With friends like this who needs critics?
If there's one thing worse than bad writing, it's writing that is better than your own.
At no level of literary achievement, though, is there an envy-free zone. Even on Parnassus, pettiness is rife, as is illustrated, say, by Wordsworth's reaction to the arrival of Keats. Reviewing John Cheever's letters in 1990, John Updike wrote that: "Aspiring, we assume that those already in possession of eminence will feel no squeeze as we rise, and will form an impalpable band of welcoming angels. In fact, I know now, the literary scene is a kind of Medusa's raft, and one's instinct when a newcomer tries to clamber aboard is to stamp on his fingers."
Even when one of the rival passengers has the decency to die, it's considered a dubious blessing. "At that one feels - what?" mused Virginia Woolf on hearing of the death of Katherine Mansfield, "A shock of relief? - a rival the less?" But then, two days later, she's sulking at the fact that Mansfield is no longer around to keep her up to the mark. "Go on writing of course: but into emptiness. There's no competitor." The dead are inconvenient in other ways too: they can no longer make self-damaging mistakes and on the stock exchange of reputation their share prices can raise dramatically.
We know all of this partly from the tittle-tattle of biography. But also because literary envy, as well as being fact, is a recurring theme in fiction and drama, as is the rancour of creative competitiveness found among the practitioners of other art forms (music, say, in the treatments by Pushkin and Shaffer of Salieri's envy of Mozart; Renaissance painting in Browning's poem: "Andrea del Sarto"). This week, Martin Amis's The Information, a novel that has given a whole new meaning to the term "advance publicity", enters as a self-consciously heavyweight addition to this category. A revenger's anti-comedy, it focuses on two best-buddy writers, both turning 40 and both no good.
But Swansea-born Gwyn, whose previous claim to fame was in the A-level crib-notes market, has suddenly rocketed to global success with Amelior, a New Age middlebrow multi-cultural Utopia. His friend, Richard Toll, an intellectually cocky but unpublishable modernist, is there beside him and beside himself with jealousy. His various backfiring schemes to "fuck Gwyn up", which ranged from the non-literary (such as paying a gang of freaky Notting Hill low-lifes to put the frighteners and worse on him) to the quasi-literary (devising and vanity-publishing a fake ur-Amelior so that he can "expose" his friend as a plagiarist), provide the plot.
Though I laughed out loud on half a dozen occasions, I emerged from the 494 pages feeling a queasy discontent with The Information on aesthetic and moral grounds. One of its central deficiencies comes into clearer focus if you view the book in relation to other works written on a similar theme. The pairing of rivalrous writers furnishes the axis round which many a novel has swung. In Nabokov's Pale Fire they are John Shade, a recently murdered American poet, and his migr friend Charles Kinbote, whose learned edition of Shade's last poem the novel purports to be. In a dazzlingly involuted way, Kinbote's commentary hijacks and upstages the poem, an act of revisionary revenge for its not being the commemorative epic to his own homeland that Kinbote had wanted. One of Pale Fire's strengths, though, is that it complicates your feelings about this blood-sucking academic arrogance. Kinbote's monomaniac variations are arguably more imaginative than Shade's theme, and the worlds conjured up in both come to feel oddly interdependent.
Michael Frayn's excellent The Trick of It likewise has the tact not to use its own creative flair simply to gloat over the antics of those driven mad by their talentlessness. It takes the shape of a series of letters written to a friend by a youngish academic who first beds then marries the major female novelist whose work he specialises in. The letters begin jokily but veer into a literal and existential desert as his resentful obsession with his wife's creativity becomes all-consuming, leading to a disastrous bid to join her on the other side of the looking glass that separates those who have the trick of it and those who have everything but.
Michael Frayn's name is on the cover, but The Trick of It pays its protagonist the respect of showing that he did have a book in him after all, and it conveys the terrible pathos of exclusion as well as the manic comedy of misplaced ingenuity. To a qualified degree there's the same relation between the published work and the creatively blocked grudge-bearing hero of Murdoch's The Black Prince.
In contrast to such fictions, which explore values by gradually and reciprocally revealing that there's something to be said for each of the rivals, The Information offers the progressive revelation that both Gwyn and Richard are even more devoid of redeeming features than one had thought. As the basis for a cartoonily rendered one-upmanship contest, the impartiality of Amis's disgust for Gwyn's epic unmerited success and Richard's epic unmarketability is fine. But since it offers no values you can respect on either side, and no way in which the mutual contempt of the men can be seen to be other than formidably well-founded, the novel has scant space for those shades and shifts of contrast and overlap that would be needed for a truly earned general indictment of debased literary standards.
This particular pairing rules out any glimpse of envy as perverse admiration, capable of seeing the object with a painful intensity denied to emulous hero worship. The irony in Amadeus is that Salieri, the older, more successful composer, is uniquely ahead of his time in recognising the full extent of Mozart's genius. That is why he is pierced with God-resenting paranoia. The irony, by contrast, in U & I, Nicholson Baker's prose fantasia about his anxious obsession with John Updike, is that aspiring fan Baker seems to be virtually incapable of noticing any talents in the master's work that he himself does not to a lesser degree possess. The picture it gives you of Updike's genius is therefore bizarrely scaled down by Baker's nervy narcissism.
At regular intervals, The Information lifts up its gaze to the heavens in digressions about astronomy, designed to show how our changing picture of the universe has constituted "a history of humiliation" for mankind. Amis interposes his own voice in these digressive set-pieces, as though anxious to differentiate himself from third person Richard, whose perception and thought processes ("Not for the first time and not insincerely, Richard pitied life's straight men, its civilians, its one-dimensioners, all non artists everywhere, who couldn't use art as an excuse") are mostly pure Amis in tone. It leaves you feeling squeamish: where Nabokov, Frayn and Murdoch wrote books not just about but on behalf of their envious literary- failure protagonist, Amis is just careful to pull rank on his.
There's something sour and solipsistic about the spirit of The Information, for all the author's talk of identifying with both writers. On account of its £500,000 advance and the flash texture of its prose, it is certainly likely to incite literary envy, but it is essentially too distanced from the vibrant cartoon-strip humiliations it records to offer a penetrating anatomy of it.
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