Martin Amis is perhaps my all time favourite writer, literary critic and modern novelist. A master of English and American literature and the person I turn to most often when in need of some inspiration in the use of English language – see example below. Also a great man of letters, his father, Kingsley’s book The King’s English is wonderfully witty guide to precise (rather than ‘correct’) usage and is a book well worth reading.
Christopher Hitchens was in my view the greatest political commentator of his generation. I have all his books on my bookshelves – and copies on my Kindle and many as Audio books too. I have read and reread just about every word he has ever written and God is Not Great is a book that, post 9/11, should be read by everyone. His most recent collection of essays and reviews are collected in Arguably which spans politics, philosophy, literature, poetry and art. View his books at Amazon or enjoy his erudition in debate on YouTube, where he can be outrageously funny – this interview with Professor Laurie Taylor is a good place to start if you want a short biography. Christopher Hitchens even chronicled his own death in 2011 from cancer and Mortality is a masterpiece of English prose on the subject from an astonishingly accomplished and brave man.
Ai Weiwei – Never Sorry is a brilliant film – buy it – go see it – was born in Beijing, China in 1957. An outspoken human rights activist, Ai was arrested by Chinese authorities in April 2011 and held incommunicado for three months. Upon his release, he was prohibited from traveling abroad, engaging in public speech, and was subjected to continued government surveillance. Ai’s position as a provocateur and dissident artist informs the tenor and reception of much of his recent work. He infuses his sculptures, photographs, and public artworks with political conviction and personal poetry, often making use of recognizable and historic Chinese art forms in critical examinations of a host of contemporary Chinese political and social issues. In his sculptural works he often uses reclaimed materials—ancient pottery and wood from destroyed temples —in a conceptual gesture that connects tradition with contemporary social concerns. He also employs sarcasm, juxtaposition, and repetition to reinvigorate the potency and symbolism of traditional images and to reframe the familiar with minimal means. A writer and curator, Ai extends his practice across multiple disciplines and through social media to communicate with a global public and to engage fellow artists with projects on a massive scale. Ai Weiwei attended the Beijing Film Academy and the Parsons School of Design in New York. He has received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Politics and Social Science, University of Ghent, Belgium (2010), as well as many awards, including the Skowhegan Medal (2011) and the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (2008). His work has appeared in major exhibitions at Kunsthaus Bregenz (2011); the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (2011); Asia Society Museum, New York (2011); Tate Modern, London (2010); São Paulo Bienal (2010); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2009); Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2009); and Documenta XII (2007). Ai Weiwei lives and works in Beijing, China. – See Art21
Does he need any introduction? Absolute genius. Browse his enormous output on Amazon
Bertie: “I mean to say, I know perfectly well that I’ve got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess. And when a girl comes along who has about twice the regular allowance, she too often makes a bee line for me with the love light in her eyes. I don’t know how to account for it, but it is so.”
Jeeves: “It may be Nature’s provision for maintaining the balance of the species, sir.”
Carry On, Jeeves
Bertie: “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'”
Jeeves: “The mood will pass, sir.”
The Code of The Woosters
“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
The Code of the Woosters
Martin Amis – Battling Banality
Once, literary criticism was an elite vocation. Now we are all critics and in this new democracy, talent and integrity are the losers. See other pieces in The Guardian here : Martin Amis
At one time, “Literature and Society” was a phrase so much on everyone’s lips that it earned itself an abbreviation: Lit & Soc. And Lit & Soc, I seemed to remember, had been for me a long-running enthusiasm. When complacently preparing my new collection of essays and reviews, The War Against Cliché, I planned to assemble my pieces on literature and society (pieces on FR Leavis and Lionel Trilling, and on lesser figures like Ian Robinson and Denis Donoghue). But when I leafed through the massed manuscripts I found only a handful of essays, all of them written, rather ominously, in the early 70s (when I was in my early 20s). Having re-read them, I toyed with the idea of including a nice little section called something like “Literature and Society: The Vanished Debate”. Then I decided that my debate had better vanish too. The pieces themselves I considered earnest, overweening, and contentedly dull. More decisively, though, Lit & Soc, and indeed literary criticism, felt dead and gone.
That time now seems unrecognisably remote. I had a day job at the Times Literary Supplement. Even then I sensed discrepancy, as I joined an editorial conference (to help prepare, perhaps, a special number on Literature and Society), wearing shoulder-length hair, a flowered shirt, and knee-high tricoloured boots (well concealed, it is true, by the twin tepees of my flared trousers). My private life was middle-bohemian – hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time, in the tub, on the tube; I always had about me my Edmund Wilson – or my William Empson. I took it seriously.
We all did. We hung around the place talking about literary criticism. We sat in pubs and coffee bars talking about WK Wimsatt and G Wilson Knight, about Richard Hoggart and Northrop Frye, about Richard Poirier, Tony Tanner and George Steiner. It might have been in such a locale that my friend and colleague Clive James first formulated his view that, while literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to civilisation. Everyone concurred. Literature, we felt, was the core discipline; criticism explored and popularised the significance of that centrality, creating a space around literature and thereby further exalting it. The early 70s, I should add, saw the great controversy about the Two Cultures: Art v Science (or FR Leavis v CP Snow). Perhaps the most fantastic thing about this cultural moment was that Art seemed to be winning.
Literary historians know it as the Age of Criticism. It began, let us suggest, in 1948, with the publication of Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture and Leavis’s The Great Tradition. What ended it? The brutalist answer would consist of a single four-letter word: Opec. In the 60s, you could live on 10 shillings a week: you slept on people’s floors and sponged off your friends and sang for your supper – about literary criticism. Then, abruptly, a bus fare cost 10 shillings. The oil hike, and inflation, and then stagflation, revealed literary criticism as one of the many leisure-class fripperies we would have to get along without. Well, that’s how it felt. But it now seems clear that literary criticism was inherently doomed. Explicitly or otherwise it had based itself on a structure of echelons and hierarchies; it was about the talent elite. And the structure atomised as soon as the forces of democratisation gave their next concerted push.
Those forces – incomparably the most potent in our culture – have gone on pushing. And they are now running up against a natural barrier. Some citadels, true, have proved stormable. You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerd-othon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.
Literary criticism, now almost entirely confined to the universities, thus moves against talent by moving against the canon. Academic preferment will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth’s poetics; it will come from a challenging study of his politics – his attitude to the poor, say, or his unconscious “valourisation” of Napoleon; and it will come still faster if you ignore Wordsworth and elevate some (justly) neglected contemporary, by which process the canon may be quietly and steadily sapped. A brief consultation of the internet will show that meanwhile, at the other end of the business, everyone has become a literary critic – or at least a book-reviewer.
Democratisation has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments. I think Gore Vidal said this first, and he said it, not quite with mockery, but with lively scepticism. He said that, nowadays, nobody’s feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else’s. This is the new credo, the new privilege. It is a privilege much exercised in the contemporary book review, whether on the web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. The right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature.
Probably some readers are getting the impression that I think these developments are to be deplored. Not so. It is the summit of idleness to deplore the present, to deplore actuality. Say whatever else you like about it, the present is unavoidable. And we, in the 70s, were frequently ridiculous, too, with our Fallacies and our Seven Types (and Leavis’s besieged intensity was ridiculous. His shaping embarrassment, however, was to nominate as his model for sanity the person of DH Lawrence). Emotional egalitarianism, for example, looks hard to attack. I honour it, in a way, but it has to me the pale glow of illusion. It is utopian, which is to say that reality cannot be expected to support it. Then, too, these “feelings” are seldom unadulterated; they are admixtures of herd opinions and social anxieties, vanities, touchinesses, and everything else that makes up a self.
One of the historical vulnerabilities of literature, as a subject for study, is that it has never seemed difficult enough. This may come as news to the buckled figure of the book-reviewer, and to the literary critic, but it’s true. Hence the various attempts to elevate it, complicate it, systematise it. Interacting with literature is easy. Anyone can join in, because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence. It is not surprising, therefore, that individual sensitivities come so strongly into play; not surprising, either, that the discipline has rolled over for democratisation far more readily than, for example, chemistry and Ancient Greek. In the long term, though, literature will resist levelling and revert to hierarchy. This isn’t the decision of some snob of a belletrist. It is the decision of Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don’t.
Let me run, for a while, with an extended simile. Literature is the great garden that is always there and is open to everyone 24 hours a day. Who tends it? The old tour guides and sylviculturists, the wardens, the fuming parkies in their sweat-soaked serge: these have died off. If you do see an official, a professional, these days, then he’s likely to be a scowl in a labcoat, come to flatten a forest or decapitate a peak. The public wanders, with its oohs and ahs, its groans and jeers, its million opinions. The wanderers feed the animals, they walk on the grass, they step in the flowerbeds. But the garden never suffers. It is, of course, Eden; it is unfallen and needs no care.
Readers of my book are asked to keep an eye on the datelines which end these pieces, for they span nearly 30 years. You hope to get more relaxed and confident over time; and you should certainly get (or seem to get) kinder, simply by avoiding the stuff you are unlikely to warm to. Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realise how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember (Angus Wilson and William Burroughs nursed my animadversions – and no doubt the animadversions of others – to the grave). . . I am also struck by how hard I sometimes was on writers who (I erroneously felt) were trying to influence me: Roth, Mailer, Ballard.
You proceed by quotation. Quotation is the reviewer’s only hard evidence. Or semi-hard evidence. Without it, in any case, criticism is a shop-queue monologue. Gallingly for the lit-crit imperialists (especially IA Richards), there is no means for distinguishing the excellent from the less excellent. The most muscular literary critics on earth have no equipment for establishing that:
“Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”
is a better line than
“When all at once I saw a crowd”
– and, if they did, they would have to begin by saying that the former contains a dead expletive (“do”) brought in to sustain the metre. Yet quotation is all we have. To idealise: all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting cliches. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.
© Martin Amis, 2001. This is an edited version of the preface to The War Against Cliché – Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis, published by Jonathan Cape.