Kingsley Amis Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Kingsley Amis (AY-mihs) is best known as a novelist, but readers have turned often to his other writings for the insights they provide into the man and his fiction. Many of the themes that are explored in depth in his novels are expressed indirectly in the peripheral works. He published several collections of short stories: My Enemy’s Enemy (1962), Collected Short Stories (1980), and Mr. Barrett’s Secret, and Other Stories (1993). Dear Illusion, a novella, was published in 1972 in a limited edition of five hundred copies. His collections of poetry include Bright November (1947), A Frame of Mind (1953), A Case of Samples: Poems, 1946-1956 (1956), The Evans Country (1962), A Look Round the Estate: Poems, 1957-1967 (1967), and Collected Poems: 1944-1979 (1979). Amis published his opinionated Memoirs in 1991. His criticism covers an extremely wide range; in addition to studies of figures as diverse as Jane Austen and Rudyard Kipling, he published one of the first significant critical books on science fiction, New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960), a work that did much to encourage academic study of the genre and to win recognition for many gifted writers. The James Bond Dossier (with Ian Fleming; 1965), several volumes of collected science fiction edited with Robert Conquest and titled Spectrum: A Science Fiction Anthology (1961-1965), and The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage (1997) offer further evidence of the extraordinary range of his work.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Almost from the beginning of his career, Kingsley Amis enjoyed the attention of numerous commentators. Because his works are filled with innovations, surprises, and variations in techniques and themes, it is not surprising that critics and reviewers alike found it difficult to make a definitive statement about his achievements. The range of his work is extraordinary: fiction, poetry, reviews, criticism, humor, science fiction, and biography. Of all his writings, however, his achievement depends most on his novels.

Amis’s early novels are considered by many critics to be “angry” novels of protest against the contemporary social, political, and economic scene in Britain. The themes include resentment of a rigid class stratification, rejection of formal institutional ties, discouragement with the economic insecurity and low status of those without money, loathing of pretentiousness in any form, and disenchantment with the past. Because many of Amis’s contemporaries, including John Wain, John Osborne, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe, seemed to express similar concerns, and because many came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, went to Oxford or Cambridge University, and taught for a time at a provincial university, journalists soon spoke of them as belonging to a literary movement.

The “Angry Young Men,” as their fictional heroes came to be called, were educated men who did not want to be gentlemen. Kenneth Allsop called them “a new, rootless, faithless, classless class” lacking in manners and morals; W. Somerset Maugham called them “mean, malicious and enviousscum” and warned that these men would some day rule England. Some critics even confused the characters with the writers themselves. Amis’s Jim Dixon (in Lucky Jim) was appalled by the tediousness and falseness of academic life; therefore, Dixon was interpreted as a symbol of anti-intellectualism. Dixon taught at a provincial university; therefore, he became a symbol of contempt for Cambridge and Oxford. Amis himself taught at a provincial university (Swansea); therefore, he and Dixon became one and the same in the minds of many critics. Like all literary generalizations, however, this one was soon inadequate. The most that can be said is that through Amis’s early heroes there seemed to sound clearly those notes of disillusionment that were to become dominant in much of the literature of the 1950’s.

Because it seems so artless, critics have also found Amis’s fiction difficult to discuss. His straightforward plotting, gift for characterization, and ability to tell a good story are resistant to the modern techniques of literary criticism. Because Amis’s work lacks the obscurity, complexity, and technical virtuosity of the fiction of James Joyce or William Faulkner, some critics have suggested that it is not to be valued as highly. In many...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

As a boy, Kingsley Amis did much clowning. How does a knack for clowning help a writer?

Amis was one of the British writers of the post-World War II era called “angry young men.” Was he correct to reject that characterization, as he did?

What makes Lucky Jim an affirmation of the moral order?

What evidence do you see in favor of the suggestion that detective and horror stories can help a writer understand human nature?

Consider the following: Like Charles Dickens, Amis is seen as a novelist whose works over the years grew less humorous and more pessimistic.

How is one to be useful? Determine why an older writer, like Amis in his later years, should be concerned with this topic.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Amis, Martin. Experience. New York: Talk/Miramax Books, 2000. Kingsley’s son, Martin Amis, a highly regarded novelist in his own right, discusses his relationship with his father and the crises in his father’s life.

Bell, Robert H., ed. Critical Essays on Kingsley Amis. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. Thirty-two new and reprinted essays analyze Amis’s work. Contributors include writers such as John Updike and V. S. Pritchett. Bell provides an introduction in which he discusses Amis’s major novels. Includes bibliography and index.

Bradbury, Malcolm. No, Not Bloomsbury. London: Deutsch, 1987. Devotes a chapter to Amis’s comic fiction through The Old Devils, charting Amis’s course from anger to bitterness. Discusses Amis’s moral seriousness, honesty, and humor. Includes chronology and index.

Bradford, Richard. Kingsley Amis. London: Arnold, 1989. Key study shows how Amis confounds customary distinctions between “popular” and “literary” fiction. Argues that it is time to readjust the criteria for judging literary worth. Includes secondary bibliography and index.

Bradford, Richard. Lucky Him: The Biography of Kingsley Amis. London: Peter Owen, 2001. Although Amis often denied that his fiction was based on his life, this important reassessment of the...

(The entire section is 602 words.)