Spending three or so weeks in Britain each year is more time than I ever need to become irritated, exasperated, and finally bored by English newspapers in all their sections¨except for ŠSports' where the actual standard of play still gets reported. (If a match was rubbish, they do say so.) Otherwise, the broadsheets are much of a muchness and give columns of opinion precedence over reportage in a way that's becoming overly-familiar to Canadian readers, thanks to the National Post. A gaggle of self-styled Popes (of the Catholic not the literary variety) pontificates on whatever they find wanting in their Little England or, worse, in their rivals' opinions. The best that can be said is that these farts in suits express themselves in language that has been acquired as a mother tongue and not as something picked up from the telly and casually propagated by young women named whatever. The ŠBooks' sections are no better as Martin Amis makes plain in his foreword to The War Against ClichT, a collection of his essays and reviews that a duly diligent Professor James Diedrick has compiled from three decades worth of what Mordecai Richler liked to call "scribbling for life-sustaining cigar and cognac money."
"Democratization has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments . . . nobody's feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else's. This is the new credo, the new privilege. It is a privilege much exercised in the contemporary book-review, whether on the Web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. The right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature."
When Martin Amis began a day job at the Times Literary Supplement in 1971, literary criticism was taken seriously. "Literature, we felt, was the core discipline; criticism explored and popularized the significance of that centrality, creating a space around literature and thereby further exalting it." The intellectual climate has devolved through post-modernism to a post-post-modernist lab-coated "valorization . . . of the (justly) neglected", but Amis knows that literature will resist leveling by herd opinions and social anxieties and will revert to hierarchy: in the meantime, he has gone on, more or less as he began, in a "campaign against clichT. Not just clichTs of the pen but clichTs of the mind and clichTs of the heart."
Those who have followed his journalistic career over the past thirty years (through the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and across to the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker and other American destinations) know that Amis values "freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice" and "dispraises" their opposites with a capacity for insult that has mellowed with time. "Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember." Or, maybe, when you realize how liable to prosecution you are on the same charges? Much that the younger Amis says against Philip Roth ("the perils of having an over-literary mind," "a wooden fidelity to the inconsequential") or Norman Mailer ("this pampered superbrat," "not capable of broad comic design") or Anthony Burgess ("plenty of hollow places beneath . . . busy verbal surface") can be applied as readily to the middle-aged novelist Amis has now become.
I remember chortling much-too-loudly in my local library at the fun Amis was having at the expense of our literary elders back in the seventies and early eighties. Rereading these pieces, my humour intact, I still find his deft turning of phrases and droll sentences risible but notice now that Amis was much too busy trying much too hard to win his father's favour (something his first novels failed to do) by devoting most of his energies to sending-up plots (that require little parody) and drawing attention to infelicities of English usage in the predictably aggressive ways that Kingsley Amis was bound to appreciate. Mind, he didn't have as much to work against as we then thought: does anybody read Iris Murdoch, Angus Wilson, C.P. Snow, John Fowles and D.M. Thomas any longer? Or even William Burroughs? They were bound to collapse under their own pseudo-weightiness eventually but Amis did give them all a few well-placed kicks that shortened their half-lives. Casting a sideways glance at Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil, ("It would be futile to summarize the plot. Life is too short. The book is too long."), Amis writes it off brilliantly (and justly) as "a long course of methadone"¨a compulsive read that never delivers the kick of the real thing. With a nod to Nabokov, he notes, "the fit reader does not read with his brain or his heart but with his back, waiting for Šthe telltale tingle between the shoulder-blades.'"
When the younger Amis does encounter something tingly, Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, he rises to it grudgingly: Burgess's theological irony is rightly seen as superior to Graham Greene's and Evelyn Waugh's but Amis undercuts the good work he does with the sort of remark that pretentious first year undergraduates make, "As a form, the long novel is inevitably flawed and approximate." Inevitably flawed? Says who? If so, why did Amis then go on to perpetrate The Information, knowing a priori that it couldn't work? When he encounters something absolutely first rate, Burgess's memoir and masterpiece, Little Wilson and Big God, all Amis can do is nervously misbehave, turn town gossip, and "connect Burgess's erotic prowess with his literary heft." The envy he feels in the presence of Burgess's insatiability should have alerted him to more than the continuing discomfort London publishers find in this book: Little Wilson and Big God is long out-of-print.
The War Against ClichT works against memory in another way. Even aided by a full pad of post-it notes that has my copy as bristled as a hedgehog, it's difficult to keep score of Amis's most successful sorties in his campaign against stock responses and off-the-rack anxieties¨he and Professor Diedrick have edited just too many distractions into the mix. Divided topically rather than chronologically, this book's eleven sections include some individual writers (Philip Larkin, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike), some groups of writers (English, American, World), some great books, canonical works, obsessions (chess, football, poker) and entertainment (crime fiction and masculinity). A projected twelfth section (literature and society) with pieces on F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, Ian Robinson and Denis Donoghue was suppressed as too earnest. More's the pity. There's something quite endearing about the earnestness Amis does allow to appear when he reviews literary biographies of Coleridge, Milton, Donne and Dickens. Given his general intention to avoid rubbing up against books as others do, and given the sort of reader this book is likely to attract, did Amis really need to include what he has to say about Elvis, as seen by his kinfolk, or Hillary Clinton, as written into existence by her own hand?
Unlike his great heroes, Martin Amis has little of the ethical rigour of Saul Bellow, a narrower range of classical and musical allusion than James Joyce, none of Nabokov's scientific discipline and none of Updike's theological avocations. What he does have is the ability to measure books in terms of "talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature." It isn't enough to simply write off Leavis as "humourless" as he does on half a dozen occasions without falling into a clichT of the mind: Amis knows (or ought to know) that a man who endured what Leavis endured as an ambulance attendant in the First War and then went on to achieve what Leavis achieved in getting the English novel taken seriously as a subject worthy of university study against strong opposition (in the library of Leavis's own Downing College at Cambridge in the 1930s there was only one novel, New Grub Street, which was admitted as a historical document) should be met with more than a clichT of the heart. Would Amis really rather have us scrutinize what he has to say about poker ("My big poker period was in my teens") or The Guinness Book of Records ("the remarkable believe-it-or-else compulsion of this durable series")? Evidently. Shame on him.
Taking easy money from frivolous editors and using the cosmopolitan daubs as makeweights to bulk this book up over five hundred pages so that it won't look quite so insubstantial when placed alongside John Updike's Picked-Up Pieces is more easily forgiven, as these things go, than going soft on the central issues of talent, canon and literary background posed by Updike. Amis simply waves the soiled bed sheets and surrenders too much judgement when he writes of the Harry ŠRabbit' Angstrom quartet: "It is as if a double-sized Ulysses had been narrated, not by Stephen, Bloom and Molly, but by one of the surlier underbouncers at Kiernan's Bar." That's the sort of silly formulation that comes from drinking Guinness while reading Northrop Frye, two activities of which Professor Frye was himself innocent, I believe. It's a clever-clever judgement that doesn't hold up to even a fifteen minute close reading of the texts. Its hyper-inflationary rhetoric is meant to please the subject of the review and polish the reviewer's reputation, but it leaves the reader in a muddle. Amis sees far more deeply into Updike when, a year earlier (1989), he writes of Self-Consciousness, "Updike is above all an embarrassing writer: it is his recurrent weakness, and his unifying strength. He is always successfully taking you to where you don't quite care to follow." Exactly. That can't be put better and if the logic of that perception had been applied to Rabbit at Rest, it would have been some review!
Martin Amis has to be held to a higher standard not just because of the title he gives his book and the claims he makes in the foreword but because he actually does succeed in "creating a space around literature and thereby further exalting it" when moved by passion and pleasure. His judgement of Philip Larkin and his biographer in "The Ending: Don Juan in Hull" first appeared in the New Yorker in July 1993 and is as fresh and moving today as it was then. In twenty pages, Amis does more than most critics can manage in the course of a book to separate the art from the life, and establish its glories, while eliciting genuine regard for the pitiable condition of the artist. It's a splendid achievement. Alongside it, the most valuable pieces in this collection are the revaluations of Joyce's Ulysses, Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March and Nabokov's Lolita that first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. These each do what literary criticism is meant to do and set off a creative quarrel with the reader.
Martin Amis is a writer's writer. He's so consumed by the question of what it is to be a novelist that this reader often wonders if anyone other than family, friends, and a legion of writers, would-be writers and failed writers ever reads him. There's certainly far too much pain and too little pleasure in most of his invented characters to make them come alive as anything more than cartoons to be manipulated through various technical exercises. But what a virtuoso Amis is in his journalism! Because he is always victorious over dullness in his reviews, The War Against ClichT ought to be enshrined on every reviewer's desk. The more you study Amis, review by review, the more you'll be gob-smacked by how much of an author's vision, cultural tradition, formal innovation, texture of prose and density of humour (or their absences) he manages to squeeze into the space available. He rarely makes the fundamental cognitive mistake that bedights and bedevils so many reviewers of fiction and poetry in this country: a university syllabus is not a canon. A canon is what writers and readers want to keep alive and go on reading. A canon (and whatever might be considered for inclusion) is not to be judged by its teachability, its conformity to classroom dicta and learned responses. If it was, where would Ulysses be? Or Lolita? Or Don Quixote?
Reviewing first time writers poses special problems as does reviewing direct competitors and Amis sidesteps both. If you want a good recent assessment of the current state of the novel in England, you have to turn to A.S. Byatt's On Histories and Stories (Harvard University Press). If you want to know why and how F.R. Leavis is important in the formation of literary judgements, you really must pick up Ian Robinson's The English Prophets (Edgeways Books). And if you aren't a reviewer and don't already know Martin Amis's work, you should begin by reading Experience, his memoir of father, family, the writing life, and dentistry. It's there that he picks his best fights against his worthiest opponents in his unending war against clichT. ˛