Useless

True art is purposeless, says Victoria Coren. Therefore, she continues (not totally logically, but we’ll get to that), no one gets to critique Martin Amis on his politics:

The young rapscallion (60) is in trouble again, after calling for euthanasia booths where pensioners can be dispatched “with a martini and a medal”. This extreme and evidently unserious solution to what he describes as a “silver tsunami” threatening to flood the domestic coast has been written up in high dudgeon by a disapproving press, studded with furious condemnations from all the obvious places.

They are missing the point entirely, just as they do when they slam Martin Amis for making “misogynistic” or “Islamophobic” statements. He isn’t a politician, a religious leader nor even a philosopher. He’s an artist. It doesn’t matter what he says, as long as he says it beautifully. Which he always does. Never mind the content, feel the form!

The Observer, “All hail Henry Dagg – he’s a true artist”

The Henry Dagg story doesn’t really get us anywhere near to Martin Amis. Dagg’s work – an impossible, impractical sculpture delivered four years after deadline – had no political content (assuming we discount the politics of aestheticism that make a useless, pretty object so desirable to Coren). Amis’ work absolutely does. He cleaves to the modish big issues as compulsively as a newspaper columnist, only his columns come several inches thick, five years late, and with even more made up stuff.

But let’s take a look at Amis the artist’s amazing doings with words. Here he is in an interview with Tom Chatfield of Prospect magazine:

We had a ten-year holiday from this feeling (of imminent apocalypse)  in the 1990s. The nuclear cold war, then a ten-year holiday, then Islam. Islam only up to a point, one mustn’t exaggerate: the number of people killed by terrorism in the west is the same as the number of Americans who drown in the bath. […] But then again, the weather, climate change…

Prospect, “Martin Amis: the Prospect interview”

Here, “the master” before whom Coren thinks all writers should prostrate themselves deftly manages to draw an equivalence between 1. nuclear war, 3. climate change and 2. Islam. Not “Islamist terrorism”. Not even “radical Islam”. Just “Islam”, the world religion. (You could argue that he was provocatively suggesting the objects of sequential modern terrors without endorsing the fear of them – could, only you’ve almost certainly read his “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order” interview.)

If we were following Coren’s critical injunctions, we’d never be able to appreciate the delicate way Amis conveys his irrational fright of Islam by weighing it syntactically with potentially civilization-destroying horrors like climate change and nuclear war. You just can’t appreciate how linguistically gifted Amis is until you begin to see what gnarled little bigot he really is.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

7 thoughts on “Useless

  1. Something for which Twitter was too small: Coren’s elevation of Amis as someone immune to critical thought isn’t just wrongheaded in the way you describe, it’s hubristic. Saying that Amis achieves artistic validity simply by merit of his wit and way with words is to elevate those aspects above actual meaning and wider impact. In this way the Corens and Gills of this world can shuffle up to sit alongside Amis, since their output is almost entirely epigrammatic and trivial.

    I actually love Amis for all the reasons she suggests. But I do not find it a contradiction to oppose him in other ways, and to say that the manner of his expression means we shouldn’t criticise the content of his ideas actually demeans him as a writer.

  2. Well, I actually thought that Amis had simply forgotten about his nuclear apocalypse days. (Whatever, he thought the world was going to end in the 80s, and he still had two kids, which I’m sure says something about his conviction that way.) Anyway, I’ve thought for a while that he has a sort of idee fixe about imminent destruction, he’s just looking for a form for it to take. Once, nukes, then Islam, sort of along with that, AGW. Next, women probably. Taking our precious bodily fluids and all that. I think he’s overdue for a revelatory essay on how they don’t have a sense of humour.

    I really don’t get the easy ride MA gets from some of the press.

  3. Good grief. I just looked at Norman Geras’s site (I actually wanted to know if he’d link to the Richard Madeley video approvingly; he’s either missed it, or is ignoring it), and he’s found another dick-headed line of Amis’s. “But it’s a fantastically uneconomical way of reading, to read your youngers. No-one knows if they are any good. Only time knows that.”

    The man’s supposed to be a critic! “Is that a good book, Martin?” “I can’t say, the judgement of history isn’t in yet.” I would say he should just make up his own mind, but he seems quite capable of that with regard to Coetzee. It’s like he believes he’s a character in an Oscar Wilde play, and he’s expected to drop these penetrating, hilarious apercus, only he somehow ends up just talking balls. Does he still teach at Manchester? What a way to kill any interest in literature.

  4. Poor old Mart. Perpetually convinced of imminent human extinction, convinced that literary worth is in the judgement of future centuries. No wonder he’s so bloody mardy all the time.

  5. I think we can disregard Coren generally since her argument presupposes that everything Amis says, or writes, is innately good quality which is rather underminded by, I dunno, The Age of Horrosim, and his recent journalistic output in general, to say nothing of his interviews.

    It’s like he believes he’s a character in an Oscar Wilde play, and he’s expected to drop these penetrating, hilarious apercus, only he somehow ends up just talking balls.

    His opinions here are a weird mixture of his Dad and Larkin’s blokeish humour and Eliot’s idea that all writers have to be compared ‘with the dead’. The problem with that is a) he’s not as funny as his Dad and Larkin and b) Eliot was being disingenuous hen he said all that stuff in Tradition and the Individual Talent; look at his engagement with the still-alive conrad ffs. Amis doesn’t believe this ‘time’ thing either, I don’t think; he knows full well that Coetzee is going to survive longer than he is in literary history, and I think it pisses him off – because it proves what some had always assumed about Amis – that he is ultimately lightweight, both in terms of literary merit and in philosophical terms. Nowt wrong with that, I still like some of his books, but Coetzee is so far ahead of him in scope, philosophy and ambition that it’s hardly worth comparing them. Linked to that is the feeling that the kinds of question Coetzee is asking (JMC asks questions, Amis asks questions but knows the answers) about civilisation and humanity are beyond what Amis is capable of in fiction – and definitely beyond what he’s capable of in political commentary.

    On Amis and Islam – I always thought that the most worrying bit of the ‘strip-search em all’ interview was the part where he said that ‘the only thing that islamists like about the West is our weapons… and soon we’ll be outnumbered by them’. ‘Them’ meaning Muslims, but also Islamists.

    He genuinely does think that Islam IS Islamism; he’s unrepentant on that as Sarah’s above comments demonstrate. People trying to support him from this kind of accusation seem to think that they can ignore all the evidence and say that ‘like his mate ian mcewan he only dislikes etremist muslims’ – but his continuing use of ‘Islam’ to mean ‘Islamism’ says it all.

  6. Good point, OC. My intention in my original comment was to compare Amis’s intentions and his actual words to the sort of dreams where you want to do something, but somehow it all goes wrong – or is it just me who has those? There’s the great William James (smarter brother of Henry) true story/joke that goes he wakes from a dream where the secret of the universe was revealed to him. He scribbles it down to read in the morning, “Higamous hogamous/man is polygamous. Hogamous higamous/Woman is monogamous.”

    I think VC’s was the wrong defence. I like Eliot, Pound, and Larkin a lot, as artists. I like early David Mamet; I like John Wayne films. I don’t have to agree with the personal politics of every artist I like. George Orwell was comically homophobic. He was also perceptive, witty, and usually had great instincts.

    OTOH, I also quite like Victoria Coren; I just don’t agree with her here.

  7. Part of the reason I dislike VC is that I get the feeling she could actually write some pretty coherent stuff if she didn’t seem incapable of trying to make everything she writes into an unfunny joke. this piece is a case in point. sadly so many other journos seem to think of that as the pinnacle of good writing.

    he has a sort of idee fixe about imminent destruction

    I think you’re right, and i like the ‘waking dream’ idea too. I’m equally with you on writers and their politics. One of the most interesting things about Amis is how badly his political views have been mischaracterised. He’s always been a conservative, in the political sense, and to a certain extent in the literary sense too. People missed that because (like most of his peers including McEwan) he was part of CND so they assumed he was a lefty, but he never really was really; he’s always been reactionary.

    That’s linked to a wider thing about his art. He’s not really a satirist in the strict sense but what he’s always been cruellest about is masculinity and ‘western decadence’ in general. The problem is that this leaves him onside, to an extent, with tehMuzlimz. Even that wouldn’t be much of a problem if he could cope with self-contradiction, but he doesn’t seem to be able to, and as a result has been floundering politically, reading and admiring Mark Steyn etc, in order to try to work out what separates him from tehmuslims.

    But that, again, comes down to what is the main problem with amis – his laziness. It stems to an extent from his art – he is clever, and has never had to work very hard at what look like very hard-worked sentences – but equally, he never seems to have actually done all that much thinking as a result. That means he’s capable of the boneheaded misunderstanding of Coetzee; it means he can take something a cab driver said to him and think that it counts as political analysis (as he’s done with Iran).

    But to go back ot the topic in hand. I adore TS Eliot; i love evelyn waugh’s novels; I like some Pound and Larkin. Much of the best art, for me, is morally and politically ambiguous; and it can be made by people with hateful ideas about politics and life in general. that does not, however, mean that we should value everything an artist says as they are always said beautifully; even Walter Pater wouldn’t have agreed with that.

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