Dwight Garner Reviews the Book by John Walsh titled “Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World”

From a New York Times review by Dwight Garner of  the book by John Walsh titled “Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World”:

In an essay for The New Republic in 2012, Martin Amis told what happened — or rather, what didn’t happen — when his first novel, “The Rachel Papers,” was published in 1973:

There was no launch party and no book tour; there were no interviews, no profiles, no photo shoots, no signings, no readings, no panels, no onstage conversations, no Woodstocks of the Mind in Hay-on-Wye, in Toledo, in Mantova, in Paraty, in Cartagena, in Jaipur, in Dubai; and there was no radio and no television.

It wasn’t that “The Rachel Papers” didn’t get noticed. It was that these collateral activities — the signings and panels, the photo shoots and festivals — hardly existed. Amis makes their encroachment sound like a plague, and probably it was.

But in a new book, “Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World,” John Walsh, the former literary editor of The Sunday Times of London, who dwelled on the other side of hype’s rampart, recalls these innovations fondly.

Walsh was a reader, a fan, and he got a charge out of watching a new generation of English writers, in the 1980s, come into its own: Amis especially, because no one wrote so ferociously, but also Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro and Julian Barnes.

Clive James was the critic who mattered. Tina Brown wrote and edited the sharpest journalism, threw the crucial parties, made the key introductions. In Walsh’s memory, book-launch parties, which got an upgrade in the ’80s, were especially resplendent; he recalls them as “golden and Gatsby-like extravaganzas.”

Other transformations arrived, as if strings of Christmas lights had been suddenly plugged in. The Booker Prize, in 1981, began to be televised as a stand-alone broadcast; even the runners-up sold in unignorable numbers. Two years later, Granta magazine printed the first of its influential “Best of Young British Novelists” issues.

Scanning the group photograph, taken by Lord Snowdon, that accompanied the 1983 Granta list, Walsh is funny on how bored, or annoyed, everyone looks: “Julian Barnes eyes the camera as if about to invite its manipulator to come outside and say that.”

The London Review of Books, founded in 1979, was new. (As with The New York Review of Books, which began in 1963, a newspaper strike was the impetus.) New too was Waterstones, a bookstore chain that stocked more serious books, and stayed open later, than most.

Money was in the air. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers were snapping up memoir excerpts, Walsh notes, and “a new strain of sharky agents” like Andrew Wylie had a feel for blood in the water.

Writers were becoming demystified. The first Hay-on-Wye Festival, a monster event now held annually in the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales, first occurred in 1988. Invited to attend, Arthur Miller is said to have commented, “Hay-on-Wye? What is that, some kinda sandwich?”

America wasn’t a dead zone during this period. The Brat Pack (Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Bret Easton Ellis) made crisscross tracks across post-midnight Lower Manhattan. The Kmart Realists (Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, Richard Ford) prowled, in their minimalist fiction, through laundromats and cut-rate hotels.

The prestige novels, the homework for literate adults, included Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” William Kennedy’s “Ironweed” and John Updike’s “Rabbit is Rich.”

Walsh makes London, however, seem like the place to have been. The stage was smaller; everything burned more brightly; more angels teemed on the head of a pin.

“Circus of Dreams” is memoir as well as history. Walsh grew up in South London. His father was a doctor, a general practitioner, and his mother a nurse. Neither was a big reader, but their son was. He got a degree in literature from Oxford and held many jobs in journalism before becoming the literary editor of The Evening Standard and then, in his mid-30s, The Sunday Times of London.

At The Sunday Times, his deputy was Nigella Lawson, then in her late 20s. She was, to Walsh, terrifyingly witty, well-read and socially connected.

One day Walsh needed computer help and Lawson offered to assist. He continued to flail. In frustration, she plunked herself down on his lap and made the fix. Walsh struggled to process, he writes, that “one of the great beauties of the 20th century had just settled herself upon my seated person.”

A literary editor’s job is a wicked one. It’s to distract writers from their real work by getting them to write book reviews. Walsh admires Nicholson Baker who, after writing one review for him, politely but firmly said no more.

Other boldface names glide through this book. Walsh was a social athlete. He was there when Oliver Sacks brought one of his patients, a young man with Tourette’s syndrome, to a party. The man grabbed the novelist Beryl Bainbridge by the left breast and would not let go. One late night, Walsh and Ian McEwan were invited by Redmond O’Hanlon to drink claret from a flowery hotel chamber pot (the only receptacle available).

The editor Sonny Mehta, in this telling, threw the most elite parties. Walsh loved Angela Carter’s “rumpled cardigans” and her voice, a “dangerous purr.” Rushdie had the most notable superiority complex. Margaret Atwood, here, is a “beady-eyed Canadian prima donna” who treated Lawson shabbily during an interview.

Accounts of too many of Walsh’s own interviews are printed here — with Seamus Heaney, William Golding, Anthony Burgess and others — and they feel like filler. His prose is mostly good, and genial, even if this memoir lacks introspection. It’s a drain that could use a bit of snaking.

One of the best things about “Circus of Dreams” is Walsh’s memories not of the big beasts of literature, but of the smaller players — the editors and agents and clubmen and hacks and P.R. people, the various legends in their own lunchtimes.

About the ’80s, his heyday, Walsh writes: “Wherever you looked, there was newness, innovation, hybridity and a perverse and gleeful delight in breaking ancient rules and moth-eaten conventions.” He adds: “For readers of the modern novel, it was bliss in that dawn to be alive.”

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His most recent book is “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany.”

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