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5 June 2023

Martin who?

Not everyone is convinced of Martin Amis’s genius.

By Julia Bell

I was at a party when I heard; someone had a news alert on their phone. “Oh, Martin Amis died.” There was a beat which acknowledged the sadness of his passing. The familiar slow thump of the heart that presages loss. I had known via the literary grapevine that he had been sick for a while. And then one of my companions, a well-established Iranian literary writer and translator asked, innocently:

“Martin who?”

It’s easy to assume, given the reams of hagiographic tributes that have cluttered the newspapers since the announcement of his death, that Martin Amis was one of the most important novelists in the world. Photos of him, fag in hand, schmoozing his way round literary parties in London and New York accompanied these obits. His backstory as the son of a famous English novelist and his flashy, hedonistic lifestyle as much a part of the man as the work.

But not everyone is quite so convinced of his genius or enamoured by his writing. In fact, outside of the Ivy League of English, and to an extent American, letters he wasn’t that well known. He wrote some bombastic, stylish, stylised books in the Seventies and Eighties – perhaps the best being the story of the voluptuary John Self in Money who literally consumes himself to death – but by the late Nineties his best fiction was behind him. His middle age was marked by a great memoir – Experience – and then a run of rather bad books and some off-colour, off-centre, frankly embarrassing hysteria about Islam post 9/11, which seemed prompted by too many late-night sessions with his best buddy Christopher Hitchens. His essays are the most convincing, and his relentless war against cliché, which encourages the writer to always try harder with language, one of the pet subjects on which he turned his withering satiric glare.

As the cultural critic Gregory Woods astutely observes, “Amis never managed to reconcile the incompatibilities of the novel of ideas and the novel of style. He also suffers from that most disabling flaw in an English novelist, the forlorn yearning to be an American novelist. And he has a barely post-adolescent consciousness, most evident in his attitudes to sex and in his sense of humour; and most glaringly evident when the two join forces. The rare moments of genuine feeling come as a surprise.”

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Which is entirely my experience of reading his work. The voice, which everyone seems to so admire, has some glittering sentence-making, but the adolescent view of women – an attitude inherited from his father – makes it difficult to read his work with any degree of genuine pleasure. The women – from Nicola Six in London Fields to Gloria Beautyman in The Pregnant Widow all have long legs and big tits.

He claims to be a feminist – a “gynocrat” – and yet he is someone for whom pornography is a source of constant descriptive fascination. Reading his female characters is akin to dealing with the handsy relative at a party: he keeps forcing the conversation back to sex in a way which is both irritating and controlling, and you become painfully aware, as Anne Enright sharply observes, that you are “talking to someone born in 1949”. After a while the fancy sentences become window dressing for a moral vacuum, most evident in his later books The Pregnant Widow or Lionel Asbo, both of which are a few notes short of being unreadable in their casual classism and sexism.

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Norman Mailer (though he can talk) once called Amis a public-school bully, and frankly it’s that which lingers. Smarty Anus, as Private Eye nicknamed him, is the product of a particular kind of English worldview, later embodied in our fatally bad crop of politicians. A snide elitism bordering on sadism, which speaks not of the world, but to the parochialism of their privilege and the psychological perils of a single-sex education.

What the culture valorises says something about who that culture belongs to, and the responses to Amis’s death seem to be mourning not so much the work, which is patchy and difficult to defend, as the idea of the writer as the Great White Male Novelist, RIP. Martin Amis as metonym for the cultural figure who can write in omniscient sentences and is expected to have an opinion about the state of everything, while looking sulky and serious and having a private life that can be enlarged by the gossip columns. He harks from an age when, as Enright says, “literary London was like one long dinner party in which everyone knew where you went to school”.

In a telling scene from Experience, when his son asks him if they are upper class, Amis replies that, no, “we’re the intelligentsia”. As if it’s possible, just by force of will, to avoid the shaping forces of class and privilege altogether.

It can’t have been easy for him to have withstood so much scrutiny; one only needs look at a writer like Hemingway to see how celebrity can derail the work. The mask of the Great White Male Novelist, under the pressure of all that expectation, is a suffocating place to exist. Where is the room for doubt, for ambivalence, for ordinary human feeling, for private experience, for reflection, for noticing? What does it do to the writing? There is a sense of Amis grasping for the serious subjects – the Holocaust, Stalin, the Twin Towers – which sits at odds with the louche comic style.

The overwhelming effect is one of frustration: Amis’s own frustration with himself, returning again and again to the matter of sex as if he could get a different answer to the same question without changing his point of view; and the frustration heaped on him by his readers, who wanted him to be an oracle, when what they found mostly was a clever man, boxed in by his own intransigence and the burden of his reputation. As Will Self, one of his most faithful disciples, once put it: “Every writer under 45 would secretly like to be Martin Amis.” I often wonder what his writing might have looked like after a few decades in the wilderness.

But there is a serious issue here too about the class of the literary press of the late 20th century, mostly men, and mostly Oxbridge men, heaping attention even on his most difficult works – perfectly ignorable if they had been written by anyone else. In the 1970s the English novel probably did need a kick in the arse, and Amis’s style and swagger gave it a necessary adrenaline shot, shocking it out of its complacent tweediness, but did we have to hear so much about some of his later work? Was The Pregnant Widow or Koba the Dread adding anything we didn’t already know to the culture? What other voices were suppressed by this obsession?

[See also: Among my life’s highlights is the time I made Martin Amis slap his thigh with laughter]

Like many writers of Generation X, the novelist Niall Griffiths, a Liverpool Celt, admits that when he was starting to find his voice as a young writer, “I had to work really hard not to see Martin Amis as the kind of literary voice I should aspire to. That kind of posh sneer was what I thought Literary Writing had to be, but that wasn’t me, that wasn’t my voice.” The effect on the culture of Amis mania was to stifle other voices, and other points of view. What more interesting thoughts might we have heard if we hadn’t had to listen to him all this long time?

But, with his death, the age of the Great White Male Novelist is thankfully drawing to a close, which accounts for the weird nostalgia in the obituaries. The conditions which created him have passed from view; the monolithic print media, and the hedonism of the fin de siècle, giving way to the anxieties of a new century which, contrary to Amis’s analysis, have nothing to do with Islamism, and everything to do with connected technology and the climate. The epoch-defining event did not happen with the destruction of the Twin Towers, but much more subtly, and then abruptly, with the ubiquitous use of the smartphone.

Technology gave readers and writers the means through which to chat back. The novel was not the only way to disseminate ideas. Everyone got a Substack. Discourse was suddenly everywhere, and readers and writers proliferated, no longer spoken down to by a small group of gatekeepers, heralding a moment of reckoning for the structures of literary power.

These days it is probably easier than ever to get a first novel published, and even more impossible to sustain a literary career over a lifetime. But the consequence is an interesting polyphony, many voices speaking now rather than just one, and that can only be a good thing for the cultures in which we live.

Satire is useful in times of complacency, but we’re moving into an age of intense anxiety. The posturing of the Great White Male Novelist looks increasingly like a hangover from the 20th century; he is a conceited, almost complicit figure, expressing in fizzing prose his shame and disgust in humanity, but doing very little listening to the true nature of our condition.

[See also: The special relationship: Martin Amis and the New Statesman]

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