Molars, money and martyrdom

Martin Amis has been kicked in the teeth over his book deal but it's hard to see him as a victim
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Salman Rushdie achieved fame beyond that of a novelist because Iran put a price of a million dollars on his head. Martin Amis has managed the same by putting a price of half a million pounds on his own head, for a book, The Information, which is published next week.

As has been widely reported, the quest for such a sizeable advance led Amis to part company with his long-time English publisher, Cape, and his English agent, Pat Kavanagh. In the coverage of these events, Amis has been cast as the privatised power company chairman among literary novelists, with the novelist AS Byatt, who has criticised Amis's hunger for money, as chairman of the House of Commons select committee. Amis has also been subject to personal ridicule about his new American girlfriend, Isobel Fonseca, and his new American teeth, having reportedly submitted to $20,000- worth of Manhattan orthodontics.

On the eve of publication, the novelist has begun a carefully controlled publicity campaign. In this month's Esquire, he tells his friend Will Self: "It's very disturbing to feel disliked, and the gravity exerted by that mass of dislike is not pleasant

It is unlikely that someone of Amis's intelligence was directly equating the wrath of Islam with the wrath of, say, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, but there is something Rushdie-like about the tone of his remarks: a shock that a mere book could have produced this kind of response. Even so, Amis is also bright enough to appreciate the irony that the high and visible platform from which he is calling for "sober literary consideration" - big Esquire interviews with a friend, a swiftly scheduled South Bank Show special on ITV on Sunday, newspaper serialisation - results largely from the hysterical extra-literary consideration produced by the recent hostile publicity.

Let us, then, give as sober consideration as possible to the Amis Affair. The first question is: can Martin Amis be worth half a million pounds? Broadly speaking, media stories on the subject of showbiz income divide into "soft" and "hard", "good-luck-to-them" and "who-the-hell-do-they- think-they-are?" The categories sometimes seem alarmingly random. The news that Elaine Paige may receive £1m a year to appear in a Lloyd-Webber show is a "soft" story, as was last week's revelation that the thriller writer Philip Kerr had sold film rights to a novel for $1m. Yet Martin Amis's half a million quid is a "hard" story.

The reason for this, we are led to understand, is that Amis's novel is unlikely, on past sales form, to "earn back" the money his publisher HarperCollins has paid him. Yet no journalist in Britain will make any attempt to check whether Elaine Paige or PhiIip Kerr recover for their producers through the box office the money they are paid. The concept of "earning out" is applied only to book-writing.

Nor should anyone kid themselves that British publishers, Cape included, were models of Micawberism until grasping Martin arrogantly threatened to put them out of pocket. In fact, one of the reasons that Cape was edgy about a jackpot deal for Amis's novel was that it had paid out vast unearned advances to others in the past.

Third, it is now more than possible - in an irony to ignite Amis's new- toothed smile - that The Information will earn out its vast advance. The recent publicity - the deal, the teeth, the girlfriend - have extended Amis from broadsheet celebrity to middle-market-tabloid fame. The widening of the author's profile may well make his book deal an example of what you might call self-fulfilling profitability.

The other main question is to what extent Amis has been treated badly by the press. The novelist's recent complaints about the lack of "sober literary consideration" clearly suggest that, prior to this business, his work was purely reviewed, without the intrusion of personality judgements. In fact, from his debut before the critics as "son of Kingsley", Amis has always been vulnerable to subjective dislike: perceived nepotism, litism, heightism, priapism, sexism. Some or other ism has caused a schism between himself and journalists.

And in the present matter, Amis is not blameless. He seems to have behaved very poorly to Kavanagh, his former agent. And his complaints about reporting of his private life would have more force had he not written and spoken so often of his marriage and his family in happier times.

Yet he has two legitimate gripes. First, the public was widely led to believe that the $20,000 of tooth renewal was merely cosmetic, a molar makeover. We are now told that the work was a medical emergency. Amis simply wants, he says, "to be able to eat". It would have been nice if one of the magazines had felt able to provide more information about exactly what this dental difficulty was, but clearly journalism should feel some guilt about propagating so widely the idea that Amis was merely after some pearly smirk.

It is also embarrassing to record how extensively, in literary gossip and journalism, has been expressed a particularly stupid reading of The Information as autobiographical. The book's central characters are both novelists: Richard, a hackish failure; and Gwyn, a super-selling, Hollywood- fted purveyor of trash. All winter, people kept suggesting that this was Amis's portrait of himself and Julian Barnes, whose greater success convulsed him. No one seemed dissuaded by the fact that Amis is clearly not a hackish failure; that Barnes is, if anything, a more literary writer, and that not one of his works has ever been screened by BBC 2, never mind Hollywood.

On that one - and the teeth story - Amis has clearly suffered from the increasing tendency of literary journalism towards what Gore Vidal has termed "book chat". But I wonder how easy it is, in general, to see Amis as a victim: the pose he adopts in the current interviews. On the cover of this month's Esquire the name of the star interviewee, Sharon Stone, commands type 1.5cm high. The name of the co-star interviewee, Martin Amis, stretches only to 1cm, but for a serious novelist to get within such a fraction of a Hollywood superstar is hard to pass off as martyrdom.

Some key lines in The Information chart the warring hemispheres of the creative mind: "Like all writers, Richard wanted to live in some hut on some crag somewhere ... Like all writers, Richard wanted, and expected, the reverence due to the warrior Christ an hour before Armageddon."

Well, Amis, with his eighth novel, has achieved that apocalyptic level of attention, although he might moan that it is as the Antichrist that he has been noticed. But what has happened to him is what he at least half-wanted, and it is hard to believe that his career is the worse for it.

Comments