Skip to content

Famous Amos

Kyle Smith at The New Criterion

Photo by Ming Jun Tan / Unsplash

Martin Amis (1949–2023) died in May as both the preeminent satiric novelist of his generation and also a perpetual whipping boy. Never did he produce the book that united the critics in praise, sold explosively, and swept all the awards (or indeed any award—the most prestigious honor any of his books ever received was the Somerset Maugham Award for the best novel written by someone under thirty-five, which he got for his 1973 rookie effort, The Rachel Papers). The Booker Prize, so often granted to the creatively inert but politically correct, never came his way; only once (for his Holocaust-in-reverse novel Time’s Arrow) was he even shortlisted.

Amis was sometimes described as the angriest of writers. This is wrong. His humor was incandescent with delight. But he may have been the leading cause of anger in competing writers. Men and women were equally outraged. Swaggering, cocksure, aggressive, he was a notably masculine writer in an age when manliness was becoming reviled. His jokes had targets, and not the approved ones. Who else would dare to say, “If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book”? He bedded glamorous women and was not only dubbed a “rock star” of the page but also compared to Mick Jagger in looks. Yet he had an imposing, donnish mastery of literature and history. It was as if the loudest, funniest bloke down at the pub were also the most erudite lecturer. Men, especially young men, ached to write like him; realizing they couldn’t, they resolved instead to drag him down to their level. “It seemed like everyone who could hold a pen was having a go,” Amis once told me, in 2010, reflecting on the reception of Yellow Dog, his funny but imperfect 2003 novel. He did not beg forgiveness; instead he lorded his talent over his foes. “Envy never comes to the party dressed as envy,” he added at the time. “It comes as ‘high standards,’ or something else.” That Amis had achieved a novel as good as The Rachel Papers at age twenty-three suggested to many that he had somehow cheated. Surely his father Kingsley had eased his path, by . . . er, giving him a set of keys? Passing along the recipe? “Like taking over the family pub,” Amis would say, mocking this theory of literary inheritance. In all of history, there are only a handful of examples of child following parent to mammoth literary success. Yet Amis had set out a goal and, infuriatingly, proceeded directly to it.

Female writers attempted to disqualify him for writing both misogynist characters and female characters who had richly earned that enmity. His uproarious 1989 apocalyptic noir fantasia London Fields was not shortlisted for the Booker because, although the three male jurors wanted to honor it so, the other two jurors, both women, launched emotional attacks on its author’s alleged failings. One of them uncorked a ten-minute prepared speech calling it “morally and formally flawed” and “irredeemably sexist,” according to the juror David Lodge, and the other said with an impressive lack of irony that a great book “must be ideologically correct.” At the dawn of an era in which humor would be judged on whether it advanced approved dogmas and bromides and was invariably rewarded with the accolade “subversive” for slavish adherence, Amis stuck to what was funny.

Personally, he was ideologically correct: his politics were boringly progressive on almost all matters. When in pundit mode, he would denounce Reagan, Thatcher, capitalism, capital punishment, etc. He believed in “gynocracy—chicks rule,” as he once told me. The exact nature of the literary world’s opposition kept changing. In 1995, Amis-hatred seeped out of sulking white-wine parties and into the tabloids, in a triple-fake scandal cooked up out of two completely normal writerly activities (switching agents in the interest of securing the maximum possible advance, then earning that £500,000 advance for his novel The Information) and one medical emergency: beset by excruciating dental pain, he had surgery to replace his teeth. The papers cast this utterly necessary treatment as some sort of diva move—who needs working teeth?—but he made clear in his memoir Experience what he was dealing with: “Each time the uppers met the lowers they experienced a kind of electrical repulsion that made my head jolt. And sometimes, as I chewed, the whole top rank would shiver and shift, and give a resilient twang.” When he wrote with growing alarm about the scourge of Islamist terror after September 11, the critiques morphed into accusations that he had become his father: Kingsley was a staunch Labourite turned crotchety fan of Mrs. Thatcher. Opposing mass-murdering religious fanaticism had somehow become coded as right-wing. When it became fashionable, or necessary, for literary geldings to boast of their far-reaching misogyny-detecting equipment, Andrew Billen of The Times of London had this to offer: last year, he read 2010’s The Pregnant Widow, a novelized gloss on Amis’s twenties. “By page 100, where I gave up, Amis was still going on about some girl’s amazing breasts. It turned out the women who called him misogynistic were right and I, who thought he was satirising misogyny, was wrong.” Try to imagine a woman writer being criticized—and dubbed misandrist!—for expounding with comic hyperbole on her own youthful heterosexual lust, and your imagination will fail. The charge of misandry indeed scarcely even exists, despite its daily accumulation.

Read the rest