Oct/Nov 2002 Book Reviews

The War Against Cliché

Martin Amis
Vintage, PanMacmillan (April 2002) 506 pages
ISBN: 0 09 942222 0

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Everybody," cries Martin Amis, referring us to the Internet to prove his point, "has become a literary critic--or at least a book-reviewer." This, apparently, is all part of the "democratization" of the literary world. Mr Amis does not deplore this move towards egalitarianism (he believes that would be pointless) but he thinks it unrealistically utopian and he feels that the results will be contaminated by "herd opinions and social anxieties, vanities, touchiness, and everything else that makes up self." He yearns for the eternal verities on which literary critics(and reviewers) once based their views: the canon ("the body of knowledge we all call literature"). Art.

Mr. Amis is an idealist. But he is right about talent. Talent is not something which can be democratized; and fresh, original, unclichéd writing requires talent. For Amis, the "crucial defect" in literary journalism is dullness. In this collection of his own essays and reviews he not only wages war against cliché, he demonstrates just how fresh and energetic and enjoyable talented criticism can be. He is hardly ever dull. Of course it is tempting to go through his pieces and pick out the clichés (literary criticism is "dead and gone" and egalitarianism has "the pale a glow of illusion," for example,--and that's just in the Foreword) but that would be churlish given the enjoyable quality of most of the pieces in this book. The collection covers a period of thirty years and the pieces were originally published in such magazines and newspapers as The New York Times Review of Books, the Atlantic Monthly, The Times, Observer, Guardian and the London Review of Books.

Amis's "voice" in this collection is by turns critical, argumentative, applauding, witty, and often shockingly irreverent and insulting. It is rarely boring, although on the evidence of some of the pieces he is not always remote from the "hot snort of the hobby horse" which he identifies in his review of a collection of John Updike's essays and criticism.

It is a matter of curiosity, too, that Amis rather quaintly accords some authors a title (Mr. Parker or Miss Murdoch, for example) whilst others are referred to by their surname (Updike, Nabokov, Vidal etc.) or, in Hillary Clinton's case, by just "Hillary." Perhaps there is a note of irony in the use of a title, and man-to-man respect in the surname-only form of address. There is clearly disparagement in calling Hillary Clinton simply "Hillary," if Mr Amis's assessment of her literary skills in his review of It Takes a Village is anything to judge by. This particular review was the first piece I read in Amis's book and his sarcasm took my breath away. It also made me laugh.

Another piece which surprised and amused me was "Zeus and the Garbage," in which Amis was consumed by mirth and prompted to explore male consciousness by Robert Bly's Iron John. Iron John was grouped with such unlikely bedfellows as Margaret Thatcher, Andy Warhol and Elvis Presley in a section called "On Masculinity and Related Questions." Other section-titles include "Some English Prose," "Philip Larkin," "From the Canon," "Vladimir Nabokov," "Some American Prose" and "Great Books." In all of them, I found things to interesting me and I was sorry when I had finished the book.

I especially liked Amis's essay on the "re-valuation" of Philip Larkin (reprinted from the New Yorker, 1993) in which he restores Larkin's work to the social context in which it was written, puts the Hermit of Hull's various accusers in their place, and brings us back to the poetry, not the man. Would that more critics might follow this example and turn from biography, gossip and concerns about political correctness to the work itself.

But here I am writing like one of those Internet reviewers who, as Amis imagines, settles into a book "defensively," sees which way it "rubs him up," [him?] "the right way or the wrong way," and then writes a review "without any reference to the thing behind," i.e. to the canon etc. I don't think Amis is always as immune to this approach as he thinks he is, but often his personal reactions to a book are funnier and/or more interesting than any demonstration of his educated background. Nevertheless, it might be educative for Amis to write a few Internet essays and reviews himself--just to set us an example and to lead us back to Art. He would discover, too, that Internet readers are amongst the most demanding, knowledgeable and talented review and essay readers he could hope to find.


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