Monday, March 22, 2010

Martin Amis

Poor old Martin Amis. He's so easy to dislike, partly because of his ridiculous bad boy persona (cultivated against a backdrop of privilege and opportunity), but mainly because he takes himself so seriously.

I admit that I'm prejudiced. When I became a bookseller, Amis was one of a generation of writers who were portrayed as young and edgy - more American than British - capturing the late 20th century zeitgeist. The reality was a small group of nice, upper-middle class men in their 40s, writing fiction that was technically innovative, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Turn the clock back to the mid-1990s and Martin Amis was at the top of his game: still the enfant terrible of British writers, but with a beautiful new wife, new teeth and a £500,000 advance from HarperCollins. Then, as in many great novels, hubris was followed by downfall.

The Information was Amis's first novel for HarperCollins. It was a disaster. It had been decided that as Amis was such a strong "brand", the usual convention of having the title and author on the dustjacket would be abandoned. Instead, there would be a simple "i".

Unfortunately, less wasn't more and the novel flopped. It's hard to tell how many sales were lost as a result of the bold cover design, but I think it's safe to say that HarperCollins didn't recoup their advance for a long time (if ever). In spite of this fiasco, the creative team behind the "i" still won an industry award.

The pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction since The Information. Amis is frequently caricatured as the young pretender who sold his soul for the Murdoch shilling to buy new teeth. Every new work seems to prompt a spate of vitriolic views.

The reason I'm writing this is because I found a copy of Amis's memoir Experience the other day, lying on top of a skip. It was a perfectly good copy, but because its sales ranking on Amazon was so low, it was about the be pulped. I picked it up and saw this passage:

"On a tube train to Earl's Court I saw a young man reading The Rachel Papers, about a week after its publication. He was enjoing the book, and in the best possible way: a reluctant smile, an unreluctant smile, a reluctant smile, and so on. I still regret that I didn't go up to him. But I told myself: listen, this will be happening all the time - get used to it."

I immediately thought "Typical Martin Amis. Bloody arrogant..." and almost threw the book back into the skip. If I had, I would have missed the next sentence:

"I need hardly add that it didn't happen again for about fifteen years. When my first novel won the Somerset Maugham Award I told myself the same sort of thing: get used to it. And that never happened again."


Grey Area said...

I'd never paid much attention to Amis until the teeth episode, the press reaction was so vitriolic to something so dreary that I twigged there must be a lot of people who really hate him out there.

One of the main components of the design degree I run is book design, it's a really important part of the industry - and you will be pleased to know is thriving. I'm lucky enough to have a contact a Faber so we get a lot of industry input, it's a revelation to the students that commercial considerations play an important part in design - but the end results are worth it.

One of my better students is basing her final year project on the future of book design in a new digital age and it's actually quite a healthy and exciting sector - although we have seen some shocking stuff recently ('augmented reality' reading!!!!), lets just say that you will be filling skips for many years to come.

Sarah Norman said...

Oh dear, I have to confess I hated EXPERIENCE. It was the first, and remains the only one of this books I've ever read. Moan, moan, moan, my teeth, moan moan moan, my father, moan!

Sarah (

Sam said...

I like his essays. The only novel I've read is Night Train, which wasn't so impressive, but interesting.

Brett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brett said...

Well now I know what a skip is: a British dumpster.

I read his dad's "Lucky Jim", but I have only read his essay on Islamism, "The Age of Horrorism", which was interesting but bilious, after the manner of Christopher Hitchens.

I guess I've thought of him as akin to the Kennedy children, or Julian Lennon. Wouldn't he have been happier learning a trade?

Steerforth said...

I thought the whole "Horrorism" thing was nonsense - Amis showed how little he understood about Islamism and contributed little of value to the debate.

Mrs M said...

I think we're being a little hard on Amis here. Living in Morocco - which is very moderate all things considered - I thought his portrayal of the psychology of extremism in 'Horrorism' was pretty convincing - and it was very well researched. His take on the internal struggle between moderates and extremists in Islam is spot on for Morocco - very apparent in the university where my husband teaches, for example, and on the streets, where there is a cultural battle being fought (very visibly in the hijab/no hijab dilemma for women; Egypt btw has lost this one.) Then Amis' remarkable portrayal of the screwed up sexuality of Sayyid Qutb. There's an unpleasant sub-text to religious fervor, underpinned by a perverse cocktail of mysogynism and desire. It's there in Christian attitudes to sex too (I'm thinking of all those images of martyrdom and the homo-eroticism in paintings of the crucifixion). O.K Amis is arrogant and vain, sometimes shockingly cynical, and he likes to provoke, but I think we have to put his unfortunate personality flaws aside and acknowledge that he's pretty bloody insightful on occasions, and some of his writing is superb. Money was a good read, I thought.

Motherhood The Final Frontier said...

Oh dear, I do find it so hard to get beyond his ghastliness and self satisfaction that it's rare that I can actually enjoy anything he writes. And even the lines that you quote do smack ever so slightly of false humility, but perhaps I'm being overly harsh. I just find it hard to get over the rampant misogyny..

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Funnily enough two friends of mine went to watch him talk at Oxford Literary Festival today.

£15 per ticket and he apparently filled the Sheldonian so he's still doing ok compared to many authors.

Wonder how long a writer can be regarded as an enfant terrible though! Personally the Rachel Papers turned me off him completely and I found I was never able to get through the whole of a Martin Amis novel again. Conversely Terence Blacker's 'Kill Your Darlings' about an author who was pathologically jealous of Martin Amis to th extend of setting out to kill him was utterly hilarious and a far better novel!

John Self said...

I read Kill Your Darlings and, while I laughed a lot at the scene where the Amis-fan narrator tries to find out from an ex-lover what Martin Amis is like in bed (whether he has the same preening, self-regarding qualities as his prose), it would be a stretch to say it exceeds any of Amis's own books. One measure of that is that Kill Your Darlings is out of print while all Amis's novels are still available.

Amis gets a hard time for reasons I can't quite fathom. For sure, most of his new books aren't as good as the old ones, but you could say that about any 60+ writer (except maybe Roth or Auster). And he does have a delightful ability to say attention-grabbing things in interviews just when he has a new book out. Past master at self-publicity, is little Mart.

Apropos the Experience quote, I also remember a nice self-deprecating line in a piece from Visiting Mrs Nabokov, where Amis describes an emergency landing in a small plane he was a passenger on (Amis is anyway a nervous flyer "but a confident drinker and Valium-swallower"). On seeing the news reports of the 'crash landing' later, he remarks ruefully that "there was no mention of the quiet stoicism with which I had borne the event."

As for misogyny, do people really still think that? Because characters are misogynistic, the author must be? Then again, this did make me laugh.

Anonymous said...

Read the recent non-fiction - War against cliche, Experience, Koba the dread - the prose is magnificent. And funny, in spades.

And re-read Money. I the current climate it seems to have been scarily prescient; A 1984's very own '1984'...


Steerforth said...

I shall.

Unknown said...

I found an old ex-library copy of Information in our basement recently among some of my wife's old things (Fully titled dust jacket edition, though). I'm actually thoroughly enjoying it (to the point of looking up all things Amis on the interweb, like so). I might read another oldie before trying his latest, though.

Anyway, that quote from Experience is pretty near identical to one attributed to the protagonist in Information. Perhaps that's why Amis' memoir bombed? No new information for anyone who has read some or all of his novels.

Roger v.d. Velde said...

Bit of an old post now, but the general view of Amis has hardly changed (it's probably worsened).

I'm one of those who loved Amis in the early days and gradually grew less fond of him as a writer as time wore on.

However, I realised that I was probably forming a second-hand opinion based upon other people's accumulated criticism. I say this because I happened to hear him on Desert Island Discs (during the period when Sue Lawley was hosting) and he didn't at all come across as a horrible, arrogant, misogynist and washed-up novelist (the BBC has a downloadable DID archive and it should be in there somewhere).

The opinion pieces and soundbite culture has done a lot to deform how we form opinions of people.

Steerforth said...

That's true, although Amis has also shot himself in the foot during a number of radio and newspaper interviews. I was particularly dismayed by his pompous utterances about horrorism.

The press have a curious relationship with him, oscillating between obsequiousness and ridicule. In that sense I feel sorry for Amis. They hail him as something he hasn't claimed to be, then tear his new works to pieces, with a barely-concealed glee.