Why Amis is the brand daddy of them all

A new book by Britain's top writer establishes him as a marketing colossus of a kind so far seen only in the US

The notorious New York literary agent Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie was prowling around London recently, preparing for the publication in May of what is already being breathlessly advertised as the "first literary masterpiece of the new century". The work in question is none other than Martin Amis's memoir, Experience, in which the old boy (now, unbelievably, into his sixth decade) grapples candidly with recent public traumas: the death of his father Kingsley; the discovery that his cousin, Lucy Partington, who disappeared in 1973, was a victim of Fred West; the discovery that he had a teenage daughter from a distant relationship; the rumours about his private life that have, at times, been woundingly malicious; and the other experiences that have made him the scowling king of literary London.

Dan Franklin, Amis's editor at Jonathan Cape, told me that he thought the book was "stupendous" - perhaps Amis's best. There is no reason to doubt him: Amis, with his stylised signature sentences, swagger, and arch, languorous wit, evolved long ago into a more consistently impressive essayist than novelist. No, what is so interesting about the pre-publication hype - the excitable trade advertising, the forthcoming serialisation for which the Guardian is thought to have paid more than £100,000 (the first time the paper has exceeded six figures for such a deal) - is that this is final proof, if ever any were needed, of how the tentacles of the star system have stretched far beyond the movies to wrap themselves around even the once grey world of books. It is a reminder, too, of how writers have definitively become, as Don DeLillo suggests, "part of the background noise, part of the buzz of celebrity and consumerism" that so defines our modernity.

No British writer has thought harder about the subject of literary fame than Martin Amis. To read The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), his selected journalism, is to encounter the most concentrated meditation on contemporary literary celebrity ever written - and this was long before Martin himself became Famous Amis; became too famous, in fact, to interview anyone other than A-List movie stars such as John Travolta.

The Moronic Inferno can be read now as an exercise in wish-fulfillment. Amis flies the Atlantic, shares drinks with Mailer, Vidal, Updike, Capote and Bellow, and returns home to write with wonder and a touch of envy about that incredible world of American literary celebrity, with its accompanying rivalries, envy and huge ambition. He contrasts that world with the meagre littleness of literary life back home: "When success happens to an English writer, he acquires a new typewriter. When success happens to an American writer, he acquires a new life. The transformation is more or less inexorable." As we know, the American present has an invariable habit of becoming the English future, and Amis wrote that in 1983, before the globalisation of publishing, the advent of competitive auctions for books and chain bookstores, the emergence of the superagent and the professionalisation of literature transformed for ever the way books are written, bought and published in this country. As a result, we are all Americans now, in some form or other; we are all in thrall to a particular notion of celebrity authorship.

Almost from the beginning American writing was consumed by the idea of its own difficulty. As James Wood, an editor on New Republic, says: "The notion of a doomed wager has been there since Melville wrote that it 'is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation'. American literature is intensely self-conscious about this wager: beginning with Melville's Pierre (about a struggling Melville-like author) it has an entire genre about American authorship." Wood is characteristically astute here: the major contemporary American writers - Philip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo - are certainly unusually interested in what it means to be a writer and to dare to cover the world in language. (Most end up writing about writing, writing about, in effect, their own careers.) Roth and Updike, for instance, have created their own fictional alter-egos (Nathan Zuckerman, and Henry Bech, respectively), through whom they relive, in novel after novel, the pleasures of writing - the big advances, the parties and prizes; and the pain - writer's block, the bad reviews and hostile profiles. And both Roth and Updike are obsessed with how posterity will judge their work, and their anxieties are played out in the struggles of Bech and Zuckerman.

Bellow and DeLillo, though unwilling to fictionalise their own experiences quite as directly, have both produced impressive studies of struggling writers. Bellow, in Humboldt's Gift, wrote wonderfully about Delmore Schwartz, the Jewish-American poet whose career began so gloriously only to dwindle into alcoholism, decline and early death. There is a memorable scene in the book where the Bellow-like narrator hides behind a car, rather than encounter the ruined Schwartz he sees out on the street. DeLillo, in Mao II, wrote even more perceptively about failure, in his portrait of a reclusive writer called Bill Gray, who, in flight from his own celebrity, retreats like J D Salinger into reclusive paranoia. He spends his days endlessly revising a failed novel on which he has been working for more than 20 years but refuses to publish.

DeLillo has said that he was inspired to write Mao II after seeing a photograph of an aged (and startled) Salinger on the front page of the New York Post in 1988. He was disturbed at how "frightened and angry" Salinger, the ultimate "invisible" literary celebrity, had been to encounter a reporter and photographer outside his house. "For the editor to send these two men to New Hampshire was a little like ordering an execution. And when you look at the face of the man being photographed, it's not a great leap of imagination to think he's just been shot." In Mao II, Bill Gray is tracked down and befriended by a photographer called Scott, who understands that the public's interest in Gray depends entirely on his hiddenness, on his very reluctance to publish. Without this aura of mystery, without his protective skin of celebrity, however circumscribed, he is nothing. As DeLillo writes, "When a writer doesn't show his face he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear.

So Bill Gray - like Salinger on whom he is modelled, like Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy, the other commanding absences of American fiction, whom he recalls in his refusal to be photographed, give interviews or appear on television - represents one extreme of American literary celebrity: that of the paranoid recluse, who at once craves attention but cannot live with its demands. The other extreme is represented by Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, who despite their cultivated disdain for each other (they once clashed violently at a party), are as one in their sexual and fiscal appetites, in their rampant egoism and passion for controversy, and in their prolific attention-seeking output. In a sense, both these writers have transcended mere celebrity, becoming fetishised, as it were, as their own brands. This is a common pattern. To become a celebrity writer in America, Philip Roth wrote, "is to become a brand name. There is Ivory Soap, Rice Krispies, and Philip Roth. Ivory is the soap that floats; Rice Krispies the breakfast cereal that goes snap-crackle-pop; and Philip Roth the Jew who masturbates with a piece of liver [a reference to his semi-autobiographical character Portnoy]. And makes a million out of it."

Joe Moran, discussing Roth's comment in his fascinating new book, Star Authors: literary celebrity in America (Pluto Press, £14.99), writes of how Roth occupies a midway position on the pendulum of self-exposure between aggressively exhibitionistic Mailerism and sequestered Salingerism. He explains how two competing notions of literary celebrity are played out in his work, particularly in the Zuckerman novels: "On the one hand, fame is presented as a media invention, which vulgarises everything it touches and entraps the author in a false and confiding persona; on the other hand, it is seen as being intimately related to the author's own writing, personality and ambitions." These two competing notions of entrapment and liberation were personified, as perhaps in no other writer, in the strivings of Harold Brodkey, who for more than 20 years laboured on what many thought might become the great post-war American novel. He received handsome advances from several publishers but is was years before he delivered his manuscript, The Runaway Soul (l991), a long, meanderingly opaque account of a young boy's journey to maturity, punctuated by passages of impenetrable streams of consciousness. The book was a failure. The critic Peter Kemp suggested that death would have been a smarter career move. And so it turned out: when, a few years later he was diagnosed as suffering from Aids, he was finally freed from futile ambition to turn his slow death, through dispatches in The New Yorker, into his finest work. More than anyone else, Brodkey played the wrong hand. He aimed monumentally high - and missed.

Which brings us back to Martin Amis. When, shortly before publishing The Information in 1995, Amis went in search of his perfect advance, he wanted an answer to a question that had long haunted him: How good am I? "People kept saying that I was the most influential novelist of my generation or whatever, and so I wanted to see what I was worth," he said. So how much was he worth? Well, certainly more than a new typewriter, as it turned out, since HarperCollins paid £500,000 for the right to publish The Information - but only after Amis had split painfully from Pat Kavanagh, his long-standing agent and wife of his close friend Julian Barnes, as well leaving Jonathan Cape, to which he had been attached for more than 20 years. He later returned to Cape.

His return was organised by his new agent, Andrew Wylie, who told me that the deal he negotiated on The Information had been "real tricky - one of my trickiest. Signing up with HarperCollins was a necessary step along the road to where we wanted to be. In all negotiations you have to have a fallback position; the dream negotiation is the one in which you can't lose. Martin is back with Jonathan Cape now and we haven't lost. We are thrilled."

For many authors being represented by Wylie is a badge of honour, a kind of signature of success. His list has a thrilling lustre, and includes Bellow, Roth, Mailer, Rushdie, Elmore Leonard. Wylie boasts of being an unashamed talent snob, an élitist. He wants to represent only writers whom he considers to be the best, not just the best of their generation but better still: those who will form an enduring part of the canon. "I think the bestseller lists are a daily insult posing as an appreciation of literature," he said. "In my view the bestseller list should be composed of what is best; and I represent only writers I consider to be the best. I've always operated from the belief that a publisher will only be motivated to sell a book if he pays a lot of money for it." So money in literature, as in everything else, is the real measure of value, the ultimate quantification of talent.

Perhaps, with the publication of his memoir - so much part of the buzz of celebrity and consumerism - Martin Amis may yet finally shake the money monkey off his back, secure as he must be now in the knowledge that, unlike any other British rival, he is preeminently his own brand: the novelist-as-celebrity heading your way soon with a book to sell about his life. Don't forget to buy the T-shirt.

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