Martin Amis: Hate him or rate him

Is Martin Amis (whose much-hyped autobiography looms) still the colossus of English letters? We asked younger novelists to assess his work and his impact on their own writing
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Matt Thorne It always surprises me how many older writers still regard Amis as the "guv'nor" of English literary fiction. I think this is more to do with the fact that he remains preferable to the monstrous epigoni that have shadowed his steps during the last decade than his recent literary output. It was interesting reading that his father thought he was "too influenced by Nabokov", because, while I don't think that's necessarily true, both Nabokov and Amis have had an equally detrimental effect on English literature. I'm always happy to read an Amis or a Nabokov novel, but reading a book inspired by either author is like drinking supermarket-brand cola instead of the real thing.

Amis has always been more interesting than other writers of his generation, and I think his greatest achievement is the persona he's constructed. Obviously the nuclear years were the nadir of his career, and it's hard to read London Fields without giggling at the adolescent "Death of Love" stuff, but I suppose "big ideas" were fashionable in the 1980s. I also have a soft spot for his book on space invaders, and have always found him an interesting essayist, especially when writing on De Palma or Robocop 2. His early novels are all enjoyable romps, and Dead Babies and Other People remain impressively nasty pieces of work. But I think it's a long time since he's produced anything really significant, and after the disappointment of Night Train and The Information, his world ranking as a novelist seems to be slipping. Matt Thorne's 'Eight Minutes Idle' is published by Sceptre

Geoff Dyer Something about Amis invites competitive disparagement as the most appropriate register of admiration. So I think, looking back, I was never more admiring than when I was most disparaging. As a stylist his influence has been so strong that he's subtly infiltrated the language, animated it, so that anyone writing now is aware of a greater current or charge pulsing through it than there was in the heyday of Graham Greene, say. He domesticated or transformed a voltage that originated in America. This is felt most powerfully in magazine writing. I suspect, in fact, that Amis, more than anyone else, has facilitated the stylistic traffic between magazine- and book-writing. This is not surprising since much of his best writing is found in his journalism. As Lowell said of Mailer, he's the best journalist in the land.

I've never been that impressed by him as a thinker. On the one hand I admire the way he works so hard, but this work all seems to take place at his desk. I don't get a sense of writing as part of a larger project of developing his inner life, I sense no yearning for enlightenment (he'd probably take that as a compliment), only a drive to keep improving as a writer - and this, for me, inhibits his capacity for doing so. As a result I simply read him; I might have been influenced by him but I've not been formed by him the way I have by the writers I love: Auden, Berger, Camus, Rebecca West, Kapuscinksi, people like that. Geoff Dyer's 'Paris Trance' is published by Abacus

Bidisha I always thought Martin Amis was a bit of a wannabe. A dude in the body of a dud. Desperate for the kind of nocturnal, street-side cool which comprehends the nastier impulses and baser instincts of people's psyches. Emotional retards, physical troglodytes, fakes, failures, also-rans: they cram the pages of Amis's novels. But ultimately, there's no deep psychology operating behind the work, only a kind of neurotic, infantile fascination with emotional, sexual and physical gore. Martin Amis will never be as gay, black, depressed, horny or nuts as he wants to be.

He remains the archetypal geeky white boy, eyes agog at the patois and the hardness and the sexual shenanigans of the underclass, the losers, the strange. He's a shy guy, not a fly guy. His style displays this same dazzled adoration of slightly gross tragicomic excess. Sly characterisations, killer puns, freestyle riffs, wacky new terms, gloriously overblown satire. It's all there. But, to be frank, it tries too hard. I myself favour the cold, nasty, controlled prose of Patricia Duncker, A S Byatt and Helen Dunmore, or the precise crystalline syntax, rhythm and vocabulary of Iris Murdoch or Doris Lessing. These are the notorious, sexy ice queens of fiction; Martin Amis is the sweating groupie.

If you ignore the literature, though, Martin Amis is great. Publishing is the only arts industry in which the artists themselves lead far less glamorous lives than their agents and editors, and Amis has struck out bravely in favour of the deservedly starry life of a top-selling author. It would be nice to see a few more novelists acting like Missy Elliot or Madonna: flashy, gorgeous, acquisitive, hardcore. The English publishing world treats such curiosity and upward mobility as slightly vulgar, slightly greedy. So it's good to see a writer who embraces the life of a star - the agent (Andrew Wylie), the big-news production deal with Miramax, the fragrant lady companion (Isobel Fonseca), the Hamptons holidays. These are precisely the accoutrements I think a "name" writer should have, along with an unfailing business sense which guides their career and vindicates their ambitions.

If I were to whisper in Martin's ear a little word of advice, I'd tell him to forget the writing. It's over between Martin Amis and fiction: they seemed like a nice couple at first, but it was all, alas, for show. He should consider making way for a new jet-set breed of capitalistic novelist. Perhaps he should utilise those canny connections and branch out. Perhaps, if I may say so, he should consider becoming an agent - my agent. Bidisha's "Too Fast To Live" is published by Duckworth later this month

Joanna Briscoe Amis senior is now so out of fashion, he's about due for a comeback. Amis junior, on the other hand, is that more derided proposition: freshly passé. He smacks of a different generation: his work glitters with gimmickry and surface concerns. It seems essentially ephemeral.

Amis is a boy read. To anyone who's not a fortysomething male, he's about as interesting as Jack Kerouac, DVDs, Lara Croft, Nick Drake, or the personal appropriation of Hamlet's dilemmas. He's overrated where far finer prose stylists such as Rose Tremain and Shena Mackay are underrated.

Amis is a literary colossus, yet he's faintly trashy. To my contemporaries, at one remove from that legacy of hushed fan worship, his true colours become increasingly clear. He's a commercial writer brandishing a quill. He's Alex Garland with a Nabokov fixation. If he were a woman, he'd be marketed somewhere between Alison Lurie and Kathy Lette. His presence is impossible to ignore by today's writers, yet beyond the teeth, the advance, the cool gravitas, his work seems inconsequential. Joanna Briscoe's "Skin" is published by Phoenix

Matthew Branton One of the more Money-esque editors I've encountered warned me against ever admitting that I admired Martin Amis in public. Box office poison, she implied; and she was probably right, given the attitude of the airhead chattering classes - and most feature-page hacks - to the guy over the last decade. People who, as Larkin remarked, have "read nothing but Which" (though perhaps we should update his magazine twonk-signifier to Wallpaper or World of Interiors) have taken it upon themselves to diss one of the most gifted and hardest-grafting artists this country has ever had. "He hates women" sneer the on dit tosspots; actually, he's one of the few writers who has dared interrogate the bind commodity culture places half its inmates in. "He can't do the working class" they bleat: go back to your Dickens, sheep, and notice how Boz deployed music-hall grotesques in the service of his art. If anyone out there hasn't read Martin Amis because of these people, you missed the late 20th century. It's not too late to go back.

When I was a kid, in the kind of town most of us come from, I looked around at people's parents - lushes, trank-heads, sex-addicts - and wondered why they were all so unhappy. We had a good buyer at our local library and it wasn't hard to see which contemporary writers pushed themselves and which didn't. The ones who did - and MA was the leader of the pack - showed me that there was a world beyond that town, and made it clear that you could get there too if you tried hard enough. Reading Other People, Money and London Fields in my tunnel-vision little town was like being taken to a high place and shown the wonder of the world. Ten years later, I find myself writing this under a palm tree in Honolulu. Mr Amis, I would like to wish you long life. And thanks, man. Matthew Branton's "Coast" is published by Bloomsbury in June

Peter Ho Davies The first Martin Amis work I encountered was the 1970s sci-fi movie, Saturn 3, which he scripted, and which bears a mutant resemblance to the movie that John Self is struggling to make in my favourite Amis novel, Money.

I'm not a huge Amis fan (the tick-iness of his style wears on me) but Money is uncompromisingly brilliant, so smart it makes your eyes water, and quite possibly the best British book about class in the last 30 years (a feat all the more impressive when you consider that his low-lifes are invariably middle-class visions of working-class bogeymen).

Saturn 3, on the other hand, is pure bollocks, although, given the withering vision of the movie business in Money, it's hard to know how much of the final movie (beyond a trademark chess game) Amis is responsible for. It features an ancient Kirk Douglas and an impossibly young Harvey Keitel fighting over Farrah Fawcett (in her unlucky thirteenth minute of fame). It straddles a modest cinematic watershed; one generation of actor giving way to the next, with the bubblegum flavour of the month stuck in the middle. And maybe that's why I've always associated Keitel with Amis, a dangerous, once-young writer at the forefront of his literary generation. It's a tempting analogy, not least because Keitel and Amis are both masters of depicting compellingly debased characters, and yet, in recent years, an alternative comparison has suggested itself, one between the author ... and the actress. There have been those Farrah-like celebrity excesses - the money, the teeth-job, the Money for the teeth-job - followed now by the column in Talk, and the tell-all autobiography. More naggingly, there's a lingering sense that Amis's more recent output isn't up to his best (Heavy Water was heavy going) and that his best is a little dated now, thanks to a clutch of imitators who've done for his style what fourth-formers did for the Farrah flip. The question is whether Amis can reassert himself as a leader of his generation of writers, or if he'll become the kind of author chewed over until his unique flavour goes tasteless. Peter Ho Davies's "Equal Love" is published by Granta

Daren King One of the critics who reviewed my novel Boxy an Star expressed relief that I did not appear to have heard of Martin Amis. The point was that I had not adopted his style. But while my voice was distinctly my own, the younger Amis certainly provided inspiration.

We all like to look back on an era - Thatcher's Champagne & Dole Age, Major's Ecstasy Age, Blair's Cheesy Grin Age - and be able to say that we were there, that we played a part. What could be more exciting, then, than to be credited with having documented your era's deepest concerns?

Fitzgerald did so with The Great Gatsby, Martin Amis with Money. Both of these novels flipped the beast on to its back to reveal its dark, bloated underbelly. Fitzgerald's moral is that wealth cannot last; Amis's is that there is nothing there, that Money is an illusion. Boxy an Star attempts to say the same about Ecstasy: that it hides a problem rather than solves it, and hides it only for a short time.

Whether or not Martin Amis is relevant to now is irrelevant. Money is a fascinating and useful portrait of the 1980s. It is as relevant as the decade it portrays. Daren King's "Boxy an Star" is published by Abacus

Nicola Barker I read a fantastic review of Money in the NME, while I was in my first year at college, bought it, read it, bought all Amis's other books, read them, loved them, grew deliciously perturbed by his total moral bankruptcy, revelled in his magnificent prose stylings, wrote to him, saying something saucy like, "Your time is precious. That's why I want some of it." He got back to me. Agreed to an interview because I was a Nicola and he was writing London Fields, so wanted to study a Nicola at close hand. He was an absolute charmer. I promised to send him a copy of some work I'd done, but never did - much too shy.

But I have continued to admire him. Like Ted Hughes and Angela Carter, he is an inspiration. He is mettlesome, spunky, troublesome. He is the Big Man. Someone has to be. It's a rather tedious responsibility. And I think he bears it brilliantly. In fact I think they should pay him more money. He's worth every penny.

And the people who hate him? They just want to Kill the Father, which is so dull, so passé. They need to get on with their own lives, discover their own voices and maybe find something more original to say. Nicola Barker's "Five Miles From Outer Hope" is published by Faber

Tobias Hill Martin Amis epitomises a particularly 20th century style of writing: I'd call it English Nastiness. Eliot's Sweeney poems had the same air of smutty cruelty back in the 1920s, the voyeuristic, superior pleasure of watching people's imperfections through net curtains. So did Ian McEwan's earliest short stories, although McEwan has moved onwards in a way his contemporary never has.

Amis's School of Nastiness is a particularly English phenomenon, rather than British, both in its authors (always public schoolboys, often substituting intellect for other kinds of intelligence) and its ideal readership: the point of English Nastiness is the vicarious thrill of seeing how nasty nice people can be. If Amis's work has dated badly - and I think it has - it may be because of this. People (English and otherwise) are not as easy to shock now as they were 30 years ago. In the wake of Irvine Welsh and Bret Easton Ellis, English Nastiness just isn't very nasty - though there are authors still trying to write it all the same. If I read Amis now it is for his brilliant technique: but the shock has gone out of the writing, and the force with it. *

Tobias Hill's "Underground" is published by Faber