Counting the cost of Martin's money

He's rich already; he's signed himself an agent; and he writes good boo ks. No wonder, says Nicholas Lezard, that everybody hates him Publishing is all about money now. Our image of tweedy, decent publishers is as useful as an image of, say, a Britain still in charge of an empire
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This guy Martin Amis, you have to hand it to him: he has a gift for publicity. It was a gift he held fairly early on. First, he had the foresight to be born to Kingsley, then a seething young lecturer in Swansea, Wales. Then came a part in the mo vies (as the kid in A High Wind in Jamaica), followed by literary editorship of the New Statesman, the envy-stoking success of The Rachel Papers at the age of 12 or something, the regular fuss whenever his latest novel either fails to appear, or appears, on theBooker shortlist, his divorce, and now this . . .

It is all-compelling stuff for those who like to imagine an uncannily neat fit between the stuff of writers' lives and their fictions. Just as whenever Jeffrey Archer lands in the soup, pundits announce that we are witnessing the enactment of an as yet unpublished Archer novel, so journalists have been keen to point out the Amisian elements of Amis's demand that the advance for his next novel, The Information, be half a million Big Ones. The poker-playing bluff of the request, the large stakes, even themischievous suggestion that what might lie underneath it all may be a case of mistaken identity (it was alleged in Private Eye, some months ago, that the executive chairman of HarperCollins, Eddie Bell, announced that it had to have Amis on its list, atwhatever price; it then signed up Martin's dad for £300,000, which really does seem a bit steep. But if you fix Kingsley's price thereabouts, half a million for Martin doesn't seem so unreasonable).

Moreover, The Information is all about literary jealousy - about a man driven mad by the fact that a friend of his earns Amisian amounts of cash from his novels. Amis himself is accused of being in a jealous pet about the riches of his peers Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. There is even - and this is the hundreds and thousands on the cake - all that media gossip about his teeth, how the new lady in his life, Isobel Fonseca, reportedly "made" him cough up 20 grand for a tooth job, or gum rethink, or whatever he'd call it, and it is this concern for his mouth that has driven his asking price so high. (Amis's characters often worry a lot about their teeth.) In short, everyone has been able to flick through their copies of Money (by Martin Amis, 1984), and extract an appropriate quote.

And it has drawn other authors, most notably A S Byatt saddled up on a very tall horse and saying, loftily, that she always earns out her advances and doesn't see how young Amis will be able to do the same; only manners, you feel, and a fondness for the high tone, stopped her short of calling him an arrogant little squirt.

The most damaging charge against him is that he is stealing crusts from struggling young writers. Martin Amis's 500 grand, the argument goes, deprives my favourite imaginary novelist, poor Julian Sensitive (whose first novel, My Trousers Rolled, sold about five copies) of even the pitiful amount he will earn for his desperately uninteresting second novel. And if Amis isn't to blame, then it is all the fault of his new agent, Andrew Wylie, often called "the shark" and "the jackal". Boo! Foul! It is interesting to talk to agents about this. One, Cat Ledger, was very good at helping me place this all in context. "Anything that makes books sexy has to be good for the business," she says. "My heart leapt," she says, when news of l'affaire Amis hit the stands.

"There's this fallacy that publishing is a genteel business, but it's not, and it hasn't been for a while. Martin Amis's" - and here she speaks with the cool, detached assessment of a banker - "is not a particularly unreasonable request." She does qualify this by saying that it is possible, perhaps, that Amis is not fully in touch with the real world - but this is a writer's prerogative - "and it is an agent's role to smooth their way through it". As for all this talk about feral agents savaging the chances of struggling writers, it is rubbish: agents, she points out, are only as powerful as the clients they represent.

The question boils down to whether Amis really is worth all this money. Simple arithmetic would indicate that on past form, Amis's sales would not recoup the advance he wants. But Ledger gave me a brief but dizzying breakdown, too complicated for me to understand fully, let alone reproduce, which proved that even with an advance payout of £500,000, HarperCollins (or whoever finally takes the bait) will have plenty of cash sloshing around to pay its tabs at the Groucho. And it is all about money, nowadays, the publishing business; our image of tweedy, decent publishers is about as usefully relevant, as contemporary and accurate as an image of, say, a Britain still in charge of an empire. Would you, if you were a writer, rather ha ve an agent whose nickname was "the shark" or one whose nickname was "the cuddly teddy-bear"?

There is something poignant about Amis's demand for a concrete (or some costlier material, titanium, perhaps) reification of his own literary value. It is a strange fact that even the best authors - especially the best authors - exist in a state of panicky flux between the poles of immoderate self-love and immoderate self-doubt. Half the time they think they're God's gift, the other half they think they're useless.

You don't have to read Martin Amis's fiction with very much attention to realise that his best stuff is charged by this very insecurity. Just as in London Fields Amis was both the lost, insecure Sanson Young, who delivers an unpublishable MS, and the staggeringly wealthy Mark Asprey (MA), a cocky purveyor of dross in written form, so, in The Information, he is both Richard Royce, doomed, unprintable novelist, and Gwyn Jones, talentless darling of the international media. This is just one of the pleasure s of his fiction.

It is only one of them, mind. As I said, it's all a question of worth. Like every other hack covering this story, I too dutifully flicked through a copy of Money to find a relevant quote. Only I don't have a copy; I had to buy one. Not because I've neverhad one, but because my own copies have been borrowed out of existence. Note, "copies": this is the third, or perhaps the fourth time I have bought a copy of that novel. No other book of mine has behaved in the same way, and never, on each occ asion I've bought it, have I begrudged the expense.

On this occasion, I found plenty of felicitous money-quotes, but the one I plucked on is not, on the face of it, germane. It's just a quick gag, a throwaway joke about the narrator's difficulties with the New York subway.

"I wish I could work out how to use the subway. I've tried. No matter how hard I concentrate I always end up clambering out of a manhole in Duke Ellington Boulevard with a dustbin-lid on my head. You cannot get around New York and that's the end of it."

There it is: it's not much, it's a laugh, but it doesn't matter if you've never tried the New York subway, it's still funny. There are, at a rough estimate, about two such laughs on every page of his entire published output.

The taster for The Information published in Granta last year contains an even higher strike-rate. He is far more than just a comic writer, though. Even among the grumpiest of Young Turks, the sullen consensus is that, as far as contemporary British fiction writers go, there is no one to touch Martin Amis.

His influence has charged, shamed, and (some would say) poisoned almost an entire subsequent generation of British writers. Is half a million too high a price to pay for this - given the truly absurd amounts some people earn? I don't think so.

n Nicholas Lezard is the literary editor of `The Modern Review'