With the assured voice of a best-selling author who was born with a literary pedigree, Martin Amis feels no need to pander to any school of criticism or theory in his collected essays. Principally a stylist, Amis evaluates other authors based on the originality of their prose and the number of clichés they will allow. Like John Updike in his collection of essays Picked Up Pieces (1975), Amis has a pleasantly informal style of analysis that moves from the skewering of writers that he scorns to the more appreciative studies of his literary heroes. Even though he claims that literary criticism has died in this age of democratized sensibility, where everyone has an equally valid claim to judge literature as they please and talent is irrelevant, Amis continues to practice his critique anyway, exposing the fraudulent and the overpraised, and shoring up his sense of what has lasting value in the literary arts. As he puts it inThe Moronic Inferno (1986), an earlier collection of essays: “The thousand-word book review seems to me far more clearly an art form (however minor) than any of the excursions of the New Journalism, some of which are as long as Middlemarch.”
Amis has taken pains to choose works that best suit him and reflect his erudition and interests. In The Moronic Inferno, Amis specifically focused on the cultural excesses and vulgarity of the United States, and again in The War Against Cliché he enjoys debunking iconographic figures such as rock star Elvis Presley and artist Andy Warhol. For instance, he finds that Elvis, We Love You Tender (1980), a book by witnesses of Elvis’s debaucheries, inadvertently damns the man for his banality and the conventionality of his notions of success. Regarding Warhol’s diaries, Amis finds that Warhol unconsciously lampoons himself with the flat, affectless tone of his prose, his obsession with celebrity and money, and his seeming inability to discuss art intelligently. Amis likes to sniff out the various ways that writers try to hide under pretension or sell out while affecting literary poses. Writers who attempt to complete the half-formed leftover scraps of authors such as Jane Austen and Raymond Chandler end up giving way to the current era’s lack of constraint, turning classic voices into chatty bores. Amis reserves his most extreme vituperation for Thomas Harris and his novelHannibal (1999), in part because Harris clearly showed he could write accomplished genre fiction with earlier works such as Silence of the Lambs (1991), and because his new emphasis in Hannibal’s cultural snobbery led to a betrayal of his talent. As Amis phrases it, “Only by turning his back on the vulgar could Thomas Harris write a novel of such profound and virtuoso vulgarity.” Hannibal’s arrogance amidst all of Harris’s potboiler clichés makes the novel doubly despicable.
When it comes to reviewing British authors, Amis can sound constrained, perhaps because most of these pieces were originally written for The Observer and The Guardian in his youth (the collection goes back to 1971), and perhaps, also, because his barbs could land on targets too close to his own literary milieu or that of his father. While his discussion of J. G. Ballard offers up a cautious admiration, Amis becomes oddly muted when it comes to reviewing Iris Murdoch. While his summarizing of each novel suggests an increasing weariness with Murdoch’s plot contrivances, Amis tends to conclude his comments with a positive note, as if seeking to acknowledge her reputation even in the face of this current weak novel. Curiously, Amis completely dismisses John Fowles for his middlebrow talent, which makes one wonder if Fowles ever panned one of Amis’s novels. Generally, however, Amis’s assessment of recent British writers is mainly laudatory, if sometimes coolly restrained.
Amis writes best when he has a personal stake in a writer who is under attack, as in his defense of Philip Larkin entitled “The Ending: Don Juan in Hull” written for The New Yorker. A well-favored and respected poet for years, Larkin’s reputation fell abruptly after his death when politically correct critics leaped upon his passion for pornography, the racist comments in his letters, and the Nazi elements in his upbringing. Andrew Motion’s biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993) pillories Larkin for his refusal to address these habitual weaknesses in his work. Amis defends Larkin on multiple levels, first by invoking his fond memory of the poet as a friend of the family in the Kingsley Amis household, and then by placing Larkin’s weaknesses in...
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