LA DIFFERENCE

Craig Brown was never a great admirer of mine. He lambasted me in the Mail on Sunday on the publication of Women by penning the most scathing review of the lot. Subsequently he and Bron had lunch with me in Beak Street. It was meant to be a kind of rapprochement, though that was not quite how it worked out by my reading of the situation. Craig was in the same mould as Bron. Both of them felt passionately about things, and particularly about people. Once they had taken against someone, it would be extremely hard to divert them from their target.

Craig’s coolness towards me was something I found strange in so far as I could not decipher it. I was a supporter of literature and the arts, spending most of my money bolstering endeavours closely related to them, so even if Craig did feel some kind of antipathy towards me, I could not see why that should stop him being more appreciative. Perhaps I misread where he was coming from and misjudged him unfairly.

His review of Women was chosen for special mention in the trade journal, the Bookseller, in its regular column, ‘Critics Crowner’ which sought to round-up the important books and their reviews, compiled by a mysterious personage ‘Quentin Oates’. Its tone was so biased a retort was written by a Quartet staff member pointing out how this had: ‘…sought to destroy all credibility for Naim Attallah’s Women. It was clear he was prepared to use his influence in any way he could to damage the book trade’s opinion of Mr Attallah and his book. I cannot recall any article in the Bookseller (and I have been reading the magazine for over twenty years) ever calling a book ‘worthless’. Women was sold to The Times for a serialization over five days, second serial rights were sold to the Sunday Mirror for two weekly extracts and magazine rights were sold to Women’s World; Australian, Swedish, Dutch, German, Spanish, French and South African serialization rights are sold . . . Interviews have already appeared in six major provincial newspapers and two Sunday colour supplements. The author is presently engaged on a tour of Scotland and other parts of England and Wales appearing on regional TV programmes, local radio stations and being interviewed by provincial newspapers.

‘Any book which generates this torrent of attention and activity usually wins glittering prizes from the trade journals – not so with Mr Oates. With a sniff he dismisses it all as ‘hype’. What does he want? Every time any book generates controversy and attention it is good for all the trade. He has ignored the good reviews altogether . . .

‘These reviews were as pleasing and praising as Craig Brown’s (quoted at great length by Mr Oates) was nasty and damning. Oates’s précis of Anita Brookner’s review left out her obvious fascination with aspects of the book and when Deborah Moggach’s review for the Sunday Times actually praises Women, Oates declares he couldn’t be bothered with reading it. Precisely, Mr Oates! When Deborah Moggach writes: ‘. . . the tone of this book is bracing, honest, highly intelligent and often funny’, it does not suit your brief.

‘Finally the marketplace decides if a book is to sell or not. And this is my real annoyance with Mr Oates and the Bookseller. He chooses to deride, in a vindictive manner, a book launched with incredible coverage and attention whilst that launch is still in progress – Women was published only two days before Oates’s article appeared. Since his name is pseudonymous, I can only imagine his motives, but if the Bookseller is to take sides on controversial books, can it do so in a more balanced fashion?’

How different it all was in France!

Following the publication of Women in October 1987, I was approached by Carrere, the French media group and publishers, with a view to producing a French edition. Their only stipulation was that I should interview an additional thirty Frenchwomen almost immediately. They were in a great hurry to bring out the French-language version in March 1988, a mere six months after the appearance of the English edition. It looked an almost impossible task. They hired a team of translators to work round the clock on the English text while I frantically set about conducting the necessary interviews. The choice of women and arrangements to interview them were all done in conjunction with my own office in Paris. It was just left to me to brush up on my French and plunge into another voyage of discovery with renewed vigour and optimism. Strangely I had remained unaffected by the adverse critical reception I had received in the UK and felt undaunted by the idea that the whole thing might involve a repetition of the experience in France. My new list included writers, bankers, artists and stars of stage and screen, such as Arletty and Emmanuelle Béart, who had recently starred in Manon des Sources, the continuation of Claude Berri’s hit film based on Marcel Pagnol’s novel Jean de Florette, with Daniel Auteuil. Also there, among the politicians, was Edith Cresson, who was to become the first woman prime minister of France not many years later.

Despite the shortage of time, the French edition was published as planned and Carrere arranged for a launch party to be held on 22 March at the famous Parisian night-spot, Le Privilège. It was a most glamorous occasion, extensively covered by the French media and attended by hordes of celebrities. I was seated at dinner between Hélène Rochas, the parfumière, and Joan Juliet Buck, the American writer and then editor of French Vogue. The room teemed with beautiful women. Over the next few days I appeared on French television, discussing the book with some of the stars who featured in its pages. The French critics were unanimous in their plaudits, in sharp contrast with their counterparts in the UK. It was impossible to open a French newspaper without seeing some reference to the book. I felt euphoric at this unexpected show of appreciation and enthusiasm. And to crown it all, the book sold extremely well in France and our efforts were richly rewarded.

Looking through my archives, the retrospective impression is that more was written about the French edition than the already phenomenal amount about the English edition in Britain. The difference in coverage lay in the fact that while the Gallic approach was constructive the trend in the book’s home country was certainly destructive. Even after the furore surrounding the original publication of Women in hardback had died down, the appearance of a paperback edition in Britain a year later precipitated the same spitting of venom as before. It was as if those who had missed their chance at first publication now climbed aboard to make their voices heard from the bandwagon. But this was a new wave of women, some not so well known as their predecessors of a year earlier. They entered the fray as if to proclaim solidarity with their dissenting sisters.

In the meantime, a Japanese edition was in preparation. The divergence of opinion between the public at large, who welcomed the book, and the band of its detractors, who did not, posed many questions. Who matters most? Is it the reading public or the self-proclaimed arbiters whose judgement has proved on many occasions to be out of touch with the prevailing mood? Is our cultural life totally dependent on a select few whose opinions seldom reflect the thinking or aspirations of the ordinary man or woman? These questions have continued to trouble me. We seem to be burdened with an élitist literary establishment intent on keeping the myth of its infallibility going at all costs. In saying this I could hardly be accused of ‘sour grapes’; I laughed all the way to the bank.

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