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Martin Amis puts women, old people and J.M. Coetzee in their place

February 10, 2010

"Oh, behave!" Martin Amis as an angry, if also groovey, young man.

Martin Amis, now 60, seems determined to keep up his image as the enfant terrible of British letters well into his dotage. With a new novel to promote, he’s been tramping around London shooting his mouth off like an ill-mannered child at a dinner party.

Here are a few of the most outrageous soundbites:

“How is society going to support this silver tsunami?” Amis asks the London Times, calling for “euthanasia booths” on British street corners so doddering Baby Boomers can do the right thing.

“There’ll be a population of demented very old people, like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops. I can imagine a sort of civil war between the old and the young in 10 or 15 years’ time.”

Hoo-wee, that Martin gives good quote! I guess only affluent oldsters still performing  valuable public service, like writing novels and teaching creative writing at the University of Manchester, deserve to live out their natural lives.

Amis also takes the women’s movement to task, declaring that sexual equality is a century away, and blaming women for demanding too much too soon.

“Women should have got something really fixed before they did something else but they wanted to accrue more power,” Amis says in the London Telegraph. “Men and women should have agreed to do 50:50 in the home and I believe a great deal would have followed from that, but they didn’t – the women went Napoleonic.”

This is simply imbecilic. First, it echoes uncomfortably what paternalistic white people said to blacks in the Civil Rights era — know your place and be patient. Secondly, it neatly forgets that the modern women’s movement is now a half-century in the making, with significant social, economic and political gains to its credit. Third, it implicitly blames women for the discrimination they still face.

No longer young, but still cranky.

As for J.M. Coetzee, Amis said in an interview with Prospect Magazine that the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist’s “whole style is predicated on transmitting no pleasure.” Okay, I can’t argue with him on that point, but Amis, being Amis, doesn’t stop there: “He’s got no talent.”

Thing is, Amis does not need to play bull-in-the-china-shop to draw attention to his new novel, The Pregnant Widow. He’s been a leading British novelist since his debut with The Rachel Papers in 1973. I haven’t read all 12 of his novels, but London Fields (1989) is an apocalyptic masterpiece. Time’s Arrow (1991) is a bold narrative experiment that approaches the horrors of the Holocaust in a fresh way.

His collection of essays, The War Against Cliche (2001), should be required reading for all writers. Experience (2000), which details, among other things, his relationship with his famous-author father, Kingsley Amis, is one of the best modern autobiographies I’ve read.

What’s more, early word from the British critics on The Pregnant Widow, a social satire set in the sexual revolution, are glowing. “Sumptuous,” raves Philip Hensher in the Telegraph, “beautifully achieved, cunningly relaxed.” Hensher demands a Man Booker prize for it: “I loved this novel and it warmed when I read it a second time.”

I don’t doubt it. Indeed, I’m looking forward to reading it myself. I could wish Amis might act his age, but, really, the chances of that happening are less than China signing a global emissions treaty.

Indeed, if Amis learned proper adult manners, who knows if he’d still be able to write? What do you think?

In any event don’t let his declarations stop you from picking up the new novel. Why deny yourself the pleasure of an important writer at the top of his game?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 10, 2010 2:32 pm

    Hope he says those silly things just to shock and “give good quote” as you say. Otherwise, I think he’s a jerk. Good writer or not.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 3:05 pm

      I’ve met Martin Amis a number of times, and interviewed him twice, finding him thoughtful, extremely intelligent, witty and provocative. In short, I liked him, on small acquaintance. Of course, it may be he was playing me in a bid for favorable coverage, in which case I am grateful. I always appreciate it when a public figure takes the trouble to manipulate me during an interview.

      I cannot account for why Amis thinks it smart or effective to make outrageous statements on matters he is unlikely to have expert knowledge about, like euthanasia or the women’s movement. In fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hate old people or think women inferior. Perhaps this puerile posturing is an irreducible part of his personality, his gift, even.

      As for the new book, if we only read books by people whose character and conduct we admire, then we’ll have precious little to read, and most of that will be dull.

  2. Tommy permalink
    February 10, 2010 2:33 pm

    I have never read Martin Amis. Now that I have read this blog there is one more author on my to read list. So, I say Thank You (yes, there is some slight sarcasm in that thanks).

    Is Amis called old folks useless? Last night I read a page from “The Man in the High Castle” where solving the problem of the aged came up. “Toward the old, the sick, the feeble, the insane, the useless in all variations. ‘Of what use is a newborn baby?’ some Anglo-Saxon philosopher reputedly asked. I have committed that utterance to memory and contemplated it many times. Sir, there is no use. In general”

    Amis also seems to me to be saying women should be content to have tickle fights and talk about cupcakes until the time men decide they can do more. What a putz!

    I still don’t understand the term “act your age”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 3:09 pm

      Amis did not exactly use the word “useless” in connection with aging Boomsters, but it’s the inference I make.

      I highly recommend Amis’s novels, essays and autobiographical writing. He’s not always brilliant, but sometimes he is. I suggest beginning with London Fields, a nasty, mean-spirited masterpiece.

  3. Connie permalink
    February 10, 2010 2:42 pm

    Aw, we have too many boring authors already. How can you not love Martin out there swinging for the fences with all his crazy? When he opens his mouth, he’s never dull, and most of the time I suspect he’s cultivating the outrageousness, just trying to yank our chains. I mean, euthanasia booths…it’s so patently ridiculous!

    “London Fields” is, of course, one of my favorite novels, and “Experience” is simply the best memoir I’ve ever read. I’ve read most of his work – even “Koba the Dread” and “Yellow Dog,” which everyone but me hated – so perhaps I’m biased (and I love his blasting of Thomas Harris’ bloated, horrific “Hannibal,” which is a great review if you haven’t read it). But I think he absolutely tries to get a rise out of people by saying outrageous things.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 3:16 pm

      Hey! You wait one minute there, Ms. Herald Book Girl. I liked Yellow Dog, and said so in print, back in the day when I was still Mr. Sun Sentinel Book Boy. So don’t be taking all the credit for Amis appreciation.

      And of course I appreciate Amis. If not for him, what would I have written about in today’s blog?!?

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 10, 2010 3:18 pm

    Actually, I would have left this one alone–the comment about euthanasia booths only says to me that Amis has read his Vonnegut — but numbskull remarks about the women’s movement were too much.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 10, 2010 3:19 pm

    And really, I don’t envision myself reading another book by J.M. Coetzee. Life, too short, and all that.

  6. rachel permalink
    February 10, 2010 3:31 pm

    Man oh man, the picture of Amis as a youngster is great. The picture of Amis now is kind of sad and ridiculous, what is going on there with his scrunched up face?

    I agree with Connie, ridiculousness can be great. Like South Park. But I would prefer that he say important things, or at least be right, when saying ridiculous things, using ridiculous things to say interesting and important things like South Park, rather than just saying purely ridiculous things to draw attention to himself.

    If you say he is that good though, perhaps I will have to read him. Often I find the authors I dislike in person are the ones I love on the page. And the ones I love in person are not so great on the page. Of course this is not a rule. But to not read someone because they act outlandish or stupid or insecure or offensive would really be silly and hurt me more than them.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 4:00 pm

      I imagine Amis intends to say important things in his overheated, look-at-me! kind of way, and I think he succeeds in furthering the discussion on the old people thing, and also on Coetzee, who, indeed, seems to think that it’s unliterary to give readers pleasure.

      But again, Amis goes too far, at least for me, in his dumbo comments about the women’s movement. John and Yoko had it right all along, with that famous song, the title of which is no longer polite to say. So I’ll do the everyday thing, rather than seem coy, and resort to elipses:
      “Woman is the N—– of the World.” A great song, and sadly, still too true, progress notwithstanding.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 10, 2010 3:49 pm

    Rachel–South Park is an excellent example. So is Steven Colbert, I think.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 4:01 pm

      Come on, now, let’s round out the Holy Trinity: John Stewart.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        February 10, 2010 4:53 pm

        Jon Stewart is just as hilariously funny as Colbert, if not more so. But it is a different sort of humor.

  8. alexis permalink
    February 10, 2010 4:43 pm

    Saying insulting things about women is a good way to get me not to read him.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 11, 2010 1:59 am

      Yes, but he didn’t exactly say insulting things about women. He said insulting (and also, as you see from my previous comments, stupid) things about the women’s movement. I agree, that may be a distinction without a difference.

  9. Connie permalink
    February 10, 2010 5:35 pm

    I beg your pardon, Mr. Mabe; you’re right in that you too liked Yellow Dog. I got so much grief for that I clearly forgot I was not alone against the world.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 11, 2010 2:00 am

      And I’m sure that you, like me, are always happy to take grief for your critical opinions. Even when you’re wrong, like about McEwan. And baseball.

  10. February 10, 2010 8:31 pm

    Ah, that naught ‘ole boy. Just as what is attractive in character, onstage, can be apalling in real life, so can the charming attitudinizing and posturing of certain writers be cringeworthy off the page. But, in artists the stature of Amis we forgive such misbehavior for the sake of their exemplary work.

    Upon your recommendation, I’m now perusing his “War Against Cliche” –
    and all his silly antics/pronouncements seem a negligible admission fee to a mind of impressive literary discernment and enviably clever writing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 11, 2010 2:03 am

      Indeed, I agree on every point, Yahia. Still, I cannot let a dunderheaded remark like the one he made about the women’s movement go unchallenged. That’s not even to say the women’s movement is above criticism — what is? — but not on the grounds Mart has chose. And as I said earlier, and as I think you imply, if Martin Amis were to stifle himself in the outrageousness of his public pronouncements, he might no longer be able to write. Who knows what else lies along the chromosome where his writing gene resides?

  11. Ralph Lake permalink
    February 24, 2010 2:45 am

    I’m a Martin Amis fan (from his slimmer pieces for the most part–Time’s Arrow, Koba the Dread, Money, The Second Plane) and have little trouble squaring the bad boy with the great stylist. I think you’re right to take issue with his remarks but where that will lead you is more difficult to say. His Épater la Bourgeoisie is an old gambit to score points against anything and everything that is part of the middle class cult of the moment. For example, you can mock feminism as a movement without mocking individual feminists. People are on that bandwagon for good reasons and bad. People used to call this a “vibe” which is not altogether a misleading term. I think we all get bad “vibes” off of many worthwhile causes. This is not because of something inherently wrong with these causes themselves but because of the package of motives that quickly grow up around them. Amis would rather disassociate himself from the whole cause because of this “vibe” than hold his nose and endorse it. I admire that.

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