Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Friendly Fire in The War Against Cliche: A Look at the Endless Recycling of Martin Amis

Martin Amis has little time for repetition. All writing is a war against cliche, he argues. This is from his memoir Experience:

Earlier on I called Jacobs's book 'mysteriously' repetitive. The quote above is from p.313. On p.314 we get: 'one cause of change may be simple exhaustion, like an art form running out of steam." And on page 315 we get: "Exhaustion, like that of a literary genre running out if steam, played its part.' The proofreader must have been mysteriously repetitive too.

Unfortunately, if we apply this scrupulous attention to recurring details that Amis found lacking on that occasion to his own cultural contributions over the years, we find the war against cliche is strafed by friendly fire...

On John Updike's approach to writing sex scenes:

Updike tags along , not only into the bedroom but into the bathroom. Indeed, he sends a Japanese camera crew in there after him.
 (The Observer, 1987),3508611

The Updike approach, where you send a kind of little Japanese film crew into the bedroom..."
(University of Manchester debate on literature and sex with Will Self and Carol Maver, 2009)
He sends in a little Japanese camera crew into the bedroom, and the bathroom. Where is this getting us?"
(Literary festival in Paris, 2010)

He sends a little Japanese camera crew into the bedroom
(Jaipur literary festival, 2011)

On Pride and Prejudice

I wouldn’t have minded a rather more detailed conclusion (to Pride and Prejudice) — say, a twenty-page sex scene featuring the two principals, with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, acquitting himself uncommonly well.”
("Miss Jane's Prime", The Atlantic, 1990, reprinted in his book of essays, The War Against Cliche, 2001)

...the inartistic feeling that I have that if the novel has a flaw, it's that we don't get a 30-page sex scene describing their wedding night [...[ Why do we so like the idea of Darcy and Elizabeth? We want them to get together. [...] the reason for this particular keenness of our erotic and romantic interest, I think, is that they are made for each other - she will loosen him up, he will have a sort of countervailing effect on her - but also sexually made for each other...
(University of Manchester debate on literature and sex, 2009)  (10 minutes in)

[Pride and Prejudice] had but a single flaw: the absence, towards the close, of a forty-page sex scene
 (The Pregnant Widow, 2010)

I always used to think that there’s only one flaw with Pride and Prejudice, and that is the absence of a 30-page sex scene between Elizabeth and Darcy. Although of course that wouldn’t have worked either. And I finally realised why you have this feeling, and this is the great achievement of the novel: here you have two characters who were made for each other, and it’s such a perfect fit, you know she’s going to make him a little more relaxed, a little less stuffy, bring out the playful side of him. And he’s going to make her not only rich, because, let’s face it, there is a vulgar appeal to that, but he’s going to make her serious as well as lively, perhaps curb her high spirits… But a marvellous osmosis is going to take place between these two people.
(Hay Festival, Mexico, 2011)

On teaching creative writing:

Don't identify with Elizabeth Bennet or Mr Darcy. Identify with Jane Austen. See what she is trying to do.
(interview for The Telegraph, 2007)

[try] to identify with the author not with the character, to see what he is trying to do.
(interview with The Sunday Times, 2007)

I don't look at any of their creative stuff. All I do is teach great books, from the very authorial point of view; don’t identify with Mr Darcy or Elizabeth, identify with Jane Austen, that’s the way we sort of do it, which is the way you should do it anyway.
(interview for the  Independent, 2007)

When I teach literature I always tell them, these would-be writers (we don’t do workshops, we just read great books), I say, “When you read Pride and Prejudice, don’t if you’re a girl identify with Elizabeth Bennet, if you’re a boy with Darcy. Identify with the author, not with the characters.” All good readers do that automatically, but I think it’s helpful to make that clear. Your affinity is not with the characters, always with the writer.
(Hay literary festival, Mexico, 2011)

On Terry Eagleton

He is a marooned ideologue who can’t get out of bed in the morning without guidance from God and Karl Marx.
(Financial Times interview, 2007)
(Letter to The Guardian, 2007)

"an ideological relict, unable to get out of bed in the morning without the dual guidance of God and Karl Marx"
(Open letter to Yasmin Alibhi-Brown, The Independent, 2007)

On writing something lighter:

"If writing is freedom, then you don't want to shackle yourself to existing conventions and indeed existing characters. If I had a severe brain injury, I might take it on."
(Asked by Charlie Higson whether he would write a James Bond novel, "Amis, Amis and Bond", Radio 4, 2007)

"Salman Rushdie made a good distinction just after the fatwa was pronounced on him. He said 'I'm writing a children's book.' I said 'why are you doing that? I wouldn't think of doing that, I don't think, unless I'd had a serious head injury.' He said, 'well, I sort of have.'"
(debate on terrorism at the University of Manchester with Maureen Freely and Ed Husain, 2007)  (59 minutes in)

"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book', but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."
("Faulks on Fiction", BBC2, 2011)
quoted here:

On fiction and climate change

"[...] when you've reviewed your fifth novel running that begins with this sentence: 'Heaving a heavy sigh and scratching his nose, Splork led the camel out of the igloo, and looked out at the conflagration that was heading towards him'... "
(University of Manchester, panel on literature in the 21st Century, 2007)
"I’m dying to read Ian [McEwan]’s book. And he’s done it the clever way, which is not to have the first sentence being “Splork tied his camel to the rail outside the Igloo and looked south.” No, it’s some guy who goes to all of these conferences. "
(Interview for Prospect Magazine, 2010)

On the novelist's declining powers:

Medical science has granted us a new phenomenon: the octogenarian novel. And one thinks, with respect, of Saul Bellow's Ravelstein and Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest; yet no one would seriously compare these books to Humboldt's Gift and Harlot's Ghost. Updike was 76 when he died. And for many years he suffered from partial deafness. I don't know (perhaps nobody knows) whether the two afflictions are connected, but the fact is that Updike, in My Father's Tears and Other Stories, is in the process of losing his ear.
[... [
"Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land."
The first sentence ends with the words "his land"; and so, with a resonant clunk, does the second. Mere quibbles, some may say. But we are addressing ourselves to John Updike, who was perhaps the greatest virtuoso stylist since Nabokov - who, in his turn, was perhaps the greatest virtuoso stylist since Joyce.

 (Review of John Updike's My Father's Tears and Other Stories for The Guardian, 2009)

"It's a recent phenomenon. Shakespeare died at 52, Dickens at 58, Jane Austen at 41. Saul Bellow published in his mid-80s a charming but slight novel, called Ravelstein, nothing like the mighty, longer novels. Norman Mailer made a dignified exit, too, again in his mid-80s. What happened with John Updike was that his ear went: this great stylist was reduced to sentences like this: 'the great make a mess on the floor when they fall; no-one cleans them up when they fall.' The clunking repetition of fall in two different applications, two different meanings - the idea of letting that go, of not spotting that, is a terrifying indictment of failing powers.
And then you have Philip Roth, who I think is having tremendous difficulty in breathing life into his characters - it's an amazing thing to be able to convince the reader that these characters really live, that this situation is alive, the ability to infuse life into your creations and that seems to me to be precarious in his case."

(Panel on literature and ageing with Clive James, University of Manchester, 2009)
(14 minutes in)

"It's a modern phenomenon - Dickens died at 59, Shakespeare 54, Jane Austen at 41. There was no question in the past of the talent dying before the body."
(interview with Mark Lawson, BBC4, 2010) (2:10)

"The development given to us by modern medicine is that writers now have to endure the loss of their powers.This is horribly evident when you read the late novels of writers who live beyond 70. Shakespeare died at 56, Jane Austen at 41. 'They never had to feel their powers deserting them. Now, writers die twice!"
(Hay-on Wye festival, 2010)

“We’re going to die as everyone dies, but before that our talent is going to die. There are no exceptions to this. It’s an entirely 20th century phenomenon. Shakespeare died at 52, Dickens at 58, Jane Austen at 41 and DH Lawrence at 44. But now you have the octogenarian novelist, and on the whole they’re no bloody good. “You can’t keep it up and there are various ways you can see novelists disintegrating before your eyes as they move past 70. John Updike amazingly lost his ear. His last collection of short stories is full of ugly rhythms and some quite elementary mistakes, for instance two successive sentences ending with the same word. Now anyone interested in style will be told by their ear that you can’t do that. It gives a terrible kind of clunk on the page. And his last collection of short stories was full of schoolboy repetitions as if his ear was no longer telling him things. Another thing that happens to novelists is that they can’t breath life into their characters any more. The whole book is dead, inert, and you just have that terrible thing where you read the sentence, “He grew very angry” or “He went over to the window and opened it”, and you just find yourself thinking, “No, he didn’t. You’re not convincing me that he did that. Life has not been breathed into it.” That’s a sudden death of talent. But what invariably happens is a sort of dilution. Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer both wrote novels when they were 85, Ravelstein and The Castle in the Forest, and they’re not bad. But no one would seriously consider comparing them to Humboldt’s Gift or Harlot’s Ghost, these great 800-page bristling, sizzling novels. The flame, like on a cooker, just goes right down to the minimum, and that’s what lies before all of us."
(Hay Festival, Mexico, 2011)

"And the writer in decline is a contribution of medical science—it didn’t used to come up, because they’re all dead. Dickens at 58, Shakespeare at 52, Jane Austen at 41. Didn’t used to come up. But now you have 80-year-old novelists. And it’s self-evident that the grasp and the gift erodes—you can see it in various ways. In Updike it was the ear that went. Those reliably melodious sentences just dried up—schoolboy inadvertencies crept into his later prose that just wouldn’t have been there earlier on. [the conversation turns to Amis's respect for Bellow's last novel] I respected Mailer’s last book, too. But no one would seriously compare either of those novels to Humboldt’s Gift or Harlot’s Ghost. I thought Ravelstein was a beautiful last gesture. But it had that mutedness. That incredible unstoppable energy had gone. That’s something new to worry about.
(interview for 2012)

On learning to love the reader:

But Nabokov wants to embrace his readers too. He comes across as this snorting wizard of hauteur, but he is the dream host, always giving us on our visits his best chair and his best wine. What would Joyce do? Let's think, he would call out vaguely from the kitchen, asking you to wait a couple of hours for the final fermentation of a home-brewed punch made out of grenadine, conger eels and sheep dip. [Hence] [t]hat 600-page crossword clue, Finnegans Wake."
(PEN American Centre, at a talk in honour of the 100th Anniversary of Nabokov's birth, 1999)

" 'Tell a dream, lose a reader', said Henry James. And we all know that the pun is the lowest form of wit. Joyce spent seventeen years punning on dreams. The result, Finnegans Wake, reads like a 600 page crossword clue."
(Experience, 2000)

"'Tell a dream, lose a reader,' said Henry James. Puns are cornily but rightly considered the lowest form of wit. [...] A writer should always be a good host. Nabokov would put you in his best armchair, serve you his best wine, and would be fussing about you. Joyce would come in, and be vaguely off in the kitchen somewhere, and looking among the old wine bottles saying 'I'll be out in a minute.' He didn't love the reader. [...] Finnegans Wake is a seven-hundred page crossword clue, and the answer is 'the' ".
(Clive James interview, 2001)  (13:40)

"There can be a turning against the reader and that's the difference between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake; Joyce doesn't give a shit about the reader any more. And late Henry James is an awful slog. It's a disaffection that you must fight."
(Guardian interview, 2003)

"It's a noble, democratizing book — alas, written by this man who was too inverted to take it further. Talk about a marriage with the reader: he's like Henry James in the growing estrangement from the reader in his corpus. Ulysses is a great, long honeymoon, but then he withdraws from the reader: separate beds and separate rooms. Finnegan's Wake is indifferent to the reader to a sadistic extent. Look at it: It's all dreams told in puns, the two most inimical things. With James, the estrangement of the marriage was even more fiendishly prolonged. All the hospitable stuff is over by the early-middle period, then more and more coldness and self-inspection. We all write for ourselves, but the whole idea of the marriage has broken down at that point."
(interview for Powells books, 2003)

"Love for the reader simply gives out: in the case of Joyce, you have that noble, all-inclusive book Ulysses, followed by that 700 page crossword clue, Finnegans Wake. We all agree there are a couple of things novels can't do. One is dreams, the other is sex. To write 700 pages about dreams in the form of multilingual puns is not the act of a lover. It's the act of an invert. In [Henry] James's Case, you see this generous intelligence, this thriving marriage with the reader devolve into separate beds and then separate rooms, and finally messy divorce."
(University of Manchester, debate on fiction in the 21st century,  2007 18 minutes in)

"Nabokov invites you in, gives you the best chair by the fire and his best wine – then leaves you with a chess problem to solve. You arrive at James Joyce's house and he's forgotten you were coming. He leaves you in a drafty corridor for half an hour while he fixes a drink of peat and conger eel. He doesn't care about you."
(Hay Festival, London, 2009)

[...] "but also to love the reader, and that’s what I mean by the pleasure principle. The difference between a Nabokov, who in almost all his novels, nineteen novels, gives you his best chair and his best wine and his best conversation. Compare that to Joyce, who, when you arrive at his house, is nowhere to be found, and then you stumble upon him, making some disgusting drink of peat and dandelion in the kitchen. He doesn’t really care about you. Henry James ended up that way. They fall out of love with the reader. And the writing becomes a little distant."

"Being a writer is like having a guest: you give them your best chair, closest to the fire, your best wine and you try to amuse them. Not instruct them, amuse them."
("What I've Learned",  Esquire, 2012)

"I have undiminished love for the reader. It’s like being a good host. You give your best chair and your best wine to your guests and you want them to have–not only instruction and delight in the old phrase—but since writing inevitably involves a bit of suffering for the writer—I mean a novel wouldn’t be any good if it didn’t—its quite an altruistic love in that you’re fully prepared to go through a bit of shit and uncertainty and doubt but that’s what you put in for the pleasure of your readers."

("Twenty Minutes with Martin Amis", Tottenham Review, 2012)

On the future of the planet

"We're coming to a stage where we see that the planet ages too - an idea that would not have occurred to a 19th-century farmer any more than it would have occurred to the dog at his feet."
 (New Yorker festival, 2005)

"First, let me say that writers now, if I can put it this way, are inside history in a way they haven't been before. For instance, the idea that the planet was a finite commodity would have no resonance for a residence of 17th-century England any more than it would have done for the dog at his feet."
 (University of Manchester panel, 2007) (10:30)

On Philip Larkin and his girlfriend Monica Jones:

This eccentric old boot - I thought she was a bit strange - but coming back to the memory of this after the publication of [Larkin's letters and his biography], the memory became horrific to me.  The horror of Monica... I don't say this lightly or callously... looking back on this memory and seeing how parched his life was, how Monica was the main girl in his life, the love of his life. Re-examining the memory of this dinner, Monica looked like an urka. She didn't look like a female urka, either, she looked like a male urka. She sort of dominated the evening [...], and talked more than anyone else. She made a funny noise when she wasn't speaking: a little grunt of satisfaction. I remembered a friend who had a mad old relative..."
 (University of Manchester panel on Philip Larkin, 2008)

"I spent an evening with Larkin and Monica and it’s described in my book Experience quite neutrally, as if they were both slightly eccentric. Years later, ten, fifteen years later when the Letters and the Life [the biography of Larkin by Andrew Motion] came out, I completely re-experienced that evening with horror. I didn’t realise that he was sexually so miserable, and I have to say she looked like an urka [a Russian criminal from the bottom of society]: like a male urka. Really butch. And she dominated the evening in a weird way. She was awful. A beast. And I thought, that is the love of his life."
(Prospect interview, 2010)

In 1982 I had dinner with Philip and Monica [...] at the time I found found the occasion only mildly bizarre, and wrote about it cheerfully enough in a memoir published in 2000 (although I see that I did describe Monica as 'virile'. That understates the case). Ten years on, I look back at that evening with something close to horror. In Monica's presence, Larkin behaved like the long-suffering nephew of an uncontrollably eccentric aunt. And she was the love of his life.
(Introduction to his selection of Larkin's poems, 2011)

On fictional response and 9/11

[novels are] messages from your subconscious history. They come from the back of your mind, not from its forefront."
 (Experience, 2000)

As Norman Mailer said, the temptation to rush in is immense, but you've got to let it simmer, back-boil it. This is true of every experience for writing; it has to have a chance to get into your unconscious and up your spinal column. You can't do it with the front of the brain.
(interview for, 2003)

"Norman Mailer said soon after September 11th that the writer's temptation [is] to wade straight in [...] you have to resist the initial temptation because - I found this is more or less universal - a writer needs two or three years to process an event, especially one of that size, because what needs to happen is the unconscious - sitting around thinking about it will buy you a certain distance but it's a sort of glandular process in the end, you have to let your body absorb it, you've got to think about it silently, not in words, but let it soak in to your body."
(interview with Bill Moyers, 2006)

"As Norman Mailer said when 9/11 happened, the temptation to charge in should be resisted because what happens with writing is that you receive the stimuli and they go down into your subconscious, and what settles settles, and what doesn't doesn't. You find, after a couple of years, that you've got something to write about."
 (Interview for The Observer, 2006)

"Norman Mailer said the temptation was to rush in on September 12th, but he said, and we all agree, that it takes several years for public events to filter down into the unconscious, and that's where novels come from. You can't do it from the top of your head, from the frontal brain, it has to go right through your system and come out the other side."
(Literature in the 21st century panel, University of Manchester 2007)

"It goes from the front of the brain to the back of the brain and down the spine into the cortex, and enters your unconscious [...] as Norman Mailer said, the temptation to charge in with fiction is very great, but you must let it make that process: it must weave and trickle through you, and then perhaps you'll have something to say."
(57 minutes in)

"Norman Mailer - rest in peace - said that when September 11th happened he wanted to write a novel about it on September 12th - beginning on September the 12th. He said that the temptation to rush in is immense [...] These experiences have to make a three-year journey, roughly, down the cerebellum and spinal cord into wherever it is your fiction comes from - the unconscious, basically: they have to process that."
(Video interview for Prospect magazine, 2009.)
 (opening remarks)

On the invigorating effect of tragedy

"I think that good stuff, good literature, is incapable of depressing anyone, otherwise there would be a bloodbath in the theatre at the end of King Lear."
(Desert Island Discs, 1996)  (8 minutes in)

"I don't think any interesting work of art can possibly be depressing--otherwise, King Lear would kill more people than cholera."
 ( webchat, 2003)

Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits. If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.
(introduction to his selection of Larkin's poems, 2011)

On book-reviewers' demands for fiction

"The current complaint, which I have already seen a number of times, goes something like this: can we please have a moratorium on novels about science! There will be, of course, no moratorium on novels about science. That is where the novel is heading, to fill a vacuum created, perhaps, by the failure of the sister discipline, philosophy of science, and by the indifference or contempt in which scientists hold it. Scientists don't care what the novelists say either."
(Experience, 2000 )

[...] the complaints of such a reviewer when they say things like "can we have a moratorium on...". They've been saying that recently about science - and it's true that, I think, in the coming decades, writers, novelists and poets will in some sense be philosophers of science [...] but no scientist today reads or has anything but contempt for philosophy of science. Science is out there on its own, and I think scientists will fill that void - there's nothing to be done about that."
(University of Manchester, literature in the 21st century, 2007)
 (12 minutes in)

On what cannot be known about the universe yet:

"I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all. But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence. Not a being, but an intelligence. And I don't mean intelligent design. I just mean why is it so vast, as Updike said, why not this attractive spattering of stars in the background, [that would] be perfectly enough, you know? Why all these multiple universes, these parallel universes? These extraordinary quasars and black holes. What do we need all that for? So many questions remain, that I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more."
 (Bill Moyers interview, 2006)

"It is amazing - the total tonnage of what we don't know about the universe is truly humiliating. It turns out - it has recently turned out - that the macro-world - the world of the very large - is almost as Taoist and weird and convoluted and counterintuitive as the microworld - the sub-atomic world. For instance, in the real universe if you go outside and throw your keys in the air, they not only do not return to your hand, they accelerate up into infinity. We have discovered that the universe is not only expanding but accelerating, and no-one has any idea why. Something like - some humiliating figure like - 98 per cent of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy, which we are in the pathetic position of having to call "dark material" - that's all we know about it. So, standing as we do about 30 or 40 Albert Einsteins away from even the most rudimentary grasp of the universe..."
  (panel on literature and religion, Univeristy of Manchester, 2007) .

"It seems to me very significant that for the last two generations - thirty years perhaps - all science or cosmology has garnered is humiliation - they keep finding things out that destroy past knowledge - for instance that the universe is expanding but also accelerating in its expansion - a cosmologist said to me that's like coming up behind your house, throwing your keys in the air, and instead of coming back into your hands they go on going up. That's how radically it attacks previous knowledge. And I think in all thought about human destiny and the destiny of the universe, what we have to acknowledge - and it feels like a proof of something - that the universe is much cleverer than we are, and no-one knows what all this superfluous, unreadable intelligence is, and it sounds almost like a proof of the existence of God, but it's certainly proof of a higher intelligence, i.e. the universe, and why is it so much cleverer than we are? We're 10 Einsteins away from getting close to an understanding of the universe."
 (TimesTalks panel with AO Scott, El Doctorow and Margaret Atwood, 2012) (1:14:30)

After such a farrago of recycling, it's hard not to think of the Penguin Classics edition of Saul Bellow's novel More Die of Heartbreak, which contains an introduction by Amis that appeared in an earlier book of essays, Visiting Mrs Nabokov, in 1993, and before that was the text of a paper he gave for a Saul Bellow conference in 1987, the year of the novel's publication. Even Amis's greatest hero - ("I was his ideal reader" -Experience) - must make do with regurgitated rather than fresh consideration.

Amis's virtues - or lack of them - as a novelist are a whole other debate, but as a cultural commentator - a course which, as a panel junkie, Professor of Creative Writing, the most interviewed novelist of his generation,  a political essayist and a commentator on everything from Islamic fundamentalism to Katie Price, he has inescapably and relentlessly chosen - his position is untenable until he starts to try out more new material on the road. Perhaps he'l let me have that last cliche.


  1. this is hilarious. i can't imagine the kind of work you put in to find all these, though.

  2. Going through all that material was painstaking but oddly enjoyable: it's the repressed academic in me, I guess.