In Books Do Furnish A Room, the tenth book in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence, one of the characters observes that books are a non-convertible currency. They matter only to those to whom they matter.
Almost every day this point is hammered home to me by the reactions of people on finding out what I do for a living. Some are hugely impressed and want to know all the details. But these are usually people who nurture their own literary ambitions or are in some way already committed to the community of letters. Others, like the man who delivered coal to my mother in Ireland, are openly scornful.
‘That’s an awful soft kind of a job,’ he told me.
‘Maybe you should have a try at it,’ I suggested.
He shook his head, gave me the kind of look reserved for the simple-minded and emptied a bag of coal over my shoes.
It’s not always easy to bridge the divide between these two groups of people – those who value writing and those who do not. Fay Weldon tries to do so in a marvellous book called Letters To Alice which she addresses to a fourteen year old niece who is being made to read Jane Austen at school and cannot see the point. What novelists do, Fay Weldon declares, is to build Houses of the Imagination and where houses cluster together there is a city. This is how she describes that city:
It glitters and glances with life, and gossip, and colour, and fantasy: it is brilliant, it is illuminated, by day by the sun of enthusiasm and by night by the moon of inspiration. It has its towers and pinnacles, its commanding heights and its swooning depths: it has public buildings and worthy ancient monuments, which some find boring and others magnificent. It has its central districts and its suburbs, some salubrious, some seedy, some safe, some frightening. Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to marvel and explore.
Even if the brickwork is a bit dodgy in places, even if there are holes in the roof and some of the rooms are uninhabitable, and even if it will never be as grand as the great castles built by writers like Shakespeare and Milton - to know that I have built my own house in the City Of Invention is enough for me.