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Done with Muslims and women, Martin Amis now insults children.

February 11, 2011

"But what I say matters, you stupid twit!"

Pity poor Martin Amis, who can’t seem to shake his habit of making self-consciously offensive remarks. Apparently he thinks it preserves his reputation as an enfant terrible, but really, Martin, what was cute when you were young and Mod, like Austin Powers, threatens to make you a sad, nasty old man.

Really, I suppose we should be compassionate, for Amis, a talented novelist to be sure, is clearly addicted to the attention each outrageous statement inevitably brings. This time, in an interview on a totally different subject, Amis said, according to the Guardian, that he would never consider writing a children’s book unless he had “a serious brain injury.”

“[O]therwise,” continued his smugness, “the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”

Adding injury to insult, he went on: “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.”

This elicited a predictable storm from Britain’s professional children’s writers. The most pointed riposte is that of Jane Shemp, whose The Secret Songs was shortlisted for the 1998 Guardian children’s fiction award: “I have brain damage,” said Shemp, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy. “So Amis couldn’t have insulted me harder if he’d sat down and thought about it for a year. Superglueing him to a wheelchair and piping children’s fiction into his auditory canal suddenly seems like a good idea.”

The imbecility of Amis’s comment is self-evident: 1. Amis’s novels — let’s take his masterpiece, London Fields — show every sign of being written for a particular audience. 2. As he writes novels with character and plot (not to mention periods and commas), his allegiance is not to “freedom” but craftsmanship. 3. The writing of children’s books is a rigorously difficult craft and in no way inferior to adult fiction.

Still, Amis thinks his unwillingness to write in a “lower register’ makes him a more serious fellow than children’s authors — like, for example, Mark Twain, Madeleine L’Engle, Charles Dickens, Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, E.B. White, Oscar Wilde, Sherman Alexie, Maurice Sendak, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Russell Hoban, Ted Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin.

His real insult though is aimed not at children’s writers but at children. I’m not sure I could trust any author who, at the age of 61, still thinks, as Amis evidently does, that children are nothing but ill-formed adults. Such an impoverished conception of humanity can only result in impoverished fiction.

Before I became a father, I thought of children as incomplete human beings, little automatons who did not become worth paying attention to until they reached the age of reason and you could talk to them on your terms. I imagine a lot of young adults, still splashing around in the slough of solipsism, feel something like that.

But for most of us having children of our own snaps us right out that error. I know it did for me. The one thing I remember most clearly about my first daughter’s infancy was the realization that she was a fully formed human being, complete and entire.

It’s baffling to think Martin doesn’t know this. I’ve read several of his books with pleasure, and I’ve enjoyed the few times I’ve interviewed him. But his glory days were in the ’60s, when he was young and footloose in literary London, while his heyday came in the 1980s, when his novelistic talent reached its maturity.

Since at least Time’s Arrow (1991), which appropriated the central conceit of Fitzgerald’s “Benjamin Button,” and Night Train, (1997), an unfortunate foray into the police thriller that owed everything to the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets, Amis has been increasingly irrelevant.

Face it, Martin: Your day is done. You produced some good work, nothing to be ashamed of. But for pity’s sake, man, stop embarrassing yourself with stupid remarks like this one. Show some dignity. Totter off into comfortable retirement. You’ve earned it.

Otherwise you may enjoy an unintended second career as party entertainment. Hey! Let’s invite Martin! Give the old fool a drink and see what comes out of his mouth! That should be good for a few laughs.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2011 2:04 pm

    Read chapter 15 of Liam MacSheoinin’s new novel MID-ETERNITY for as good a profile of Martin Amis as you’re ever likely to see. Liam has the guts of a lion.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 11, 2011 2:26 pm

      Thanks, Duff, I will keep an eye out for that one.

  2. Sean Piccoli permalink
    February 11, 2011 2:11 pm

    I enjoyed “The Information” in all its mean-spiritedness but haven’t touched anything else by Amis. One autopsy of post-Thatcher bourgeois life was plenty!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 11, 2011 2:28 pm

      I place a lot of stock in titles, Sean, and I groaned when I opened the envelope that had my review copy of The Information in it. I just could not imagine myself reading a long novel with such an inane title. Nobody’s perfect, no even your humble reviewer.

  3. PJ Parrish permalink
    February 11, 2011 4:49 pm

    “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.”

    Really?

    I tried to read “Night Train,” figuring as a police procedural (my tilling field of choice) it might be a good intro to Amis. Big mistake. I should have been tipped off right away that his female cop was named Mike, and that she was homely and alcoholic. (Gee, haven’t seen that in cop books before.) But then there was all that “Cagney and Lacy” blue badinage, inaccurate autopsy scenes, neon-on-wet-pavement descriptions, and the tragic — and beautiful, of course — dead girl. Too late I realized I was watching someone slumming around in noir land. I remember it as a really cheap trick book, like Amis was gleefully trying to write junk for the masses. Gotta say this for him though: It’s not easy being pretentious and sloppy at the same time.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 11, 2011 5:30 pm

      Couldn’t agree more, plus the setting and feel were cribbed from Homicide, and the ending was an affront to all concerned: characters, readers, innocent bystanders….

      But this is Amis’s worst. He wrote some good books, and London Fields may be great. It’s been more than 20 years since I read it. I’d have to go back and read it again before I lay the “G”-word on it. And life is too short for that, I’ll tell ya.

      • PJ Parrish permalink
        February 12, 2011 5:26 pm

        Okay, I will take your word for it and try again with London Fields. But only becuz you said so.

  4. February 13, 2011 9:49 pm

    One more comment and I’ll let this go. Kingsley Amis was better. Check out LUCKY JIM, about a professor who is far from lucky. Funny book if you like things dark and ironic, which I lovingly do. Written decades ago, the 50′s or 60′s, I bet it still holds up after all these years. I’m pretty sure the very prolific Kingsley’s rep will outlast Martin’s. But then, who the hell really knows anything these days when it comes to whatever gets the curse of being labeled “literary”?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 14, 2011 12:25 pm

      Lucky Jim is a serious candidate for the best comic novel written since the end of WW II. I read it about 1988. It still held up then, despite its reliance on drunk jokes and a nasty streak of misogyny, which Martin seems to have inherited…

  5. John Karwacki permalink
    February 14, 2011 11:14 am

    Love Jane Shemp’s concept of a “good idea”. We have all said stupid things in the name of trying to be hip, slick and cool; but that is no excuse for Amis. Reminds me to watch that erring member, the tongue, lest I end up with green egg on my face.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 14, 2011 12:25 pm

      Martin does like to hear himself talk, especially if its accompanied by the sound of other people gasping.

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 15, 2011 3:21 pm

    Boy, you are hard on the guy, aren’t you? I’ll do my best to stay on your good side.

  7. Eduardo R. permalink
    November 26, 2011 2:13 am

    Oh boy, you are so angry that makes you seem cute. You should be reading some childrens books instead of trying to write childish critics. You are a poor little angry person.

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