Amis vs. "Two Bags of Silicone"

Amid allegations of sexism and snobbery, novelist Martin Amis has attacked Katie Price, the model-turned-author known as Jordan. Olivia Cole on London's favorite literary feud.

11.08.09 4:51 PM ET

Imagine Tom Wolfe unveiling his latest novel: I Am Anna Nicole Smith. Or the discovery of a late lost work by Saul Bellow about Paris Hilton. Where you’d think that would be pretty exciting, in London, news that Martin Amis has a new muse in the form of Katie Price, a glamour model turned one-woman cottage industry known as Jordan, has raised temperatures.

Since Amis alerted an audience at a London literary festival to the fact that he’s working on a novella, State of England, owing something to his Jordan-fixation (he's read everything she's “written” and follows her antics in the tabloids), he’s been accused of sexism, snobbery, and perhaps most extraordinarily, of being uncontainably jealous of Jordan’s literary prowess. Come again? The Guardian ran a story  under the headline, “Martin Amis’s problem is not Jordan, it is women.” Within minutes, comments flooded in, many wondering as to whether in objecting to Jordan, one can reasonably be accused of sexism.

Perhaps Amis’ error was to joke that he finds the hideous quotes on the front of every Jordan book “Number One Bestseller” the “most terrifying words in the English language.”

Thanks to calendars, clothes, fragrances, lingerie, and an awful lot of ghosted books, Jordan is worth an estimated £40 million. She’s a (fake) double D model, best known for turning her marriage to the pop star Peter Andre into a reality-TV show. Price, as Amis has observed, has an “interesting face”—on TV she looks pretty and endearing, makeup-free, in her tracksuit and a ponytail—but “all we are really worshipping is two bags of silicone.” When she dresses up, she glows orange with a spray tan and the “interesting face” and big green eyes evaporate into a plastic cliché of bling.

Television personality Janet Street-Porter has been on auto-rant: “It must be galling for him that Katie Price’s fans are willing to buy anything with her name on it, but that seems to be the case... every aspect of her life is a roller coaster of tears, tantrums, joy and sorrow.... Could it more irritating for Amis that bestselling fiction is currently dominated by a whole range of female authors?”

Let’s be clear, she is not one of their ranks. On TV, Price is endearingly frank and self-deprecating. Her books catch those qualities but presumably with the aid of a tape recorder. Given that not a line of Jordan’s 23 books is penned by her, the idea that she could be considered a “rival” writer seems willfully wrongheaded. Perhaps Amis’ error was to joke that he finds the hideous quotes on the front of every Jordan book “Number One Bestseller” the “most terrifying words in the English language.” While male novelists traditionally jostle for acclaim and accolades (Updike vs. Wolfe, for instance), it’s a delicious fantasy (but no more than that) that the ranks of Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Paul Auster are crying into a nice glass of red wine over sales figures for Price’s trilogy, Angel, Crystal, and, the latest, Angel Uncovered.

Amis’ “Threnody,” is a glamour model, whose name is always surrounded by quotation marks (because she insists on them). Even that detail (and there aren’t many, given that he’s still writing the novella, which will appear after next year's The Pregnant Widow) transports you instantly to the world of celebrity handlers and control-freak publicists who make that Z list world go round. His female lead is not Jordan, he trickily maintains, but readers should keep her in mind. The only slight reservation, perhaps, is how is it possible to satirize someone whose life already genuinely plays out in the spectacular highs, lows, and hysteria of pulp fiction and tabloid headlines.

A friend witnessed one of the early Jordan/Peter Andre dates/press calls. (It's hard to know the difference, seeing as they first met in the jungle on I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!) “Get him away from me,” she was said to have muttered, as their agents thrust this Romeo and Juliet of the reality-TV world toward one another. Price (with a twist of Amis’ hero Nabokov, Jordan has two shadowy selves) tells it rather differently in the second volume of her “number one” bestselling autobiography. “As we sat on the sofa together he told me how good I looked and I returned the compliment, thinking, Phwoar, phwoar, f***** phwoar!...

... He certainly knew all the right moves and so did I! But afterward, as I lay down next to him, sadness gripped me: Now we had found each other, I didn’t want to leave him. I had a shoot to do for OK! Magazine…”

The level of banal detail is nonstop, in the same constant chat-show tone of the beleaguered modern-day celebrity—or as Jordan terms them “21st-century celebs.” While he’s a dazzling stylist, whomever actually writes Price’s oeuvre (23 books for adult and children thus far) has two main tools—the exclamation mark! And italics for emphasis. Take the heady, early days with Pete: “I also loved the fact that his body hair was kept to a minimum—we’re talking back, sack and crack! As he took off his boxers, revealing his trimmed pubic hair, I thought, Perfect, because I can’t stand hairy balls!”

Four years, two children, three seasons of TV, and the lead characters have split. Peter Andre, often with three kids in tow (one, Jordan’s disabled son from her relationship with footballer Dwight Yorke) has become a national single-parenting hero. In What Katie Did Next, the inevitable post-breakup documentary, saw his ex poring over the intrusive “lies” in the tabloids. Within days though she had dusted herself down and on the advice of a close pal—a photographer, who conveniently sells his work to those same papers—headed for Ibiza, where she hooked up with a cage fighter.

If there’s anything that has defined the last few years, it’s the endless factory of “celebs,” who come out of the chrysalis of a reality-TV shows to blossom, live, love, and even die on the pages and screens of new reality-TV shows, chat shows, tabloids, and gossip magazines. Though editors would like nothing more than stories involving the implosion, meltdown, or crackup of their favored female leads to observe that the appeal of those same leads defies belief, has this week been decried as sexist.

The most photographed, hungrily consumed woman in a society says as much about us as about her. If writers are our true reflection of society, what’s wrong with Jordan/Katie Price being beamed back at us through the lens of a great satirist? As poet and critic Craig Raine points out, having written about everything from porn to screen violence, "Martin is a wizard on low culture."

Amis even knows Katie and Peter’s wedding poem by heart. For those that didn’t keep Hello or OK!, it’s reprinted in from Volume 2, Jordan: A Whole New World and must hold some kind of world record for being the first love poem to cover “issues”: “Sharing common interests/Working through all fears/Looking at yourself/As if two were in the mirror// Finding common ground/ On issues not agreed….” “Love Is” describes love that can’t be seen in pictures. In the mirror, says the poem, being in love makes you one person with two heads. Ready for their closeup, no doubt.

Over at Camp Price, a spokesman (one of the six or so people it’s possible to call with a Jordan query) won't be drawn in to the feud: “It’s a no comment. I am not going to be able to get a comment. It’s not something we’re going to comment on. We wouldn’t want to get an argument with someone like that.” Good luck, Someone Like That. Personally I reckon “Threnody” will give even Jordan 's page-turners a run for their money.

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Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View , will be published this fall.