Martin Amis on a Slow Train

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.

8 Replies to “Martin Amis on a Slow Train”

  1. For what it’s worth, I only know about Martin Amis because you reviewed one of his books once (which book I read and enjoyed, but I did get the sense that it was a little… overwritten). I have heard one other acquaintance mention him since, and that acquaintance is the kind of person who aims to impress others by dropping names that nobody but the literary/musical/foodie/[insert area of interest here] elite have heard of.

    I LOVE the twentieth-century music comparison; Steve did indeed hit it on the head as regards both music and literature. Schoenberg has a following, sure, but only among, well, Schoenberg followers. Everyone else listens to him (and his contemporaries) with furrowed brow, trying to figure out where the music part is. When I was taking a class in music appreciation, the only thing I actually *enjoyed* about most of the elite 20th-century music-for-art’s-sake composers was playing them for my family and watching their reactions — “They call that MUSIC?” being the most common. IMO, pure literary fiction *is* in danger of meeting the same fate fifty or a hundred years from now.

  2. Ok, now I feel dumb… I have never heard of Martin Amis before now. And I read a lot… and from a lot of genres… my personal favorite being historical fiction. But I have been in the same bookclub for 10 years and we read a lot of what I think would be called “literary fiction”, as well as some of the less elite contemporary works and classical literature. I am reminded of one recent novella I read in which I think the author was striving for “literary fiction”, and I had the same reaction–it was overwrought. I had the sense that the writer was trying to impress me with his vocabulary and metaphors. It didn’t work, it detracted from the story. My opinion, for what it’s worth.

    We had a family member who worked in editing, and snubbed her nose at most popular fiction–the pulp made for the masses. My feeling is, if you’re reading books at all instead of plopped in front of the tube like the vast majority of people, you get a check mark in my book. I am always amazed when I recommend a book and I hear “Oh I don’t have time to read, I don’t remember the last book I finished.” So sad. People should read what they enjoy, the more they read the more they will enrich their vocabulry, their knowledge, their life.

  3. Rosina, thank you for the mention. I’m afraid I’ve never read anything by Martin Amis, though I believe I read Lucky Jim by his father a long time ago.

    It’s interesting that the pulp fiction represented by Chandler and Hammett is now classic literature. Tolkien and his followers are now the subject of serious scholarship (I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael D.C. Drout), Drout traces the distinction between serious and genre fiction, to Henry James, who wrote an essay essentially defining good fiction as that exemplified by Henry James. I think Duke Ellington’s line, “If it sounds good it is good,” applies to writing as well as to music.

  4. I have heard of Amis – never read him! I guess for me reading is all about the story, and less about the precise placement of words and the cleverness!

  5. I have writers that I read because they can tell a good story and writers that I read because I love what they do with language and they can tell a good story. If I wanted to read purely for the language, I would (and do) read poetry. Novelists must be good storytellers or they’re not worthy of the title, imo. Surely the point of language is communication? If I start reading a book and it feels “overwritten” (which to me means that the writer is way too in love with the flow of their own pen, so to speak) then I am quick to put it to the side.

  6. I go back to my mantra — there are too many books and life is too short to read something which doesn’t appeal to me — even if it’s “literary” or “classic” or on the bestseller list. As for Martin Amis, I could have told you he was a writer but, beyond that, nothing.

  7. I studied English at a time when Martin Amis was one of the British it-writers. Plus, one of my professors admired him quite a bit (though he admired Ian McEwan even more), so I have heard of him. I don’t care for him, though, not just as a writer but also as a person. In interviews, articles, etc… Martin Amis comes across as incredibly condescending. And his remarks about muslims were downright racist.

    On the other hand, I like his father Kingsley Amis quite a bit. Kingsley Amis told actual stories and he had respect for genre fiction. He wrote a James Bond novel under a pen name and wrote one of the first serious studies of science fiction, New Maps of Hell. It’s a pity that he is overshadowed by his son these days.

    I am not sure whether literary fiction is its own genre, but it is certainly subject to trends and fashions, often divided according to country of origin. In Germany, the most highly praised literary fiction of recent years, the sort that wins awards, are tedious family sagas set in either the Third Reich or communist East Germany, preferably both, that are ideally based on the author’s own family history. In the USA, a lot of literary fiction still seems to be concerned with criticizing consumerism and deconstructing the American dream (and overly focussed on the lives of East coast academics). British literary fiction seems to be divided among “the immigrant experience”, “the working class experience” (though that one is going out of fashion) and “I’m a bourgeois prick and proud of it”. However, you always get authors who fall outside those trends and yet do not fit into genre fiction either.

    For me both as a reader and writer, plot and character have always trumped language and style. I do like experiments and I do like lyrical style and beautiful prose (in moderation), but there had better be a story or a character somewhere beneath that. Plotless wonders bore me, regardless of what genre they belong to. Because it is not just literary fiction that specializes in beautiful language with nothing behind it, genre writers do it as well. There have been a couple of times I have tried to read fantasy or SF short stories that had been nominated for or actually won Hugo or Nebula awards, only to find myself faced with lots of beautiful imagery and language but nothing happening. Nothing that made sense, at any rate. Such writers are better served writing poetry.

    In my own attempts at writing, language has always been a tool for telling the story not an end onto itself. And I could not write the beautiful and lyrical language that is fashionable in certain circles right now if my life depended on it – my voice just doesn’t work that way.

    By the way, a few days ago I spotted the German edition of one of the Wilderness novels (I’m pretty sure it was Queen of Swords) in a prominent, face out position on a bookstore shelf. Unfortunately, it was in the SF and fantasy section rather than in the historical fiction section.

  8. I had heard of Amis, but have not read him.
    I was not even allowed to read Enid Blyton as a child. “Too trashy” my mum said. I was only allowed to read what she termed as quality literature. (Even though I have since found out that she herself read mostly “bodice ripper” romance novels!) I read the classics and was well aquainted with the Bronte sisters’ work well before I was even mature enough to understand the concepts that some of them dealt with. Anyway, that was my mum’s idea of educating me!

    These days, I still love the old classics, like the Brontes’ and Jane Austen etc, but I now read from a very wide range of genres. I am an unashamed fan of popular fiction in general.

    I want to read a book where I forget about the writer altogether, where I am transported to another place and time, and where I can breathe with the heroine, fear with them, laugh with them, grieve with them and love with them. I want to look forward all day to that moment in the evening when I finally can call my time my own and where I can pick up my book and sink blissfully into a life more interesting then my own.
    Heavy, over wordy, flowery language that has you reaching for the dictionary does not take me anywhere, and soon has me looking for another book!

    To tell a story the way you do Rosina, is an art that I place far above the “hollier than thou” efforts of those who are so caught up in their literary snobbery that they write books “the masses” don’t even want to read.

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