The Guardian’s Robert McCrum says books may be changing, but the writing life hasn’t. He provides two examples of the writer as diversified enterprise in the nineteenth-century style: Margaret Atwood’s book tour, during which she’s signing books by remote control pen, and Jeanette Winterson, who will write fiction in any form available to her. Neither Atwood nor Winterson are Alexandre Dumas-style “factories of literature,” but the variety of their endeavors recall Dickens and Twain, two writers who knew how to turn a buck (or a quid).
However, McCrum’s third example, Alain de Botton, strikes me as something new, although not radically new. “Writers have always needed enlightened patrons,” McCrum writes. “In some ways the
recession, which has downsized or slashed so many publishers’ advances,
and brought the marketplace back to some semblance of reality, has been
a good thing.” De Botton has been criticized for accepting an assignment from BAA, the company that owns Heathrow, to write a short book about Heathrow’s Terminal Five. De Botton has gamely tried to connect the project to his familiar themes of Proust and happiness, linking, for example, to a book on Proust and air travel on his Twitter account. But the BAA-de Botton relationship is more than a traditional literary patron-writer relationship. De Botton is writing what amounts to an extended commercial for BAA and its new terminal. The airline is running a campaign to make people forget Terminal Five is an airline terminal. “The £4.3 billion building is so light, modern and spacious that it’s hard to believe it’s an airport terminal at all,” gushes the site copy. Yes, de Botton’s book represents a clear-eyed view of the realities of the literary marketplace, but if de Botton’s new book begins, “If Proust were alive today, surely he would book a flight that lands in Terminal Five,” then put the book down.