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13 October 2014updated 25 May 2023 10:21am

Martin Amis talks to Grayson Perry: “I think there is a difference between male and female writing”

Our guest editor Grayson Perry invites the novelist Martin Amis to his studio to discuss art, violence and the end of men.

By Grayson Perry

Thinking out loud: Grayson Perry and Martin Amis in Perry’s north London studio, September 2014

Grayson Perry You know, I’ve been weirdly nervous of you coming round.

Martin Amis Well, quite rightly.

GP It’s the nearest I could get to a sort of rock star from my youth, you know. I’ve met quite a few famous people and very rarely have they been people I genuinely admire. The other is Martin Parr.

MA Martin’s a crap name. It’s not even up to the job of crossing the Atlantic. They don’t know how to say it in America.

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When I was very interested in class, in my teens, I was filling in a Daily Mail multiple-choice thing about “How posh are you?” I was doing tremendously well – I knew that it was “lavatory”, not “toilet”, et cetera. And then it came to: “What would you call your son?” The first option was Montague and Torquil and things like that. The second one was Henry, George and David and I thought, “That’s the one.” The third one was Kevin, Keith and Martin. So that was the end of that!

GP It’s so true. I did a psychotherapy day once, about class, and the first thing they did was get us to talk about our names. Of course, me, being called Grayson, everybody thinks it’s somehow unusual and classy. No, it’s bang-on aspirational working class.

MA Is that your background?

GP Yes – I grew up in a house without books. My mother used to call Woman’s Own a book.

MA Yeah, that’s right, yeah. A magazine was a book and a book was called a “library book”. I’m quite a believer in the idea that name determines your character. There are spectacular examples, like Tim. I wrote a piece saying that Tim Henman was never going to win Wimbledon. When they’re little, they’re called Timmy and it sounds so timid, sort of twee. But the Tims are getting above themselves now. When I wrote the piece, there were Tim Garton Ash and, in America, Tim O’Brien rather desperately holding the fort. But now the Tims are all over the place: Tim Robbins, Tim Burton. The Tims have turned it around.

GP Anyway, you know why you’re here? Because I’m doing this issue of the New Statesman. I’ve written a piece myself.

MA On what?

GP On what I call “Default Man”.

MA Meaning?

GP The Great White Male. The white, middle-class, heterosexual male: the zero longitude of identity groups. I realised that identity always seemed to be an issue when it was challenged – that’s when it seemed to be most in 3D, so that you could look at it.

MA Well, it’s like nationality. Those who are on the mean, the normative types, don’t think about it at all. It’s only when you are transplanted from one country to another that you think about your identity much.

GP How do you think we can tease out the cultural and political and gender influence of Default Man? Because he is a minority.

MA Well, I don’t think he should be persecuted on that account.

GP He certainly punches well above his weight, demographically, because historically he’s been given all the opportunities.

MA I think he’s heading for a time of comparative wilderness, don’t you? It’s a great disadvantage to be Default Man now.

GP Do you really think it is?

MA It’s getting to be.

GP But he is still Default and, because he is Default, he has power.

MA Christopher Hitchens’s son, Alexander, who’s making a name for himself as a journalist, has as his byline Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens – Meleagrou is his mother’s maiden name. And I thought that was brilliant. “Alexander Hitchens” is defaultish, right? His national identity is a sort of albatross. I always wished I had something exotic about me, because everyone favours that now.

GP It’d be a fun gentleman’s club game to rally round stories of the persecution of Great White Males – but it doesn’t look like that from the outside. It looks like they still have a monopoly on power.

MA On power, yes, but in art, no.

GP Well, within my business, visual art, the intake is 75 per cent female and yet you look at who has showed their work and I think there still is a dominance of males. Do you think there is a male and female tone to the culture they produce?

MA In the written arts, I think there is a difference between male and female writing. Nabokov said he was strictly homosexual in his literary tastes and, more boldly than that, he said that the qualifications for being a first-rate translator were: 1) a good working knowledge of the “out of” language, 2) genuine talent for the “into” language and 3) you must be a male.

GP Ha, ha.

MA But I would put it this way: I spent my teenage years in a house that had a male novelist and a female novelist in it [Kingsley Amis and his second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard]. And the difference I saw in them, their approach to work, was indicative of a divide. My father was a grinder; he used to go to the study every morning after breakfast, no matter how hung-over, loath, and he just sort of ground it out. I would hear him laughing to himself if things were going well. Jane used to go restlessly around the house and smoke in front of the window and do a bit of gardening – and then, at a certain point, she’d go into her study and you’d hear a mad clatter. And she would come out looking rather sort of bashful, having written more in an hour than my father.

GP Does that extrapolate out, in your experience?

MA I like to think of it like this. A very brilliant critic called Northrop Frye was writing about Milton’s “Lycidas”, a pastoral elegy for a guy called Edward King who died in a shipwreck. It’s often criticised, by unsympathetic critics like [F R] Leavis, for being insincere because Milton hardly knew Edward King. Frye said, “There’s a difference between literary sincerity and real sincerity.” Milton was sincere about writing a pastoral elegy and had been practising on every corpse that came his way, including the beadle of Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Frye said that is the difference – when told of the death of a friend, you can burst into tears but you can’t burst into song. It’s the same thing Wordsworth meant when he said that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquillity”.

GP So are you getting round to saying that men are better at that style of writing?

MA No, I’m getting round to saying that there’s more song in women’s work. They can burst into song in a way that men can’t. The emotions are closer to them.

GP One of the dangers of male emotionality is that they’re not aware of it churning away beneath them the whole time.

MA Yeah. And they’re only in touch with a few percentage points of their whole being. But I think their proximity to emotion is the difference.

GP Do you think that’s down to culture and nurture?

MA You have to whisper it now that there are differences between men and women. There are, though. Women have children, you know.

GP Yeah, but there’s also a much more encultured version of what it is to be a man and a woman. I sometimes characterise it as: males are defined by what they do and women are often defined by what they are.

MA And it’s meant to be manly not to show emotion and to master it. That doesn’t seem to apply so much with women.

Are you a nature man, or a nurture man, or a peer-group man?

GP I err towards the idea that nurture is dominant, definitely. Nature gives us predispositions and if an environmental situation matches up to a predisposition, that predisposition becomes more dominant in your personality.

MA And what about peer groups?

GP I think that the male role is more heavily policed, in terms of constricting behaviours that are available to it. The male aesthetic is often about camouflage – because he then retains his ability to observe from a supposedly neutral standpoint. Women are one of the groups to be looked at. Everything is defined from that male gaze. Is it possible to unpick the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual effect on culture and take it out? Because they’ve become inextricably woven into what we call culture and “right thinking”.

MA Males?

GP Yes. How do you think men have branded the nature of intellectualism and seriousness?

MA It would take for ever to untangle that, wouldn’t it? I’m all for reparations for cultural liberties that were taken by a group in the past. You know that habit some writers have of saying, “If a space traveller approached the event horizon of a black hole, she would find that . . .”?


MA “A boxer in the tenth round will notice that her arms feel very heavy.” And I said to Will Self, “Do you do that?” He does. I said, “Do you do it as a sort of reparation?” He said, “Yeah, exactly so.” Paying back for that automatic use of “he”.


GP You seem to have resisted the natural draw towards conservatism that people get with getting older.

MA My father was a bloody fool when it came to politics and he was ideological. Communist until he was 35, you know, Hungary 1956 . . . Swallowed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, swallowed the Terror, everything, still believed in this utopia. And wrote an agonised piece about how difficult it was to renounce that. But not for an instant have I been attracted to any utopia. Because, I mean, it stares you in the face: this utopia where, according to Trotsky, the ordinary man would be like Beethoven or Shakespeare and everyone would be very happy all the time and very nice to one another – and it sounds unbearable, right? What would a novelist do in such a place, when you thrive on difference?

GP I often think, as an artist, people have this clichéd idea that you’re dealing in the tortured agonies of existence. From a very early age, one of my big aspirations over the course of my career was to make my work happier and happier as it got along and to somehow make the most complex picture of happiness.

MA The really perceptive remark about happiness in art is that of Maupassant, who said, “The trouble with happiness is that it writes white; it doesn’t show up on the page.” Think how few writers have ever made happiness “swing” on the page. Tolstoy, actually – the happy bits of Anna Karenina, not Anna’s story, but the story of Levin; and there’s a beautiful novella, sometimes called Happy Ever After, in which there are marvellous descriptions of happiness. But there’s no question it’s more difficult, yeah. Art is about tension.

GP But I wonder if maybe it’s all part of the branding of seriousness – that somehow the crippled emotional range of a suicidal male has become dominant in culture? This is the “serious stuff”?

MA My theory is that this was just a wrong turning that art took in response to the first half of the 20th century. How you feel about Beckett is a very good index of your respect for misery. There’s a killing sentence in a Nabokov late novel called Transparent Things, where the hero is interested in this girl and she insists on taking him to an avant-garde play. He says, “I knew what avant-garde meant, or turns out to mean, so I was not surprised when the curtains parted to reveal a naked hermit sitting on a cracked toilet in the middle of an empty stage.” And I think, you know, that’s Beckett skewered for ever. In my twenties and thirties, writers who were incredibly pissed off were taken very seriously.

GP How did that become a badge of seriousness and happiness didn’t? If you’ve got the basics of life, which most people in the
developed world have got, why can’t we have a depth of interest in what happiness is? When they’re writing about the “big subjects”, people are almost saying, “Ooh, I’m helping solve them,” and I want to go: “Oh, fuck off, you’re not, you’re just . . .”

MA . . . Wallowing.

GP Yeah! When I was very young, at one of my early exhibitions, two women came up and said, “Oh, Grayson, hello! I do like your exhibition. It’s really cheered me up,” and I was like, “Do you know the agonies I went through for that exhibition?”

MA Yeah, but you’ve changed your mind now.

GP Oh, yeah. Now I’m delighted if it has cheered them up.

MA A book, anything that’s got quality, is incapable of depressing the reader or the viewer. When people say, “I liked your last novel – depressed the hell out of me, though,” I think, “You’re no good at reading, then, mate.” If it were true that gloom on the page translates into gloom in the reader or the viewer, there would be a Jonestown of suicides at curtain in King Lear and it’s not like that at all. It’s quality that cheers you up, not subject matter.

GP I think a lot of “serious” culture producers sometimes get muddled up and I want to pick them up by the scruff of the neck and go, “You’re in the leisure industry – people go to plays and exhibitions and they read novels on their time off. They don’t do it for work, not like you.”

MA Yeah. I’m absolutely committed to the pleasure principle. Number one: art should give pleasure.

GP Anyway, I’ve got a few points to drag you back into the theme of Default Man. I’m all for PC and positive discrimination – I’m impatient, I suppose, and I want to see a just and unhysterical response.

MA Except time is the only thing that can bring it about. And the longer it’s been going on, the longer it will take to rectify it.

GP Even in parliament, they reckon that at the present rate it’s going to be 100 years
before we have 50 per cent female MPs.

MA At least, I’d say.

GP Which seems too long.

MA Yes. But positive discrimination is a sort of Band-Aid until time has caught up, you know. There’s something artificial about it. Positive discrimination in America is accompanied by something that’s almost as bad as slavery, which is mass incarceration of
black people. Have you any idea . . .

GP . . . Something like one in three young black men are in prison?

MA The prison population has quintupled since the war on drugs. Now, the black guys in prison who will never be free of that felony, they’ll never be able to vote, never be on a jury – so juries are all white. They come up mired in debt; education, food stamps, denied to them for that reason, for the rest of their lives, for a crime that goes unnoticed in the white community: smoking a joint. Criminals are the only people you’re allowed to hate now. They just happen to be black because America is racist.

GP A kind of secondary identity comes in, doesn’t it, almost to shade the uncomfortable part. There’s lots of that in gender and class, as well. In Britain, we had a go at the working class for a while.

MA The “chavs”.

GP That became very popular. It was a very distinct moment when there were rich working-class people and we could take the mickey out of them for their . . .

MA . . . vulgarity.

GP And that was somehow OK. Then the economy crashed and suddenly it wasn’t all right again.

MA The times of prosperity are the progressive times and, as it gets tight, all of that comes back.

GP Yeah, one thought I’ve had in my essay is that bearded young men, naming no names, tend to characterise the idea of revolution as sort of a violent, sudden thing and I always think the real revolutions happen in the peaceful, thoughtful times in between.

MA It’s one of those things that divides humanity, you know. Do you like the idea of a revolution – and revolution is by definition violent – or do you not? I don’t.

GP Me neither. Terrible idea!

MA But some really intelligent people and loving, sweet people – I’m thinking of Zadie Smith, Jon Snow; this came up at a dinner party, I wasn’t there, but it was reported to me – are all mad keen on revolution. Russell Brand, you know.

GP Well, he was the previous guest editor. This thought came to my mind the other day: the Arab spring, that went really well, didn’t it? Are we in the autumn now? Twitter leads great revolution in the Arab world . . . I’m thinking, “That’s gone well, hasn’t it?” Do you want to smoke, mate?

MA Yeah, I’ll go outside. Where is it?

GP We’ve got a yard, we can take the microphone out there.

MA It only takes me a second. It’s all filter.

GP I’m an ex-smoker myself.

MA I’ve never stopped, if you except that filthy chewing gum . . . Anyway, yes, it’s all off when times are hard, all that progressiveness. It’s forgotten.


GP I think probably the longest-serving distortion in our society is patriarchy.

MA Yes, that’s what we see in less-evolved societies, the dead hand of patriarchy.

GP White, western observers are very tentative around criticising that, to unpick it from racism and cultural bigotry.

MA And tribalism. My sons, one of whom works at the Foreign Office on the Middle East desk, says what keeps it in the Arab world – why the Arab spring failed – is that it’s not yet in them to tolerate or even care for people who are not in their group, which we laboriously learned to do. Just think what ameliorative things have happened in my lifetime – I’d say the partial dismantling of the class system . . . at which you raise a sceptical eyebrow.

GP When it comes to class, the emotional structures endured so long after the society structures and the economic structures had been taken away. People found other ways of perpetuating them.

MA That’s what happened with race in America. But there’s no question that Margaret Thatcher dealt the class system a huge blow, with all her Keiths and Cecils and Normans in her cabinet. Thatcher detached the Conservative Party from the aristocracy, so-called, but who’s in charge now? The Etonians. Two steps forward, one and a half steps back – and that’s how you, crabwise, inch forward. What’s the differential between the blue collar and the pink collar now? It’s something like 15 per cent. It used to be 50 per cent.

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GP What do you mean?

MA The wages.

GP Oh, yes, the wages. In this essay I read by Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men”, she said that of the 15 careers that are likely to flourish in the 21st century, only two of them will be dominated by men. One was janitors! And the other one was IT programmers. For my next outing after this one, I want to do a TV series on masculinity.

MA That’s always been my big subject.

GP How do you think it manifests itself? How do you think that machismo, if you like, is civilised into the middle-class man? It’s very easy to look out of the window and say, “Oh, that bloke in the white van is being a male tosser,” but in the business world, how does it work?

MA Being aggressive and toughened. I think we’d be horrified at how tough business is.

GP When you say “tough”, do you mean “selfish”?

MA Completely merciless. You’ve got any advantage, you press it home. And no sympathy for the people who fall by the wayside – in fact, sort of sadistic feelings about them.

GP Do you think that might actually be counterproductive in the long run? I always wonder what people are aiming at. Yes, they’re aiming at profit but in terms of social well-being, that’s often counterproductive.

MA Well, you keep seeing reports that money doesn’t make you happy and Lottery winners, when it settles down – it turns out they’re only a tiny bit happier than amputees! I wish I’d known that before I wrote Lionel Asbo.

GP I quite often ask this of people in different worlds: what’s a writer’s version of the dog sniffing arses? If you meet another writer and you don’t know them and you’re sniffing . . .

MA You’re asking the wrong writer, really, because I’m not typical. Being part of a two-generation thing is incredibly rare in writing. Not rare in painting or in music particularly, but this, you know . . . I think I’m the only example in English and there’s one example in French, the Dumas father and son.

GP How does that exempt you from that kind of competition?

MA It means that the highs and lows of authorship don’t really affect you much. You don’t get the joy and you don’t get the gloom.

GP What keeps you going, then, if you don’t get the joy?

MA I love doing it. But one of the characteristics of writers and artists is that they come from nowhere. And it must be amazing to them that, as the son of a schoolteacher or a military man, you suddenly find you have this voice that carries, that wins you readers. But it doesn’t seem amazing to me, because nothing is more banal than what your father does for a living. So, I grew up with all this, times two, when he was married to another writer. And I just have more of a distance from it. When I meet another writer, I feel not at all competitive. I feel, you know, just open friendliness, really.

GP You’ve had your fair share of flak.

MA More than my fair share and for the same reason. It’s because I’m delegitimised by virtue of heredity. I’m a hereditary elitist and that’s why you can say anything you bloody well like about me, in a way that, you know, maybe Salman [Rushdie] had for a while after the fatwa: “taxpayers’ money” and all that rubbish.

GP There does seem to be a switch – often people go through it – where it’s suddenly open season but you think it’s been like that with you from the off?

MA No, because the anti-elitism was not there when I began. In fact, they were sweet to me when I started, saying it must have been very difficult, you know, and it wasn’t. So I got credit where it wasn’t due for coming out from under the shadow – and I think the key to that, by the way, is just doing it when you’re very young, when you’re young and stupid and brave.

GP Yeah. There is a golden window when you’ve come out of the self-consciousness of adolescence and then you’ve got all your energy and you’re invulnerable, somehow.

MA And confidence. Fearlessness.

GP I think a lot of what’s got me where I am today is basically bravery. You know, just . . .

MA . . . Fuck ’em.

GP Yeah. Once you’ve done something that’s a little bit brave, then you do something a little bit braver and then you think, “Well, I haven’t died yet.” The biggest influence on my work and my way of looking at the world has been psychotherapy. It’s a very confronting business.

MA Craziness is terrifying. It almost seems to be the thing that it’s here for – to be frightening and to make no sense. The things that make no sense are frightening.

GP But one thing I’ve learned is that we all have versions of it, mild or common, because a lot of them are accepted. I mean, you’ve just written a book about it [The Zone of Interest] – the Holocaust was sort of a communal act of self-delusion.

MA Oh, and national madness. The whole of the body of literature about the Holocaust is to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. And you can’t say with any confidence that it . . . that there won’t be an attempt to . . .

GP There’ll be a version of it happening. As the planet melts down, in some way or another there’ll be some version of it.

MA Yeah. James Lovelock was asked in an interview, “Just be completely candid now: when this really kicks in and civilisation starts to, you know, creak, who will be the dominant power?” And he said, “It won’t be one dominant power. It’ll be gang war between religious gangs.” Religious gangs. That’s what it’s going to end up with.

GP Religion is powered by emotion. That’s why people care about it so much. Religion is only supported by feeling and therefore it’s a structure of emotion; when you nip it at some point, or challenge it, it’s only emotion you’re hitting.

MA That’s why all ideologies, as well as religions, are vile, because they can’t be defended with mind alone. So you clench your fist, that’s all you can do. With Isis in the Middle East – the Holocaust would be meat and drink to them.

GP This is why I’m so interested in masculinity as a subject, because often when I’m looking at the news, I think, “Young men. Next problem: young men. Next problem: young men” – and it’s all young men. And I’m kind of thinking, surely it’s a massive problem; surely that’s the central concern. In society, it’s the way that we bring up men that is wrong.

MA Yeah. I think I said years ago, facetiously, that all men should be locked up until the age of 30 and only then let out, cautiously, on probation. Young men equals violence and violence is the huge category error of human history. It so seldom solves anything. All that is achieved by violence melts away. Look at the great dictatorships of the 20th century: they left nothing behind them. Not even a statue.

If I’m asked what I believe in, I would say art. I felt more confident in that statement when I read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. It’s about why violence has declined. Leviathan – the state – that’s the decisive one. The state claims the monopoly of violence. The invention of printing was a big thing. The rise of women. And – this is probably more important than it seems – the rise of the novel.

GP I wonder why you’d think that was interesting?

MA Well, I do, I was dead chuffed. Pinker doesn’t like the word “empathy” – he says he went off it when he was cycling through Harvard and he saw a young woman screaming at her children to “show some empathy” – but he says that is what the novel teaches you, how to think out of yourself. He thinks this is an important contribution to the decline of violence. And certainly when times are hard, violent societies tend to be not great . . . You know, who reads a novel in Syria?

“The Zone of Interest” by Martin Amis is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). “Playing to the Gallery” by Grayson Perry is published by Particular Books (£14.99)