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Weekly Roundup: The double lives of your favourite writers

Weekly Roundup: The double lives of your favourite writers

What do writers do when they're not writing? Andrew O'Hagan, a Man Booker shortlistee in 1999, asked a group of his peers about their favourite “second artform”. O'Hagan himself is also a film critic but what about, say, Colm Toíbín (MB shortlisted 1999 and 2004)? Opera is his bag: “it is easy to feel that life itself, during a soaring aria or a moment when a melody lifts, is at its most perfect and pure. Or just that the music is perfect and pure. To hell with life!” For Sarah Hall (shortlisted 2004) it is art, even though she was “a terrible painter – my portraits looked like the evil chimera love-children of Picasso's demoiselles and the BBC test card clown.” For Kazuo Ishiguro (MB winner in 1989) it is film, despite the question that bothers him: “why does cinema – which does so many things so well it makes the novel look feeble in many departments – struggle so conspicuously when it tries to depict memory?”

It is usually loutish readers who scribble in books but the writers' charity PEN has got authors doing it too. Rick Gekoski, the rare book dealer and 2011 Man Booker International chair of judges, asked 50 writers to annotate a first edition of one of their own books for a charity auction – “First Editions, Second Thoughts” – at Sotheby's in London on 21st May. No fewer than 16 Man Booker winners answered his call, though some with white knuckles. “It was an appalling experience in my case,” reckoned John Banville. “I can’t bear to revisit my own work. I physically can’t bear it.” Ian McEwan almost agreed: “The sensation of writing in any hardback book always seems transgressive, unless it’s in pencil in the margin. And in this case I used black ink, so it was rather like defacing my own novel.” Graham Swift and Kazuo Ishiguro meanwhile added pictures to their books. The resulting collection of first editions nevertheless delighted Gekoski: “It’s like discovering a herd of unicorns.”

McEwan has also been publicising the paperback edition of his spy novel Sweet Tooth. In an interview he launched on a paean of praise for John le Carré, commenting: “He should have won the Man Booker Prize a long time ago. It’s time he won it and it’s time he accepted it. He’s in the first rank.” While few would take issue with Le Carré being in the first rank he will, however, never win the Man Booker. The reason is not that he isn't good enough and certainly not that any judges would refuse to award the prize to a writer of “genre” fiction but simply that Le Carré has instructed his publishers never to submit him for the prize. Interestingly, the Acknowledgements for Sweet Tooth include a thank you to Stella Rimington, formerly of MI5 and chair of the 2011 MB judges. Naturally the nature of whatever information she divulged to McEwan remains secret.

Busy McEwan is one of a phalanx of literary heavyweights who have signed a letter to the Chinese government asking it to review the imprisonment of the 2010 Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, who lives under house arrest –  as well as 40 other jailed writers and journalists. Other signatories included the MB winners J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Salman Rushdie. They called for China to “Respect and protect the right of our colleagues, and all of China's citizens, to freedom of expression. Respect and protect the right of Chinese citizens to a free and independent press. Respect and protect the right of writers to write, publishers to publish, and artists of all disciplines to create and present their work without fear of reprisal.”