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