Twilight of the idol?

The knives are out for Martin Amis, who has gone from literary god to busted flush, according to his critics. He may no longer be fashionable, says John Walsh, but there's still no one to compare
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When a footballer launches a savage, unprovoked attack on another player, it's sometimes graciously called "getting your retaliation in first". Martin Amis must be feeling pretty comprehensively retaliated of late, without having done anything wrong. Three weeks before the publication of his new book, Yellow Dog - a 340-page novel yoking together incest, pornography, the Royal Family, gangland heroes and funny Chinese names - he's been mugged, sledged and bloodied in a number of newspaper articles and made the victim of a viperish whispering campaign, suggesting, sotto voce, that the book is rubbish and that Amis is, frankly, washed up. Hardly anybody has actually read the work (it's been sent to literary editors and selected reviewers under tight embargo conditions), but, somehow, everyone just knows that it's the summer's literary equivalent of Gigli.

In The Daily Telegraph, Amis's fellow novelist, Tibor Fischer, called the new book "terrible" and said he would be embarrassed to be found reading it on the Tube in case anyone thought he might be enjoying it. He hoped, he said, that a friend would shoot him if he ever wrote a book that was anything like Yellow Dog.

Fischer's vituperations sound less the product of calm judgement than of seething rivalry. The article starts with Fischer whingeing about the cost of using the photocopier at his (and Amis's) agent's office and ends with a plug for his own new novel, Voyage to the End of the Room, which comes out the same day as Yellow Dog and risks being eclipsed by Amis's "terrible" work on the nation's books pages.

The Sunday papers swung with relish into the fray. In a gloating page-three piece (headlined "Amis out of Booker with dog of novel"), The Sunday Times revealed that one of this year's Booker prize judges found Yellow Dog "patchy", dated and even "ridiculous". The newspaper's Iago-like arts editor pretended sympathy. Amis was in for "fresh humiliation"; being left off the list would be a "huge blow"... This, despite the fact that Amis has never shown the least concern about the Booker (although Time's Arrow was nominated in 1991).

What, though, are we to make of the miasma of dislike and disapprobation that surrounds the name of Amis at this point in his career? ("I've been pretty much anti-Amis for a while," admits Suzi Feay, the Independent on Sunday's literary editor, "but what's going on now - it's like watching someone clubbing a seal.") Press your ear to the wall of any writerly salon or publishing party and you'll hear them saying: "Poor Mart. Once so talented... There was a time we thought he was pretty much a genius... I can remember, for a brief period, actually writing a bit like him... Went off the rails... Took himself too seriously... Busted flush... No market any more for verbal pyrotechnics... World's moved on... Zadie Smith... Monica Ali..." It's rare to find such a chorus of proxy assassins surrounding a serious, successful artist, willing him to fail, longing to stick a knife in.

There is, perhaps, a feeling that Amis has been Julius Caesar for too long. For Amis has dominated the British book world like a pocket colossus for more than two decades. In 1983, when Granta produced its first "Best of Young British Novelists" promotion, Amis emerged as the obvious boss. If the generation of striking talents that came together in the early Eighties needed a leader, he seemed to be it. It was his prose style - so charged, so slangy, so poetic, a perfect model of the "middle style" admired by Edmund Wilson and Clive James, flexible enough to accommodate the blackest humour and most serious subject matter. For an aspiring young hack on the Stow on the Wold Gazette, let alone an aspiring novelist, he was the Man. He was the leader. Like Cromwell, he was our chief of men.

We read everything he wrote - a review in The Observer, a science-fiction fantasy in Mayfair, even a one-off poem in the TLS. He was sooooo cool. He turned up on TV, confident, perma-smoking, talking in that curiously slouchy, mid-Atlantic drawl. Women claimed to reach spontaneous orgasm just by gazing at his sulky expression, his voluptuous mouth. Thank God (we said) he's so short, or he'd be unbearable.

His early books were triumphs of style over content. The Rachel Papers was a hilarious despatch from Planet Nineteen-Year-Old, all spots, johnnies, sexual disgust with girls and the apotheosis of a literary smartarse. Dead Babies was essentially Ten Little Niggers crossed with The Old Devils and given a thrilling soundtrack of sex, drugs and street visions. Success began with a typical Amis pairing of repulsive low-life and sneery aristocratic achiever, and watched them swap roles in the heartless city. With Other People: A Mystery Story, he stopped being funny; instead, his writing was out to unsettle you, make your flesh creep. For the first time in his work, but not the last, the ending made no sense.

In 1984 came Money, in which Amis took on America, Hollywood, stardom, gigantic egos, massive cash and heavy debauchery in the persona of John Self, OD-ing on the 20th century. Some critics thought it went on a bit, and for the first time we registered that Amis loved a good riff: his uniquely zippy style ("As fast and efficient as a flick knife" - John Carey) now tending towards grandiloquence, repetition, adjectival profusion. His fans didn't care; they memorised, or read each other, whole paragraphs of Money, the image of John Self's carious mouth with its own Upper East and West sides, the movie negotiations with a beefcake star called Spunk...

With London Fields more cracks began to show in his fans' hitherto unqualified admiration. Behind its nonsensical plot about a darts-playing numbskull, a feckless posh git and a glacial, death-obsessed "murderee" called Nicola Six who all meet, a little implausibly, in a Bayswater pub, Amis spun huge word-pictures of the sickliness of planet Earth, the ulceration of the ozone layer. Descriptive riffs about darts matches, or the homicidal baby Marmaduke, came around and around, but many readers gave up 100 pages before the end, weary of the vaudeville-turn characters, sated with the special effects. Had they persevered, they'd have found the ending mystifying.

Time's Arrow followed in 1991, a bold experiment to write about the Holocaust from the point of view of a Nazi doctor, who copes with his memories by running his life backwards, so that terrible things can seem ameliorative. It was brilliant, but many of the back-to-front conceits didn't work. The face behind the writing was too grimly obsessed with the horror of his subject to find the right satirical voice.

"His apocalyptic imagination is a constant feature," says James Walton, the critic and a long-term fan. "For a while he was big on nuclear weapons, and when they let him down by not causing the world to end, he turned to the weather in London Fields; then he went more metaphysical and wrote about the humiliation of finding out how puny we are in the universe - it was all a bit Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy..."

After a hiatus, filled with family trauma, divorce and expensive teeth problems, he returned with The Information, a novel of literary jealousy, backlit by awful knowledge - the 46-year-old Amis informing his generation that we're all going to die. Suddenly, despite some wonderful passages, his writing seemed both slack and portentous, his subject too obvious, his special effects old hat. His fans had to concede that, while he was clearly the finest writer in the country, he was by no means the finest novelist.

This was the lowest period of Amis's life, and it coincided with the lowest period of his public esteem. He was slated in the press for his half-million-pound advance, his bust-ups with his wife, his agent Pat Kavanagh, and her husband, Amis's best friend Julian Barnes. Everything he did was suddenly wrong. He'd had it his own way too long. He'd been too brilliant, too effing smart. He'd bitched about England and praised America. He was a faithless, money-spinning, kids-abandoning nonce and everyone hated themselves for salaaming before him for so long.

He wrote about it all in Experience, his 2000 memoir, concentrating on the ghastly events of 1995, the death of his father Kingsley two years later, and the revelation that his cousin Lucy Partington had been one of Fred West's victims. The book was rapturously received, partly out of sympathy for the trouble-prone maestro, partly to make up for being so horrible, and partly in recognition that Amis seemed at last to have connected with his emotional side. A new, quivering, tearful, sensitive Martin appeared in these pages, alive to every hint of the lachrymae rerum, aghast at the fragility and vulnerability of human, especially young human, life.

Unfortunately, he overdid it when Koba the Dread came out last summer. A study of Stalin, and an enquiry into why veteran adherents of the old communist regime aren't reviled, it represented the grim-visaged, brow-furrowed serious Amis of Time's Arrow and Einstein's Monsters, struggling to engage with a mammoth subject, with epic cruelty, with tyranny and its dumb followers. But he chose to thread through the book mentions of the death of his sister, Sally, and the birth of his new daughter Clio. The reborn emotionalist made the mistake of dragging his new family into it, explicitly comparing the two-year-old's night-time crying with the cries "in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki prison in Moscow during the Great Terror". There was consternation. Those unequipped to condemn his history as cack-handed and full of mistakes went for him on grounds of insensitivity. Connoisseurs of Amis's ability to fall out with his nearest and dearest watched with glee as he and Christopher Hitchens (to whom much of the book's argument is addressed) went for each other's throats.

Several subtexts run through this chronicle of the Amis years. One is the love and subsequent dislike of his former fans. Soon it will be the 30th anniversary of his debut novel, The Rachel Papers, published in 1974. For three decades, male reviewers have been, first, celebrating his every move, and then (for hate is just love flipped over) trashing him for not being as good as their Amis-wannabe selves would wish. After years of losing sleep over what Harold Bloom called "the anxiety of influence" ("Is he always going to be better than me? Do I have to write like him?"), young writers can, at last, write Amis off.

There's a dislike of both his new-found sentimentality and his seriousness. Since Amis emerged from his late-Nineties traumas - teeth, divorce, family deaths, coming to terms with murder - he has embraced the role of family man with gusto. As a critic friend explained to me: "The factors that have made him a nicer person to meet might be responsible for his not being able to write good fiction any more."

It's a trait of British fiction readers, ever wary of pretension, to distrust a writer who takes on a big subject, whether it's nuclear winter or the fate of the world. They doubt his sincerity, his commitment, his true sympathy. What they fail to appreciate about Amis is that his central interest is language. On the scale of what's important in writing, he has always put words - the making of sentences, the cumulative force of a pressurised paragraph - higher than plot or complex characterisation. Perhaps more than any writer living, he sees good prose as a mark of decency, as a register of morality. Bad writing, to Amis, is the result of something worse than idleness, fecklessness or ignorance; it's an emblem of sin. In Experience he compares a poem written by his cousin, Lucy, to a letter written by Fred West to his daughter, to illustrate how it sounds "when the false meets the true, when utter godlessness meets purity of spirit".

You might say: it's not a crime to write badly, not necessarily a sign of moral bankruptcy. But Oscar Wilde would not agree and nor, I think, would Amis. No writer venerates the creative process more than he, the working of thoughts into prose. And that's one reason why he's parted company with the new literary universe. The generation now in the ascendant - the Zadie Smith generation - don't venerate language in the same way. They venerate storytelling, personal testimony, plausible characters, understandable endings. Beside him, Monica Ali sounds frankly middlebrow, and Adam Thirlwell, the current media "one to watch", frankly infantile.

But the knives are out for Amis because his time is deemed to have come and gone. He's been at the top, commanding our sympathy for every turn of his thoughts, for too long. His enemies thought he'd been buried in the row over Stalin (how dare he write about Stalin?), but he's back, and the anxiety of influence can be felt all over town. He just can't be allowed to be our chief of men once more. He must be rubbished. How dare he invent a fictional Royal Family? How dare he wonder, in prose, what it feels like to want to have sex with your daughter?

"He is still our boy, though, isn't he?" asks Walton plaintively. "He's still the best writer around. Only now something's changed. Amis used to say that each generation wants to tell the previous generation that the world, and therefore the novel, isn't like that any more. Now, younger writers seem to be saying to him, 'You're wrong, writing isn't like this any more. It isn't about sentences'..."

"The new generation are more proper novelists than Amis, in terms of plot and character," says Suzi Feay, "but then, so what if he's an improper novelist? He's still full of crazy energy. I'd much rather read him falling all over the place than read someone more correct and cautious." And so say... most of us.

'Yellow Dog' will be published by Cape on 3 September (£16.99)