02.13.10 6:14 PM ET
England's Punching Bag: Martin Amis
His new novel is being savaged and every comment he makes drives the media crazy. How did the former literary “It” boy fall out of favor?
A novel by Martin Amis isn’t literature, it's current affairs. When his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, was recently published in the U.K. it was greeted with drawn knives, howls of sexism, and a game of pin the character on the real-life person.
Amis-Rage has become a near pathological, peculiarly British compulsion. There is Martin Amis—novelist—and there is Martin Amis—media vampire—whose ghoulish views, embellished with his fortuitous turns of phrase are guaranteed to enliven a slow day for news. To some extent, that’s thanks to Amis. Not for him, the J.D. Salinger approach to notoriety. Amis’ Keith Nearing, the main character in his new novel, is glued to the news, too, “the great page-turner called the planet Earth: ‘The new disease was called Body Dysmorphic Syndrome or Perceived Ugly Disorder’ he reads. ‘Sufferers of BDS, or PUD, gazed at their own reflections and saw something worse than reality... Maybe I don’t actually look like that, he thought. I’m just insane—that’s all.’”
Click Image Below to View Our Gallery Of Martin Amis’ Controversies
Britain has a dysmorphic relationship with Martin Amis. That he is a writer of talent is not debatable, and yet he is also the one most likely to be treated like a tabloid character. Of the London Evening Standard, he once growled in the '90s, that he “couldn't go to the can, without the Londoner's Diary knowing about it.” Actors, politicians, and footballers come and go, but Britain's Amis fixation shows no sign of abating. The last six months have been average. In November, Amis offended with his announcement that double D glamour model Katie Price had inspired his next novel, State of England. His description of her as “two bags of silicone” outraged feminists, not least because his keenly anticipated new novel purports to examines the sexual revolution.
Amis is constantly praised for his comic gifts as a writer, and yet a sense of humor failure has become de rigueur in po-faced reactions to his views. The most ludicrous of these, recently, was Janet Street Porter, who suggested that Amis must be attacking Katie Price out of jealousy for her book sales....
For a man who made his reputation on biting and brilliant satire, it’s a bit tricky when the outrageousness enjoyed in his satirical fiction is policed and found wanting when he talks about his work, politics, or pop culture. There's also the sense that he puts his head above the parapet and risks saying precisely what everyone else is thinking... Yet not saying. Occupying territory that celebrates the liberal and the liberated, and yet rejects the PC, is risky. Little wonder his off-the-cuff remarks morph into a columnists' feeding frenzy.
It’s little wonder then that Amis is our most talked about writer. Even so, while thanks to an injunction this week, it is no longer possible for journalists to mention in print the fact that Brangelina don’t have marital problems, all bets are off on Martin Amis. He is the author, as he has noted, about whom, it is “OK to Say Anything.”
And, to be fair, his critics might have a point that Amis the author can be tricky to separate from the characters in his books. For Keith Nearing, 40-odd years on, the Summer of Love has become a winter of discontent. The specter of old age haunts the novel, in which adult Keith (now a copywriter) recalls the undergraduate summer he turned 21. An aspiring poet, we meet him in Italy in 1970, in a paroxysm of sexual angst and longing in the company of girls, he has to pinch himself to believe he has started wearing “cool pants,” and that the cool girls may well now be within his reach.
Back in the miserable cold present, Nearing is almost 50: “When you become old, you find yourself auditioning for the role of a lifetime; then, after interminable rehearsals, you’re finally starring in a horror film—a talentless, irresponsible, and above all low-budget horror film, in which (as is the way with horror films) they’re saving the worse for last.” It’s typical of Amis that this Larkinesque phobia (shared with his father Kingsley) was expressed in unguarded (yet perfectly sibilant) terms in a recent interview with the Sunday Times. There has been uproar over his question: “How is society going to support this silver tsunami?”—A phrase used by Nearing too)—“There’ll be a population of demented very old people, like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops. I can imagine a sort of civil war between the old and the young in 10 or 15 years’ time.” His support for mass euthanasia is apparently strident: “There should be a booth on every corner where you could get a martini and a medal.” But the reaction has been a minor tremor compared to the howls of outrage when in 2006, Amis said quoted as saying he felt a “definite urge” to say “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” He continued: “What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children... It’s a huge dereliction on their part.”
“All he can do, all he could ever do, is write the same book over and over again. Only this time he'll do it better. And his dad will love him.”
All this makes mere Punch and Judy sideshows of London’s favorite media storms: the bitter row with Julian Barnes, famously ending with the words (from Barnes) “fuck off, you c***”; the allegation that after parting company with agent Pat Kavanagh (Barnes' wife) he spent his large advance (courtesy of Andrew Wylie) for The Information on his teeth. Forget the defense budget or bankers’ bonuses, Martin Amis' advances, Martin Amis' teeth, and the cost of the bill to protect Salman Rushdie are the expenditures Britain cares most about. There must be answers.
If Britain has made Martin Amis-Author a celebrity in the league of, well, Jordan, it's in some way due to the fact that, thanks to his writing and his public pronouncements, we feel we know him very well. “Write about what you know” has long been an Amis mantra from the first success of The Rachel Papers. In each subsequent book, as he’s suggested, that little world has seemed to stretch out, stretching as far, finally as you want: the city, the world, time. In his new book, the world view has contracted again back to the confessional, the vivid orb of one man-boy’s obsessions and grief. Amis, now 60 (to Nearing's 50), seems to have developed, instead, a kind of ferocious truth-telling. Sexism, the problem of terrorism, an aging population: These are what many understand, but what most people are extremely careful in what they will say. You sense there are times when it would be easier to be safely polite than tell the truth, but still the sardonic sooth-saying doesn’t abate.
When the howls of rage pause for breath, the gracious climb down has never been Amis’s style; having incurred Muslim wrath once, apparently wishing to evoke a more innocent time, The Pregnant Widow has Keith Nearing administering a first kiss to a sweet Muslim friend, evoking, he maintains, an unprejudiced era. He rejects any notion of racism, recently observing, “The racist hand grenade is even more irresponsibly used than the misogynist one.” On being accused of snobbery and misogyny over Katie Price/Jordan, he responded to a volley of headlines with the comment that “Snobbery has to start somewhere and if you can’t be snobbish about Katie Price it’s the end of the world.” He terms himself a “gynocrat” (a believer in rule by women) and yet there's a character called the Dog in The Pregnant Widow, and we learn the vital statistics of every girl.
Amis’ fear that writers outlive their talent, nervously rehearsed in interviews as a kind of alarming possibility, has become reported fact for some of his harshest critics. Picking up on Keith Nearing’s grim sense of the future horror film, the prose, suggested Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times, is not simply under par, it has rather been lost, like some kind of faculty: “Immersion in his early fiction was like being plunged into a septic tank doubling as a Jacuzzi. Now, that energy had dropped. The cruel eye and flair for inventive metaphor have dulled.”
Kemp, though, was positively gentlemanly compared to The Guardian (long known for stalwart policing of Amis’ ideology). John Crace, in another supposedly satirical review, objected in particular to undergraduate Keith’s parading of curiosity about the history of the English novel: Mart/Keith “is now the wrong side of 50. Washed up. Ignored. Waiting for death. All he can do, all he could ever do, is write the same book over and over again. Only this time he'll do it better. And his dad will love him.”
And, yet, there’s way around it: Amis remains one of our greatest writers. Even as this latest novel has been viciously parodied, simultaneously there has been the suggestion (from critic Philip Hensher) that it should win the Booker Prize. The Pregnant Widow is a hauntingly evocative, supremely (for all Nearing’s failings as a poet) poetic as well as laugh-out-loud funny book.
Amis once wrote of his first encounter with Saul Bellow on an assignment as a journalist. He described being simultaneously desperate to like his hero in person, of wanting his hero to be such a flawed psychological mess that he’d get a great scoop, and simultaneously, that they’d get on so well they’d become friends. For Martin Amis, the media has settled for that second option, time and again. I don’t think I’m going too far in suggesting that he is our national PUD. Personally, I'd take seconds every time.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.