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Something extraordinary happened to the UK literary scene in the 1980s. In the space of eight years, a generation of young British writers took the literary novel into new realms of setting, subject matter and style, challenging – and almost eclipsing – the Establishment writers of the 1950s. It began with two names – Martin Amis and Ian McEwan – and became a flood: Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Graham Swift, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Pat Barker among them. The rise of the newcomers coincided with astonishing changes in the way books were published – and the ways in which readers bought them and interacted with their authors. Suddenly, authors of serious fiction were like rock stars, fashionable, sexy creatures, shrewdly marketed and feted in public.

The yearly bunfight of the Booker Prize became a matter of keen public interest. Tim Waterstone established the first of a chain of revolutionary bookshops. London publishing houses became the playground of exciting, visionary entrepreneurs who introduced new forms of fiction – magical realist, feminist, post-colonial, gay – to modern readers. Independent houses began to spend ostentatious sums on author advances and glamorous book launches. It was nothing short of a watershed in literary culture. And its climax was the issuing of a death sentence by a fundamentalist leader whose hostility to Western ideas of free speech made him, literally, the world’s most lethal critic.

Through this exciting, hectic period, the journalist and author John Walsh played many parts: literary editor, reviewer, interviewer, prize judge and TV pundit. He met and interviewed numerous literary stars, attended the best launch parties and digested all the gossip and scandal of the time. In Circus of Dreams he reports on what he found, first with wide-eyed delight and then with a keen eye on what drove this glorious era. The result is a unique hybrid of personal memoir, oral history, literary investigation and elegy for a golden age.