Originally posted March 2009
Eudaemonia has a very thoughtful post up about what she looks for in a novel, in which she first considers what a few other people have said about their preferences before she explains her own. As I was reading the post — which is beautifully put together and worth the effort — I was thinking about Martin Amis.
Most specifically I half remembered an interview with Amis on Salon. And lo and behold, I found it right where I left it.
Here’s one relevant quote:
Discussing his fiction in an interview with the Paris Review, [Martin Amis] dismissed “story, plot, characterization, psychological insight and form” as merely “secondary interests” compared to a novelist’s prose, little more than the apparatus on which to hang some bitchin’ sentences. So it hardly seems an insult to say that his specialty is not substance, but style.
From “Terror and Loathing” by Laura Miller, Salon 1 April 2008
Then I went back to Lisa’s post and read the comments, and I came across Steve (who writes a weblog called on the slow train). I’m going to quote an excerpt from his comment on Eudaemonia because he has expressed something I have been trying (and failing) to say about the literary genre (as it is represented by Amis) for ages:
I’m afraid modern literary fiction is going the way of orchestral music in the twentieth century–aiming toward such a specialized audience that it alienates virtually everyone else. Just about anyone can enjoy Beethoven or the Beatles, but few can appreciate Alban Berg without years of study. And even then, it can be an ordeal.
I think Steve has hit it on the head, and some evidence of that is provided by Amis himself (passively, I admit). He is a very large presence in the literary genre, but I always wonder how well known he is outside those confines. If you asked ten people at random if they recognized his name, what kind of return would you get? And why this perverse pride in honing his art to a point that it alienates the majority of readers?
In any case, if you are interested you can read more about Amis in a lot of places. For example: the review of his London Fields in the New York Times (calling Amis “fiction’s angriest writer”) and a biography of sorts at The Guardian.
Finally, I repeat my mantra: literary fiction is is just another genre with a self-defined readership and a set of arbitrary conventions. That is, it is not intrinsically better or worse than any other genre. No matter what Amis may think.