Terence Blacker: Who are you trying to kid, Martin?

Most writers understand the need to lead a double life - both public and private

Terence Blacker
Thursday 09 August 2012 19:39
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One of the many funny and perceptive things Martin Amis has said in the past is that every time he delivered a new novel to his publisher, he expected to hear the siren of an ambulance and to see white men in coats arriving to take him away. It was a good joke because of all novelists writing at the time, he seemed the sanest and most clear-eyed. Now, I fear, the men in white coats might be needed. Leaving the UK yet again, he has written an article – "An unfond farewell to the British Lit scene" – for the American magazine New Republic. It is borderline bonkers.

When his first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published 40 years ago, Amis writes, "There were no interviews, no profiles, no photo shoots, no signings, no readings, no panels." This is simply not true. A first novel by the cool, high-profile son of Kingsley Amis was always going to be noticed; when it turned out to be brilliantly original and funny, it became a major literary event. If that has slipped Amis's mind, he should turn to YouTube, where his 1972 interview with Melvyn Bragg for the prime-time TV book show Read All About It can be seen.

Since that time, Amis continues, novelists have become famous – the focus of, to quote his unrecognisably constipated new prose style, "the Albionic Fourth Estate" with its "emulousness, a kind of cruising belligerence, and instinctive proprietoriality". If they complain, "they are accused of self-pity ('celebrity whinge')".

It is here that one begins to worry for the author's sanity. In recent years, Amis has certainly been in the eye of several storms. There were, among other rows, his provocative comments about Muslims, the mantra about Britain leading the world in decline, a passing witticism about euthanasia booths for the elderly, his confession that he would need to be brain-damaged to write for children. These carefully and publicly articulated views, often expressed around publication time, are those of a man who enjoys tickling things up a bit. It is utterly bogus to blame journalists for taking the bait he dangled.

There is a bigger question here. Is it really true, as Amis claims, that, unlike their American colleagues, serious British writers are regarded by the press with a "studied scepticism"? One does not have to look too far for the answer. Most successful novelists – Hilary Mantel, Howard Jacobson, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan and others – have come to terms with needing to lead a double life, occasionally public but mostly private.

The rage of Martin Amis is upsetting to those who have admired him. One suspects that its cause is not journalists, nor a country leading the world in decline, but lies closer to home.

terblacker@aol.com

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