Jonathan Raban is a multi award winning travel writer, critic and novelist. Eland Books has recently released five of his published works including For Love & Money, a memoir of sorts made up of articles and reviews that offer a fascinating insight into the author’s early life and career. First published in 1987 it provides a glimpse of the London literary world before the internet and the subsequent decline of print media.
The book is divided into five sections. The first introduces Raban as a professional writer with close to two decades experience. There is a brief history of his childhood including the burgeoning of his long held desire to become a writer. Although privately schooled he does not describe himself as academic. He attended Hull University rather than Oxbridge. This was in the 1960s when higher education was expanding rapidly. Armed with his newly acquired qualifications Raban secured a salaried job as an assistant lecturer at The University College of Wales at Aberystwyth.
From Aberystwyth he moved to the University of East Anglia where he worked with Malcolm Bradbury. During his time there he encountered students who went on to write best sellers. Raban regarded his tenure as a springboard into what he refers to as Grub Street – the world of literary hacks who write for hire. Bradbury talked to him about the difficulty of freelancing for a living with its need to jump between fiction and journalism, broadcasting and print. Raban was not deterred. The first section of the book finishes with a story accepted by the London Magazine in 1969. On the back of this, the editor invited Raban to review books for the publication. He resigned from his safe, salaried job and moved to London.
The second section opens with details of how a writer could earn a living in literary journalism. Raban wrote book reviews for magazines, took part in arts and book programmes on radio and TV, and wrote pieces for national newspapers. Included is an article he wrote about living in London at this time. It offers a window into the business of reviewing and the importance of the literary editor. As now, the view expressed was that more books were being published yet review space cut. Critics were commissioned to produce a set number of words, often fewer than could do a work serious justice. The remainder of this section is made up of Raban’s reviews of various books about writers, providing a masterclass in the form. Several do end quite abruptly, presumably when the word count had been reached.
The third section is a short history of Raban’s attempts to write plays. He saw this as a gateway to sociability after the solitude of a writer’s life. Television at this time was regarded as the national theatre. Money was available to commission more scripts than would be used, enabling producers to experiment with untried writers. Raban wrote for TV and radio. He is self-deprecating of his efforts.
The fourth section explores the world of the literary magazine where editors value perceived quality over sales figures. This is compared to commercial ventures which could send writers to far flung corners, fully financed, for a commissioned article. The remainder of the section contains several pieces written by Raban for a number of outlets. I was particularly impressed by Christmas In Bournemouth which cuts to the quick – an astute, verging on cruel reportage from a hotel which offers time-tabled entertainments for those whose family’s have inexplicably failed to invite their mostly elderly relatives to join them for the festive season.
The fifth and final section looks at travel writing and, in particular, why people travel. It is mostly made up of reviews of books by other travel writers and articles written on visits to foreign locations. There is also a walk along the banks of the Thames which is a slice of history. Raban came to be known best for his travel writing. His adventures developed from an early enjoyment of fishing to a point where sailing grants him freedom.
Raban has an eye for detail. His use of language is concise and rigorous. Where he writes about his early family life, his relationship with his parents, the insights are piercing. He admits to dramatising facts for effect but suggests all writing does this. Reportage and criticism are still performances for the benefit of the reader.
A prolific American writer of genre fiction tells him:
“It’s a writer’s duty to be an observer, not to show a high profile.”
I suspect there are many authors today who wish this was the case.
Raban’s book is a fascinating history of a freelance writer’s life and methods, personal and professional. It is witty, at times caustic, but always precise and percipient.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eland.