Writing for the universe

A w e e k I N B O O K S

Like these pages, this week has been wall-to-wall Martin Amis. Every reviewer in town has been staying in to read The Information and see if it can be true that a) the hate-figure of Gwyn Barry resembles Julian Barnes (untrue; he is obviously Christopher Hit-chens); and b) that Amis has really started writing sentences his dad might be capable of (true, but only after 20 pages or so of 100 proof lexical tequila). The arrival of this contentious novel has prompted some odd scenes: its critics on BBC2's Late Review, reduced to tongue-tied gibberish; the lordly TLS mocking the 1995 "Amis interview season"; a rave review in the formerly- hostile Spectator; a patriotic disquisition on the excellence of English teeth from Stephen Glover in the Evening Standard; the news that HarperCollins, Amis's publisher, was approached for interviews by scores of magazines, including Cyprus Today (but not, for some reason, the British Dental Journal) . . .

All this attention means that it is now perfectly likely that The Information will earn out its notorious £500,000 advance. You could almost imagine a PR genius had orchestrated the whole thing. And it throws into relief a central theme of the book and of Amis's mid-life crisis management: the question of universality. Both Amis and his fictional hero puzzle over a nasty dialectic: the real writer writes what he thinks is universal; readers, however, prefer to read stuff that is marginal, contingent, local; therefore either what you write isn't universal at all, or the universe which you seek to encapsulate is a pretty crap operation anyway. According to this pessimistic analysis, there is no longer any distinction between good books and bad books.

All nonsense, of course, based on a skewed understanding of the word "universal". But how piquant to think that Mr Amis is now the most discussed writer in the nation - and his novel set to become the spring's bestseller - for reasons (his teeth, cash, sex-life and capacity for envy) that are unliterary but all too "universal".

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