Culture House Daily

Martin Amis may be a pompous arse, but he’s our pompous arse

24 April 2014

Was it Tibor Fischer’s hatchet job on Yellow Dog? Was it the fallout from the  Islamophobia row? Was it getting his teeth fixed? Who knows, but at some point in the last decade or so, Martin Amis fell out of fashion – hard. It’s closer to croquet than football, I grant you, but slagging him off is now a national sport.

Reading his books in public has become a bourgeois taboo. Flicking through one of his essay collections on the bus the other day, it didn’t take me long to figure out why my neighbour was eyeing me like I was a sex offender. The insults that get thrown his way, meanwhile, range from ‘not as good as his dad’ to the sort of stuff normally reserved for Holocaust deniers.

But the most consistent slur is that he’s ‘out-of-touch’ – and for a literary novelist and self-appointed chronicler of British culture, that’s kryptonite. ‘Out of touch’ means you’re damaged goods, redundant. He’s obviously not in the best position to pontificate on the state of the nation – he lives in hipster exile in Brooklyn and the dives where he used to slum it are now Michelin-starred gastropubs – but this doesn’t make it any less compelling to watch him go off on one.


Pompous arse he may be, but he’s our pompous arse. No other literary novelist can spark anything like the attention Mart gets whenever he opens his mouth. We keep up to date with him because, as both a writer and an upper-middlebrow celeb, he’s extremely (though often unintentionally) entertaining. If he wasn’t, would we have sat through an hour of his mug on telly the other week? Would we still buy his books?

He’s dropped a couple of stinkers, admittedly – Dead Babies is a snore, London Fields is overrated and Night Train was a misfire – but his best stuff pulls off acrobatics. Amis’ stylistic affectations are much mocked, sometimes justly; but when these affectations are built on a mathematical hybrid of Bellow, Updike, Nabokov and knob gags, what’s not to like? I think he can still pull off the formula in spite of the floppy-haired imitators who’ve turned it into a cliché – his last two, The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo, were a riot. I fear social Siberia slightly too much to defend Yellow Dog, but you see where this is going.

The trouble is that Amis isn’t as chummy as our other soi-disant public intellectuals. He takes himself seriously enough to come across as a bit of a prat, isn’t given to self-deprecation and doesn’t do Have I Got News for You. But whatever you think of his books or views on yob culture, you’d be hard-pushed to claim he didn’t liven up the books pages; what other writer could follow up a novel as harrowing as Other People with a manual on how to master Space Invaders? Or, for that matter, get into top-class public spats with everyone from Terry Eagleton to Katie Price?

In any case, it’s a given that worthwhile novelists are dicks. Singling out Martin Amis for a kicking seems silly when certain of his contemporaries get praised for writing that rolls with the tumbleweed. On the other hand, it does spare him one fate worse than unpopularity – nobody, however ironically, is ever going to miss the point so far as to designate him a ‘national treasure’.

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  • firstnamejames

    Just finished reading all of Martin Amis, having been too immersed in Ph.d until recently.

    Conclusion: Einstein : Modern Physics = Amis : Modern Comedy.

    – & So what if he wrote 3 poor lines in 10000000 pages … most contemporary writers have the Opposite Problem .

    Amis will be remembered as one of the true greats when his detractors/ critics are long forgotten.

    – & notably, many of these are critics who, by way of example, rate the front man of an 80’s pop group as an autobiographer / writer ……

    My darling mum is similar to this type of critic
    ie. My mother thinks Martin Amis is a bit ‘pompous’ & that Amis ‘ isnt a nice person ‘ …
    but try explaining to my mother that da Vinci was a bit of a sly __ or that Gaugin didn’t give a _ about his wife and kids and she disappears into a twilight state / fugue / inward flight/ mechanism of denial. Then two cups of tea later comes round mumbling how …’ Martin Amis isn’t a very nice person..’ .. you know, the classic defence by people who can’t handle stuff.

    Who cares if Amis is pompous, I don’t care of he’s a violent thug or dissimulator ( Genet / Faulkner … )

    – he writes like a god.

    James, Cantab

  • firstnamejames

    Just finished reading all of Martin Amis, having been too immersed in Ph.d until recently.
    What a genius! Einstein : Physics = Amis : Comedy.

    Amis will be remembered as one of the true greats, when the stereotypically ugly & twisted-with-envy female ( … see any Guardian photograph/column ) and male ( …see any Guardian photograph/column) critics are long forgotten.
    (Eg1. These are critics who rate The Smiths’ Morrisey as a writer! – presumably because his being as crap as they are makes them feel good; Eg2 my mum admires Morrisey but bless her – she is dumber than Mariella whatshername )

    If it isn’t already being sorted , Amis should be required on all respectable Eng Lit degrees.

    James, Cantab

  • Anton

    Actually a lot of people still read literary fiction. I am not mad about Martin Amis’ novels, although there are nuggets in every one of them but I do think he is a fine essayist.

  • Fraser Bailey

    As someone else has pointed out, he was a bit out of date with the Asbo thing.

    Whereas I managed to work ‘Asbo’ into an advertising headline (than ran) almost ten years ago.

  • MrsTrellis

    His problem is that he was born too late.

    The ‘literary fiction’ sub-genre is over and done with now. Worn-out, empty, cliche-ridden and intellectually bankrupt.

    Nobody is even pretending to read that kind of stuff any more. It is only kept going by the ‘literary’ prizes and what is left of the broadsheet book pages. But that life-support will not last forever and Rushdie, Amis et al must realise they now look as absurd and idiotic as that Bonio out of U2 when then attempt to make great pronouncements about the state of the world.

    They should all go away for a few years and see if they can actually find out how to write books that people want to read, rather than want to be seen pretending to read. For if they don’t the only reason that people buy their books – to be seen with them – will be gone with the inexorable rise of the ereader.

    • Alexander O’Broin

      Ha ha ha! Quite true. Good art is outdated. No one needs to think anymore. Won’t Amis et al ever catch up with the brain-dead century?

  • Gwangi

    I have always found Martin Amis a tedious writer – of the 2 books I have read (thank crikey I didn’t waste money actually buying the yawn-fest London Fields).
    I think there are other better writers with more interesting ideas. Lional Asbo – from the parts I have read – is so outdated as to be risible (he actually still thinks kids do O levels at UK schools).
    Money made his reputation. Probably all downhill from there.

  • asalord

    Martin Amis: the personification of Englishness.
    Vote Yes.

    • Kitty MLB

      Good God, the wish for independence has encouraged this cheery old
      crusty haggis to wander onto other non- Scottish related threads.
      ‘ the personification of Englishness’ I love it, should speak up for it far more.

    • Gwangi

      Except that he was born and educated in Wales when Amis senior was lecturing at Swansea university. Maybe he is the personification of Welshness then?

      Amis M does now rather resemble one of a sub-species – the dwarf troll swivel-eyed West Walian Welsh Nationalists who live in little caves in the more remote and craggy corners of the Principality (and some parts of Cardiff).

      • La Fold

        Oocha, that is a serious cyber kicking for the zoomer known asalord.

    • Chris

      Irvine Welsh is the epitome of Scottishness. ‘I don’t hate the English, I hate the Scots’ ‘You cannae blame the English for colonising us. At least the Irish got their country back.’
      Vote No. Choose the Union.

  • Raw England

    All Martin did was state the fact that most English strongly view Englishness as a White identity. Which is true.

    Its also correct since Englishness is, and always been, a White identity.

    • you_kid

      Nigella, we had so much hope for you. We worry about you a lot. Please listen to daddy and stay away from the the white floury stuff.

      • Raw England

        *Sniffle* Xx

  • black11hawk

    The reason Amis and indeed that whole clique of writers, Rushdie, Hitchens, Fenton, McEwan and so on are constantly dragged through the mud is because all of them, to one degree or another, moved from being hard-left activists in the 70’s to right-wing libertarians, although I’m sure they’d all deny this. By writing The Satanic Verses, Rushdie ended up being defended by Thatcher and then by her intellectual inheritors in the fight for freedom of speech, Hitchens likewise with his battle against religion came to be more interested in figures such as Paine and Jefferson than Marx and Engels. Amis was part of that clique that realised that the most important thing in a free society is freedom of speech and without it nothing else matters.

    • chrisphillips

      Most people whose early political views slant towards the hard left end up maturing towards more sensible positions, especially as socialism no longer promises workers’ emancipation and the embrace of capitalism and the free market has done to so much to increase the stock of working people all over the globe. This is colossally resented by the minority who remain in nappies on the left. As one grows up, one realises that politics is much less to do with ideology and much more about doing business with those from right across the spectrum who share your core values. Whilst George Bush was carrying out the necessary business of killing as many Islamic terrorists as possible, Amis and Hitchens’ former comrades were telling us either that the Islamists didn’t exist, or that we were responsible for them existing at all. The debate polarised beautifully between useful idiots at The Guardian and internationalists and democrats like Hitchens who could fashion more sense in one paragraph than Milne, Pilger, Jenkins, Jones and Greenwald could manage in an entire oeuvre.

      Leftist jealousy of those who’ve grown up and left the more puerile aspects of socialist ideology behind explains an awful lot.

      And no Briton has written a better novel than Money since. What British culture needs is more like Martin Amis, not less.

    • transponder

      Dare I even ask how you (yes you, not anyone else) define ‘right-wing libertarian’? Sounds a lot like ‘J=wish pope’ or ‘serious pawn actor’.

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