeffrey Archer created Kane and Abel and rested on the seventh day.
It would be pointless to continue quoting from this review, and the only thing to say for Mr Lord’s benefit, and the benefit of others who made similar assumptions, would be that, contrary to his assertion about ‘vanity publishing’, in my case Women made more money for Quartet than any other book they published, with the exception of The Joy of Sex. I am sorry to say that Mr Lord’s philosophical exposition let him down badly on this occasion.
Craig Brown told readers of the Mail on Sunday that:
‘At 1,150 pages the book called Women is much, much longer than any of the classic works of literature on women.
‘It is three times as long as Madame Bovary, ten times as long as Hedda Gabler, and about as long as all Jane Austen’s novels put together.
‘Which publisher has so much confidence that this man who has never written a book before has so much more to say on the subject than the great artists of the past. The answer is, of course, Naim Attallah himself. As the owner of Quartet Books he was in the perfect position to have his book accepted for publication by them.’
It was the same theme and inference of vanity publishing as Graham Lord’s, but put more subtly. He then went on to compare the dialogue in the book with the sort of conversation ‘one has in the early hours of the morning at a London media dinner party, with people droning on and on about Mrs Thatcher and whether men are better than women and how important sex is’, before adding: ‘There is no consensus whatsoever on any subject at all. Women constitute half the population of the world, and any sane person knows that they are as different and disparate as the men who constitute the other half. To treat them as Naim Attallah does, as if they were some obscure Brazilian jungle-tribe to be peered at, is the height of sexism, the intellectualization of the ogler’s regressive fantasies.’
After having a go at Koo Stark, Barbara Cartland and Molly Parkin, he moved to the close of his piece by saying, ‘It is a sorry reflection on this sprawling, worthless, self-indulgent book that the silly, slightly grotesque women for whom Attallah has a penchant linger in the mind longer than the many thoughtful and decent women he interviewed,’ and came to his coup de grâce: ‘You will learn a lot more about women from reading one page of Anna Karenina than from slogging through all the 1,150 pages of Women.’
This last assertion totally astonished me. Maybe I never did go to university and gain the great privilege of a higher cultural insight into the classics, but Anna Karenina is a work of fiction and its heroine the product of Tolstoy’s imagination. His creation was not necessarily a role model for every woman in the modern world, whatever its insights into human nature. What on earth was the purpose behind this comparison? I was not remotely setting myself up to compete with Tolstoy; such a thought would never have occurred to me. The disparity between the two works represented an unbridgeable gulf. So Craig Brown had read his Tolstoy. So what?
And to end with another cliché: Quartet Books laughed all the way to the bank!