Claude Rawson considers the behaviour of reviewers and their response to Martin Amis’s novel ‘Other People’
Since I am about to comment on other people’s published reactions to Martin Amis’s novel Other People, it seems right to state in summary form my own feelings on the main matters that divided the reviewers. I thought it a remarkable work, highly readable and enjoyable, not incomprehensible or unduly difficult. I have probably not fully solved the ‘mystery’, or totally mastered the intricacies of the story’s movement between Hell and the real world. I cannot raise much interest in the ‘metaphysical’ dimension referred to in the blurb, and rather think I don’t need to. My first reading, before any reviews appeared, concurs with what I took Peter Ackroyd to be saying on Kaleidoscope, that the bulk of the narrative can be read and enjoyed in a moderately literal way as a mystery story set in London, even though the mystery turns out to be not soluble at this level. My second reading was helped by the author’s explanation on Kaleidoscope and elsewhere, which gives the game away. I found some of the heroine’s amnesiac talk too cute for comfort, but a lot of it very attractive. I came to the reviews with no expert knowledge of what John Sutherland calls ‘the fiction industry’ and ‘the reviewing establishment’. His two excellent books, Fiction and the Fiction Industry (1978) and the recently published Best-Sellers, have helped me greatly.
Other People was published on 5 March. Almost exactly three weeks later, I have seen just under two dozen reviews and interviews, including two reviews of reviews by ‘Quentin Oates’ in the Bookseller, and seen or heard several broadcast interviews and discussions. Time-limits ruled out an exhaustive listing even, I suspect, of material which actually appeared before I had to stop looking. Even so, the figures reveal an average of more than one fairly substantial discussion for every day since publication.
Fourteen reviews appeared on the day of publication or on the first possible day after in the case of the Sunday papers or other non-dailies. Two others appeared on what might effectively have been the first possible day because the papers in question do not carry book reviews every day. The Telegraph held back for a whole week and the Times, whose daily arts pages use book reviews sparsely (as fillers, according to Quentin Oates), managed to contain itself for three weeks, until the fourth possible book-page Thursday. It did, however, break silence the previous Thursday by announcing the forthcoming treat. The delay enabled the reviewer to follow the author’s recommendation, broadcast to the nation on both TV and radio, that the book should be read twice, unless it was this that actually caused the delay. The mountain brought forth a mouse. Other People was treated last in a short review of four novels at the bottom of the page. But it was an appreciative mouse. The review ended up with the reviewer ‘purring with pleasure’. So the mouse was probably a cat.
But this was untypical. Thirteen pieces were solo treatments of Amis or his book (Daily Mail, Listener, TLS, Financial Times, Harpers & Queen, Tatler, Company, Observer, Sunday Times, which had two pieces, New Standard, Spectator, Time Out), three shared space with one other novel (Now, New Statesman, and the tiny mention in the Sunday Express), and five with two or more other novels (Guardian, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Telegraph, Times, London Review of Books). The London Review of Books made him share with four others in a rather unfriendly review but made up for it by displaying a full-page photograph on its cover, not to mention running the present bit of extra and extended attention. The preponderance of solo pieces over group reviews seems (from a limited sampling) strongly to reverse the pattern of reception of Amis’s three previous novels and therefore to indicate a marked advance in his reputation.
A related index of this, and of his continuing and presumably increasing news-worthiness as a ‘personality’, is the fact that Amis was much photographed (often looking rather soulful, an image not entirely in line with the gossip-column stereotype of him). The London Review cover was the most spectacular because of its size, but several papers printed small photographs. Time Out offered a pictorial contrast: on the one hand, a particularly youthful and seraphic photograph, and, on the other, an enormous caricatured head gazing narcissistically over a tiny Westminster Bridge at its own reflection in the water, which turns out to have the features of William Shakespeare. The reference is to a mock-solemn claim by Amis that ‘in two hundred years I want them to be talking about Dante, Shakespeare and Martin Amis.’ The text of the Time Out feature by Richard Rayner, one of the most impressive of all the discussions, is also a study in contrasts, containing a highly unillusioned portrait of Amis’s public personality alongside an intelligent and generous appraisal of his novels.
The star fiction-reviewers were brought out in force: Bernard Levin (Sunday Times), Auberon Waugh (Daily Mail), John Osborne in the very first ‘John Osborne Review’ in the New Standard, a launching to which Quentin Oates devoted some well-placed sarcasms in one of the pieces by him on Amis’s reviewers. Though a majority of reviews were favourable, the really big guns chose to exercise their egos at the expense of the book, with the exception of Mr Levin, who chose to exercise his in its favour, a somewhat windily unctuous operation of which Quentin Oates seems to have approved in a backhanded sort of way.
Auberon Waugh did roughly his customary thing. Waugh specialises in asseverations like ‘Mr Amis remains the only really interesting novelist of his generation’ and ‘it is all a load of old cobblers.’ Both occur within a few lines of each other in the review of Other People. He doesn’t like the novel, but he does like saying so in spectacular antitheses. Between the two poles, characteristically, there lies a vacant, windy space, for Mr Waugh is surprisingly unspecific: not in the sense that he doesn’t mention details in the novel under review, but in the odd lack of any match between the examples and the comments, which are really designed to express Mr Waugh’s interesting personality rather than inform us about the book. Mr Waugh’s personality has been rather uniformly interesting for years. Sutherland says he ‘reads carefully’ and is ‘the only reviewer who regularly picks on sloppy editing’. In his review of Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers in 1973 he opined rather heftily on the hero’s character on the basis of a bowdlerised quotation, and in the present review he repeatedly misspells the heroine’s name.
Waugh has been called ‘the most influential reviewer of novels in Britain today’. That was when he did a weekly star-turn in the Evening Standard. Now he does it in the Mail, and nothing has changed. John Osborne at present occupies the New Standard spot. Nothing has changed there either. Osborne promises to be almost as waughful as Waugh. Literally. These are his opening words:
Mr Auberon Waugh, a fierce and forthright judge of fiction, made what seems to me an incontrovertible statement: ‘There is nothing clever or smart about being incomprehensible. The ordinary man in the street has his rights, just as the toffee-nosed élitists in Hampstead have theirs.’
Other People was discussed in at least four broadcasts, two on radio (Kaleidoscope, Critics’ Forum), and two on TV (The South Bank Show, Did you see?), the second of the latter reviewing the first. The South Bank Show was also reviewed in the Spectator by Richard Ingrams, as follows:
[Robert] Redford was followed onto the show by young Martin Amis, a rather scruffy looking man without a tie. I was baffled as to why his new novel should be given about half an hour of publicity when there are so many other things worthy of attention ... Amis agreed that the book was pretty baffling and said that none of the people who’d read it could understand the ending. This didn’t seem to worry him all that much ...
I didn’t feel compelled to rush out on Monday morning and buy any of Martin Amis’s books. I think I shall just get older and not read any of them.
The remarks about young Martin Amis have that studied note of peevish school-masterly positiveness which is cultivated also by Mr Waugh. It’s as though the professional enfants terribles of an earlier generation were finding it hard to stomach a youthful interloper with pretensions to being as clever and cheeky as themselves, and were casting about for an appropriate alternative voice with which to put the little bugger down. The schoolboy range of tones tends traditionally to be limited to the twin languages of his fellows and of the masters, which are usually parodies of one another anyway. (Mr Waugh also has his own famous-son-of-a-famous-father position to protect.)
Mr Ingrams’s review displays to advantage and to his obvious satisfaction that rather strong line which he and some of his colleagues have developed on the characteristics of books they haven’t read. Christopher Booker did a rather similar job, informing us that ‘I have never read The Road to Oxiana,’ and then telling us his opinion of it, in a recent review of Paul Fussell’s Abroad.
By an amiable irony, the same issue of the Spectator which contains Ingrams’s announced intention not to read Amis’s novels also contains a page of reflections ‘On book reviewing’ by, wait for it, Christopher Booker. He discusses a. doing it, and b. having it done to him, though not necessarily in that or any other particular order, and takes what will seem in the immediate context the rather surprising view that a reviewer’s obligation is to give the reader some idea of what the book under discussion is about. Mr Amis, as it happens, isn’t mentioned, but then very few authors are. The exceptions are Macaulay (once), A.Sinyavsky and Coleridge (twice) and Mr Booker (many times).
Having dawdled until 21 March, the Spectator made up for lost time by printing a solo review of Other People by Paul Ableman in addition to Mr Ingrams’s review of the TV discussion. Mr Ableman found it more difficult to discuss the book than Mr Ingrams did, because he suffered from the disadvantage of having read it, and all the other reviews as well:
Reviewing Martin Amis is like trying to hear a bird sing in the midst of an artillery duel. ‘Most powerful, wonderful, titanic English novelist alive’ boom the guns of one side. ‘Talentless, jumped-up, nepotistic little nobody’ comes the answering fire.
What is Mr Ableman to think? ‘The long-term question is probably whether the vulnerable bird will survive its sojourn on the battlefield,’ but then again there is a short-term task, too, for ‘the intrepid naturalist’ and Mr Ableman isn’t going to shirk it.
For example, on the one hand, it seems that the hostile batteries are right. ‘Does it all work?’ asks Mr Ableman, and answers; ‘Not really.’ But then, ‘for all that, the book has genuine merit,’ so that in spite of the clear force of the opposite case, and of all the intermediate doubts that have to be expressed, ‘there seems no doubt [sic] that a songbird is trilling on the battlefield.’ Rara Amis, Bernard Levin had mused in the Sunday Times, and Mr Ableman’s aviculture, or amiculture, like much of his other material, presumably refers back to the critical corpus. It may be that Quentin Oates had a point when he reflected in his State of Reviewing Address at the end of last year that ‘the Spectator, in its book reviews at any rate, seems to be going downhill.’ But it has to be said that Peter Ackroyd, formerly its literary editor, has been a consistently sympathetic and intelligent commentator on Amis’s novels, and spoke with some wisdom about this one on Kaleidoscope.
The number of favourable or predominantly sympathetic reactions to the novel or to Amis generally more or less equalled the middling (sometimes tending to favourable) and unfavourable ones put together. If one were to add the broadcasts, the balance would shift further in favour. A rough list of printed pieces, in alphabetical order of reviewers and interviewers, might look like this:
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[*] Best-sellers. Routledge, 268 pp., £8.95, 16 April, 0 7100 0750 7.