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:
|Ian Hamilton||(Sunday Times)|
|Thomas Hinde||(Sunday Telegraph)|
|Bernard Levin||(Sunday Times)|
|Richard Rayner||(Time Out)|
|Peter Conrad||(Harpers & Queen)|
|Alan Hollinghurst||(New Statesman)|
|Robert Cottrell||(Financial Times)|
|Martyn Goff||(Daily Telegraph)|
|John Osborne||(New Standard)|
|John Sutherland||(London Review of Books)|
|Auberon Waugh||(Daily Mail)|
In all three categories, there was some reviewing of value and distinction. A good deal of intelligent insight and pertinent information was provided. Reviewers were mostly conscientious at telling you roughly what the story was, and at not revealing the ending. The person who broke that particular secret (more than once) was the author himself, in interviews. Perhaps most of the reviewers didn’t know the answer. One or two were actually rather superior at not knowing, a task made easier by the blurb’s description of the book as a ‘metaphysical thriller’. John Osborne wasn’t having any qualms about not comprehending, but Christopher Wordsworth in the Guardian was rather anxious to cover himself by being wise to the author’s own supposed self-covering: ‘Martin Amis’s new novel is a metaphysical puzzle, a form that allows much latitude without holding an author accountable, it can always be passed off as temporary relaxation, spoof, dust in the earnest eye.’
Quentin Oates speaks of ‘respectful but worried reviews’: there are lots of phrases like ‘nor is it easy to review him’ (Tim Heald), ‘I was left suspecting that Mr Amis has laid a number of false trails so that he can sit back and chuckle at his critics blundering down them’ (Thomas Hinde), ‘I shall stick my neck out at the start’ (Anthony Thwaite). The disrespectful are worried too. ‘A novel that encourages the reviewer to show off’: Oates again, the following week. It’s massively true of the disrespectful, as we’ve seen. As for the respectful, showing-off took the form of a jumpy knowingness. Here are a couple of beginnings: ‘We knew where we were with Martin Amis’s fiction, or thought we did’ (Blake Morrison): ‘As the whole world now knows, Martin Amis’s Other People is an opaque book ...’ (John Nicholson).
The habit is not confined to reviews of Martin Amis. Sutherland’s earlier book quotes Ian Robinson: ‘Take the case of reviews of novels. The commonest style is one of ironic defensiveness, a style which might tell us almost anything except whether the reviewer will commit himself to a novel or not, whether it matters or not. Whatever the novel turns out to be like, the reviewer’s nakedness will be unrevealed.’ This was written in 1972.
But if other authors elicit such reactions willy-nilly, Mr Amis seems to goad them. There is, for example, the cunning interplay of narrative voices, on which Amis himself has spoken on The South Bank Show, and which creates a whole range of elusivenesses. There is also allusiveness. Amis is an enormously ‘literary’ writer, and plants a lot of clues. Reviewers rise to the bait. They usually do anyway. But Amis encourages overkill. You could write a history of world literature round the names dropped by reviewers, singly and collectively anxious not to be left behind, again with controls and confirmations in the various authorial interviews. Even John Osborne, who was doing his best to give an impression of butch illiteracy, ended up by letting on that he’d heard of Carroll’s Alice, Cocteau and Anouilh, though he had the grace to make his selection pretty freewheeling. Otherwise, the favourites were Sartre, of course, because of the title, with clarifications by Amis on The South Bank Show; ‘Martian’ poets, on whom more later; Alice again; Nabokov and Joseph Heller.
Then there is the ‘Swiftian’ thing. A small branch of social history could be opened up on the ways the word ‘Swiftian’ gets attached to authors. In Amis’s case, it mostly begins with Dead Babies, I suppose because ‘A Modest Proposal’ has to do with dead babies, though Dead Babies (alias Dark Secrets) hasn’t. ‘Swiftian’ also has to do with halitosis, ‘excremental vision’, ‘disgust’, much as ‘Rabelaisian’ is wheeled in when genital measurements or orgasm counts start exceeding the critic’s estimate of his own possibilities. On the whole, the reviewers did not go beyond the stereotypes, though in fact there is evidence of a richer and more specific interest in Swift in Amis’s novels, from The Rachel Papers onwards. A poem called ‘The Place of the Damned’ is, incidentally. Swift’s contribution to the idea that hell is other people, which can stand as part of my contribution to the name-dropping game: to which I will further add my surprise that, on the subject of hell being here, now and in London, nobody should have mentioned Marlowe, Milton, or Shelley’s ‘Hell is a city much like London.’
Much eagerness was manifested to explicate the literary associations of the characters’ names. Mr Prince was a minor favourite, Mary Lamb the major one (no one I think mentioned the real Mary Lamb, though the Listener review was headed ‘Lamb’s tale from Amis’). Amy Hide, her alter ego, was quickly linked to Jekyll and Hyde. Auberon Waugh kept calling her Hyde, though the novel stuck pointedly to Hide. Paul Ableman, as you might expect, used both spellings. I can’t remember who said Amy might be Amis, but there’s a teenager called Amy in Amis Senior’s The Green Man, who is a fan of a pop-star called Jonathan Swift.
Reading twenty-odd reviews of the same book was (for me) an unusual and unnerving experience. The dominant impression created by this bizarre over-exposure was of an aggregation of nervous tics so enormous that one had to think of them as cultural rather than personal. There was a collective sensation of reviewers swarming over a book like the gods over the sacrificial goodies after the Flood in Gilgamesh, though not (oddly enough) to grab their bit of pleasure, nor yet necessarily to attack the carcass in the ordinary sense. In a way, it seemed a rage to give rather than to take, to disgorge rather than to ingest.
I take it that this cumulative effect is an artificial one, and that reviews are written on the presumption that no single person will read them all, except perhaps the author of the book and Quentin Oates, who reads all the reviews of all the books. Very few books are rich enough to warrant twenty-odd essays in a three-week span so one might wonder a little about the point of it all.
Book reviews, it is sometimes said, are a news service. But when twenty papers review the same book in three weeks, the news has ceased to be new. It is not, anyway, news in the sense of ‘What’s out this week?’, as one editor puts it, so much as of ‘Everyone’s talking about it.’ And that addresses itself, not to our curiosity, but to lusts which are perhaps even more atavistic: for repetition, for circuses, for ritual. Even if nobody reads all the reviews, saturation-reviewing of a book like Other People seems to create a kind of tribal sporting-event or festival. If the festival is not in every way ‘festive’, if malice and wounding take place, such things have often played a part in circuses too.
Most novelists would have reason to envy the amount of notice Other People got, even if it had not been as favourable as it largely was. John Sutherland pointed out in Fiction and the Fiction Industry that London is extraordinarily well-endowed with ‘serious, review-carrying journals’ and newspapers – much better than New York, numerically speaking. His list of a score or so in which ‘a worthwhile novel can hope for notice’ has changed slightly since 1978, but most surviving papers on the list have considered Other People in the first three weeks.
Twenty-odd reviewing outlets, however, are as nothing to the number of new novels in English that get published in Britain and the United States: about two thousand a year by Sutherland’s count in 1978 and again in his Best-Sellers, which is more than six per working day. Only a small proportion can ever hope to get mentioned at all, what with successive siftings by editors and by reviewers, ‘invisible’ decisions which occur long before any stage of published scrutiny, and most of them are consigned to that ‘much deplored’ form of reviewing mainly reserved for novels, the ‘group review’. ‘Only in comparatively rare circumstances is a novel honoured with a solo spot.’ Sutherland’s own review of Other People is a group review of five novels, but more than half the reviews I have seen of Amis’s book have in fact been in the much-coveted solo spot. The frequently complained-of relegation of fiction-reviews to the back pages may also be said to have happened to Sutherland’s review, though it was an extended one and anything but perfunctory. Sutherland’s review was on the whole hostile, and not entirely in his own best manner.
Martin Amis, then, gets an exceptional share of the kind of review-coverage on which publishers depend to sell what Sutherland calls ‘quality’ fiction. He is not a ‘best-seller’ in the technical sense of Sutherland’s new book, where he is not mentioned once, though his father’s The Alteration achieved best-seller status in 1976. Best-sellers are on the whole quite distinct from ‘the £5 apiece novels earnestly evaluated in this week’s New Statesman, Spectator or TLS’. Many of them probably don’t get reviewed much or at all. They are promoted and marketed by other means, sometimes by direct paperback saturation of retail outlets. Paperbacks tend not to get reviewed, a paradoxical situation, as Sutherland pointed out in the earlier study, since hardback novels are seldom bought by individual readers and by the time a novel is paperbacked the reviews are forgotten.
Sutherland’s book has a fascinating series of chapters on the typical content of the various best-seller ‘genres’, and Martin Amis’s books don’t fit any of them. Sutherland’s own review of Other People also includes the latest novel by the unquestionably best-selling Len Deighton, ‘who shares top billing with Forsyth’ at Hutchinson’s, and it reports that the book was being sold by gun-jumping. London booksellers several days before its publication date. The same was reported to me of Other People, as it happens.
The case seems variously ambiguous. If review-coverage is the means and the sign of success for ‘serious’ novels, Amis has had plenty of it. He claims he can’t live on novel-writing, after four substantial critical successes and all the gossip-column notoriety. Other People reached the Sunday Times ‘Best-Seller’ list for hardback fiction twice, in second and third place, but by 5 April had dropped out, though remaining an ‘Editor’s choice’. That week, Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers was making its 20th appearance in the top five, and Deighton’s XPD was No 1 for the second week running. Burgess, like Amis, got a lot of top-reviewing space, Deighton will receive much less serious and less prominent critical discussion than either Burgess or Amis.
Amis’s novels are far too ‘literary’ and allusive to appeal to anything resembling a best-seller readership, and even the gaudily-packaged paperback of The Rachel Papers (‘Extravagantly sexual ... highly enjoyable’, Evening Standard) seems not to have earned him enough sales to earn a mention in Sutherland’s new book. Yet his standing is not a merely ‘literary’ one, as his use as an up-market cover-boy suggests or the coverage of his new book in Company confirms. The phenomenon of a personal mythology co-existing with a genuine literary identity, and reinforcing it without being the same thing, is not unfamiliar in literary history, and I presume that this is what distinguishes Amis both from Burgess in one direction and from Deighton in another, though both seem better sellers.
If Amis hasn’t fully reaped the wages of ‘success’, he has certainly mastered its ‘image’. I think the novels are good enough to justify whatever the rewards are, but that is not what I am concerned with here, which is a style of reputation-management and in particular the way in which this involves the reviewers. Ian Hamilton’s Sunday Times profile of Amis reports a recent New Statesman competition ‘for the least likely combinations of author and book title’. The ‘most eye-catchingly bitchy’ contribution was “My Struggle” by Martin Amis. No Hitlerish innuendos were (presumably) intended: ‘the message was that young Amis has had an all too easy ride.’ Hamilton describes the rapidly recognised achievement, ‘three highly-praised novels’, a highly successful and indeed influential journalistic career, the acquisition of ‘mini-celebrity’ status. ‘Hardly surprising,’ Hamilton concludes, ‘that the losers have muttered biliously of nepotism, metropolitan string-pulling, and the like.’ Richard Rayner reports that Amis’s silver-spoon entrance into the literary world has taught him ‘a lot about marketing his product’.
The promotion and self-promotion have offered baits which reviewers and commentators have gladly swallowed. The things that have been held against him along with the nepotist jibe include misogyny and sexism, plagiarism, and success itself. They touch on some of the more sensitive obsessions of our society. The father-son thing is in fact no great problem. It gets good-natured publicity in colour-supplements, and sometimes gets involved in insinuations of plagiarism. These don’t seem serious, and both writers are pretty relaxed about it all, occasionally engaging in a More-cambe and Wise routine of undercut compliments and genial put-downs. An interview with the two of them in the Listener in 1974 is entitled ‘The Two Amises’, presumably with ‘the two Ronnies’ in mind if they existed then. Compare also the report of Martin Amis’s view of Kingsley Amis’s view of Martin Amis’s books in the Sunday Times interview.
The reputation for misogyny and sexism, I imagine, damages neither his sales nor his publicity-value. In these feminist times, it is probably at least as good for these purposes to be thought a misogynist as to be a straight feminist, perhaps better. The imputed misogyny is one of the ingredients of the ‘Swiftian.’ stereotype. Few people seem to realise how close Swift was to certain basic feminist positions of today (on educating and treating women as the social and intellectual equals of men rather than as ornamental sex-objects, for example).
Amis himself denies the accusation. The Time Out interviewer says he ‘admits that the most consistent criticism of his work is sexism but doesn’t regard it as a matter worth losing his cool about.’ But Amis actually went on to deny it with persistence and persuasiveness, not only to Time Out, but to his interviewers in Company (Helen Chislett), the Sunday Times and on The South Bank Show (Melvyn Bragg). To Helen Chislett he said: ‘I’m not anti-women. Everyone has a hard time in my books’ (cf Time Out, in one of numerous self-repetitions: ‘if you want to talk in those terms then my fiction isn’t anti-women, it’s anti-people. Everyone has a bad time in it’: mythographers of the ‘Swiftian’ should therefore add ‘misanthropy’ if they haven’t already). He told Ian Hamilton that the accusation came more often from men than from women, a claim which seems partially corroborated by the fact that his denials didn’t convince Richard Rayner of Time Out but did convince Helen Chislett of Company: ‘Talking to him, the woman-hating image does seem nothing more than a good publicity stunt.’ If she means that Amis or his publicity machine have generated this, rather than that it is a profeminist ploy against Amis, she confirms the view that misogyny pays in a feminist atmosphere and that some women know it.
Helen Chislett says ‘it’s easy to see why feminist hackles rise, at the mention of Ms name. One of his favourite literary techniques is to express disparaging views of women through homosexual characters,’ and Amis, who presumably made the point to her, is quoted saying a similar thing in Time Out, but Richard Rayner wasn’t ready to accept any simple distinction between author and characters on this matter.
J.G. Ballard in the Tatler was one of those who pointed out that Other People ‘presents almost the entire action through a woman’s eyes, no easy task for a male writer’. It’s the first of his novels to do this. Ian Hamilton asked him whether this was ‘some kind of answer’ to the accusations of misogyny, and Amis said no, he didn’t think ‘about that kind of thing’ when he was writing. But he did say on The South Bank Show that he had first devised his chief character as a man, and then switched to a woman because women are acted upon rather than active: things are done to them rather than by them, and this was consistent with an amnesiac tabula rasa state of mind. (Women, he said, are in this sense the ‘other people’: Simone de Beauvoir called them that, so there is a second Sartre-related resonance to the phrase.) To Company he said similar things, minus the change of sex: ‘The appeal of the plot was to introduce a tabula rasa – a blank page that life had not yet scribbled on. As women are the victims, the recipients of life, it had to be a woman.’
Company also elicited the information that Martin Amis wants to marry and have children, wants children more than marriage, wants marriage with a woman he can live with, has a girlfriend who is not his ‘ideal woman’ but wouldn’t mind his saying so. Also, ‘Good looks would help: “Being intensely physically self-conscious myself, I notice physical things in other people.” ’
Mixed in with the elements of persiflage in the interviews is some thoughtful talk both about his work and about people. I find it easy to believe what he said at the end of the Time Out interview, that though he wasn’t ‘particularly interested in polities’ he thought his ‘imagination to be of the Left ... obsessed by down and outs and the griefs of ordinary people’. The point is that it co-exists with the persiflage and there probably wouldn’t be any interviews with Company or even Time Out if it didn’t. He meets the interviewer on modish territory, doesn’t feel the need to backtrack on that, but holds his ground on the important and humane thing.
Success, as well as being something like which nothing succeeds, is also in a rather peculiar sense its own subject-matter. Back in 1967, when Norman Podhoretz wrote a book called Making it, it was said to be the then remaining object of prurient embarrassment, sex having ceased to be ‘what D.H. Lawrence once called it, “the dirty little secret” ’. Podhoretz decided to do for success what Lawrence had done for sex, to free it from ‘superstition, hypocrisy and cant’, and open up as a fully adult object of literary scrutiny the hitherto forbidden cravings for ‘money, power, fame and social position’.
If the programme succeeded, the statement is, I suppose, no longer true. It is hard to think that after 14 years, what with Podhoretz’s book and the many books about Norman Mailer by Norman Mailer, the idea of making it is any more capable of raising a maidenly blush than the anachronistic reference to ‘extravagant sexuality’ or weekends of ‘drugs and debauchery’ on the covers of Amis’s books, which apparently fail dismally to turn them into proper best-sellers.
The cute analogy between the two ‘dirty little secrets’ was a little short of one hundred per cent, and what it provided a blind for was something which may or may not have been dirty, but was certainly neither little nor secret, viz, the Podhoretzian or Mailerian ego. Making it is not about success or money or power so much as it is about the author. It is ‘a confessional work’, though what the author may have diagnosed correctly is that an undisguised self-baring on these topics would be likelier to arouse (if only as a prelude to neutralising) the reader’s fascinated disgust than might an account of his love-life. Mailer, of course, takes no chances, and proceeds on both fronts.
So, but not in the same sense autobiographically, does Martin Amis. Even his earlier novels are, at least ostensibly, about ‘other people’. But it is a fact that, having first written of sex and related non-secrets, he called his third novel Success, and told Company that he was now writing a novel called Money. He described this work in progress very differently to the Sunday Times interviewer, which makes one suspect that the different descriptions differed according to context and promotional decorum.
For if you are Martin Amis, and call one of your novels Success, however lacking it might be in autobiography of the more direct sort, you are doing something which in the promotional sense is as self-conscious as what Podhoretz did when he called his book Making it. The style of promotion is more British and understated, and a great deal more cool, not least because the book itself is in turn a quite different kind of work, however much the title actually fits the shapely piece of fabulation whose cover it adorns. It is as though reviewers who went on about young Amis having ‘had an all too easy ride’ were being goaded by a promotional come-on all the more offensive for not delivering a work of Podhoretzian vulgarity for them to do their thing on. One is struck in this connection by the fact that the most mercilessly detailed and acute exposure of the showbiz dimension is by Richard Rayner, a critic who insists more explicitly and eloquently than anyone else on the radical distinction, in value and kind, between the slick self-promotion and the excellence of the books.
Amis’s attitude to this dubious celebrity he has created is ambiguous: he is delighted about being controversial and sought-after, yet anxious to promote his more serious literary credentials: ‘I’ve been accused of not taking my work seriously enough,’ he says. ‘Of course my writing is serious. It’s much too serious to talk seriously about it.’
In fact his four novels ... establish him as one of the most provocative and consistently daring writers of fiction around, in marked contrast to his journalism which has such a smug, self-serving air about it. His expressed intention is to sweeten the pill of modernism, annexing complex narrative structures with a certain commitment to the populist techniques of realism. At best his books are both penetrating and funny, meticulously contrived comedy counterpointing the almost surreal quality of the environments he describes.
An issue which occasionally erupts with an odd kind of prominence, in reference to Amis, is that of plagiarism. The term is a crude one for particular cases which are often ambiguous or elusive, but it is in its broadest sense a topic that has attached itself to him for some time. Blake Morrison’s TLS review speaks of Amis a little loadedly as ‘a self-confessed raider of others’ texts’ and he identifies a phrase taken from Lowell and a line from Charles Causley. Three years earlier, he began a TLS review of Success by identifying phrases and jokes taken from Amis père, again a little loadedly, considering that in both reviews Morrison is at pains to point out that the borrowings are matters of deliberate allusiveness or unconcealed variation rather than surreptitious thefts.
More dramatic is the opening of John Sutherland’s review of Other People. ‘Since Success, Martin Amis has been involved in a spectacular case of alleged plagiarism.’ This is also loaded, since, on the one hand, it goes on to indicate that the case referred to is one where Amis was more plagiarised against than plagiarising, but, on the other, asserts (unjustly, I think) that ‘Other People depends very largely on a trick which is usually thought to be someone else’s trademark.’ A connection is implied between this and the fact that, in the earlier incident, Amis as the aggrieved author ‘showed himself notably unresentful and unlitigious’.
The incident occurred in the Observer last October, when Amis revealed, and Jacob Epstein admitted, that passages from The Rachel Papers had been incorporated in Epstein’s first novel, Wild Oats. Amis declared his admiration for Epstein’s book (Epstein’s apologetic answer the following week declared his admiration for Amis’s); he noted that Epstein’s book had had a remarkable success for ‘a first novel by someone in his early twenties’, without pressing any analogies that might happen to enter a reader’s mind; and went on to praise Epstein’s ‘marvellous ear, even when he is merely translating my dialogue into American’. These are only a few of the flourishes in a whole ballet of self-conscious and self-complicating pirouettes on the part of both authors. Amis was able to point out that Epstein’s novel not only plagiarised from The Rachel Papers, but actually contained within itself a character who writes, apparently by a process of simple transcription, a first novel called Winnie the Pooh. But then, says Amis, ‘I am something of an idiom-magpie myself – to a reprehensible extent perhaps’. He adduces examples, advertent and inadvertent, and reveals that one of the passages lifted by Epstein from Amis had itself been lifted by Amis from Our Mutual Friend.
This goes at least two steps beyond Epstein’s ploy of plagiarising from another novel in a novel about someone who plagiarises, by revealing among other things that Epstein went one step beyond that without even knowing, plagiarising from one novel what had already been plagiarised from another. The last twist of the knife was the one which Peter Conrad picked up in the Harpers & Queen review of Other People. Amis said that what chiefly embarrassed him was the fact that he was ‘no great admirer’ of his own first novel: the ‘most politely lethal put-down’ of all, for it implied that ‘the style he has outgrown he bequeaths to his imitators.’
What this displays is a remarkable management of the reputation-game. It sets up, publicises and complicates into intricate triumphs an awkward topic which almost anyone else would want to play down. Beside it, the ‘serious’ discriminations between plagiarism, influence and allusion in Amis’s article come to seem, for all their common sense or obvious truth, a mildly ponderous irrelevance. I suspect that this is the product of instinctively cunning reflex, much practised in the arts (aggressive and defensive) of self-mythologising, rather than a calculated and tortuous Machiavellian plot. The reviewers, if they get too close, are either forced into the game in some kind of ambiguous adversary role (Sutherland’s somewhat top-heavy castigation, Morrison’s more oblique face-value re-phrasings of Amis’s own words), or else join it collaboratively, like Conrad, advancing Amis’s moves, dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s.
If, then, the spectre of plagiarism hovers over the Amis case, Amis welcomes it as a familiar ghost and seems prepared to give it star-billing in his promotional enterprise. The topic is a current anxiety, an object of heightened or exacerbated interest, perhaps one of the ‘dirty little secrets’ (though an increasingly open one) of our culture, with its runaway proliferation of print and its obvious vulnerability to the abuse. An index of its frequency is suggested in Amis’s article when he points out that the lawyers seem to have worked out ‘some kind of proportional reimbursement system (as in the case brought against Alex Haley’s Roots)’. Reviewers borrow too. Amis once referred to the reviewing hacks of an earlier generation as ‘blurb-transcribing sots of yesteryear’. I spotted no clear case in the reviews of Other People. But Sutherland’s Fiction and the Fiction Industry cites an unquestionable and extended recent example of blurb-transcribing, and from the most respected of newspapers. He comments that ‘anyone doing this kind of thing in an examination on literature would be disqualified for plagiarism.’ Experience of examining at several universities suggests that being ‘disqualified for plagiarism’ is by no means as; automatic as it once was, and the two worlds may not be all that remote from one another on such matters.
Plagiarism, conscious or unconscious, has always existed, but one used to know that one of the two, and usually also which of the two, had occurred once the thing had been pointed out. Our unremitting exposure to the printed and the spoken word is now on such a scale, however, that it is increasingly difficult, not only for the reader to spot or identify possible plagiarism, but for the perpetrator himself to be always aware of what he is doing. In the exercise in saturation-publicity in which Amis, has been involved in the days following the appearance of his new novel, I wonder how aware he was of repeating himself more or less verbatim on certain points in printed and broadcast interviews. Past form suggests that had some shadow of culpability existed, he would have camped it up and made a production of it. Again, how conscious was Amis, when, as Blake Morrison pointed out in his earlier review of Success, he borrowed a joke from his father, that he was at the same time also repeating himself borrowing the joke from his father? And what is the relation of plagiarism to parody, and of self-repetitions to self-parody, to the rubbing in or camping up of one’s own styles and mannerisms?
It’s ironic that on this occasion the preoccupation with plagiarism and the reviewers’ occupational readiness to pounce should have focused on a stylistic routine which is not seriously vulnerable to the charge, even in the somewhat qualified way in which it has been insinuated. The routine is the so-called ‘Martian’ trick of viewing the world, through the heroine’s amnesiac consciousness, as though it were being seen for the first time. Several reviewers noted the connection with Craig Raine’s poem ‘A Martian sends a postcard home’, and provided the information that Martin Amis has been associated with the poets Craig Raine and Christopher Reid and promoted their work when he was literary editor of the New Statesman.
Blake Morrison gives the fullest and most succinct account of this, and also the best account of some slightly earlier fictional analogues, including Golding’s The Inheritors, and notes that it is a natural device in Science Fiction. He also recalls that Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up has an old man called George Zeyer who suffers from a ‘nominal aphasia’, which makes it hard for him to remember nouns, so that, like Mary in Other People (though for different reasons), he has to describe things unusually fully instead of naming them by the customary term. Morrison’s piece is an excellent example of what a good reviewer can do to inform, and I suspect that it is here that literary historians in later years will have to start. Richard Rayner in Time Out added that Amis’s novel about a girl who cannot remember ‘has its roots’ in Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’, about a man who cannot forget. ‘As with Funes, the woman’s perceptions are without seriality; they are random and simultaneous, investing the present with an almost uncontrollable richness and sharpness.’
A larger and older tradition, of which the ‘Martian’ style is a specific and fairly narrow technical variant, has always existed in which writers of different periods and styles have sought to describe the world as though from an innocent eye, and Alan Hollinghurst’s review in the New Statesman (though it has acute reservations about Amis’s success on this point) connects Other People with a Dickensian style of ‘vivid reification’.
These comments are not, I assume, presented as presupposing plagiarism. They not only, do not need to, but in so far as they set out a live and perfectly normal and non-culpable set of relations and common concerns between various writers past and present, they almost preclude the suggestion. They provide the materials for two kinds of informed understanding: that which may come from comparison between genuinely comparable texts, and that which is provided by the historical context. Morrison’s ‘self-confessed raider of others’ texts’ suggests a vague culpability, but it is sufficiently accounted for as a knowing backward glance at Amis’s Observer article and his reference to himself there as an ‘idiom-magpie’. But when Sutherland speaks of Other People as depending ‘very largely on a trick which is usually thought to be someone else’s trademark’, a direct culpability is apparently being imputed, and is located quite specifically in that area of ‘Martian’ style where the other accounts seem to me to show Amis to be least vulnerable.
I wonder whether Sutherland would have presented the matter with the same flourish of mildly scandalous exposure if his review had been written after several reviewers in print and on the air had referred to the coterie-aspect in a fairly unfraught way, as more or less common information. Perhaps Sutherland made it all seem worse than it is by picking on an over-specific example: two descriptions of telephones, one by Amis’s amnesiac Mary, the other by Raine’s Martian, not in detail very alike but sharing the same (and in principle very ancient) formula of describing familiar objects through unfamiliar eyes, plus a certain cuteness which undoubtedly belongs to the group. Sutherland’s was one of very few reviews up to that time by a full-time academic. It may be that we make more of a meal of our ‘discoveries’ than other people (as the phrase is) do.
Thirteen days separate the TLS review (6 March) from the official publication-date of the London Review of Books (19 March), a long time in the packed reviewing history of a fashionable author’s book. Time plays tricks, and the varying production schedules of the daily, weekly and bi-monthly papers probably ensured that none of the reviewers who talked about Martians between those dates could have read any of the others beforehand. Another of time’s tricks is that the London Review of Books was available a few days before 19 March and indeed before 15 March, the date of the broadcast of The South Bank Show, and it would not surprise me greatly (assuming the timings to have been possible) if the baldness of Sutherland’s imputation had stung Amis into the one piece of self-defence where he might be felt to have dropped a bit of his usual cool.
Melvyn Bragg spoke of the heroine’s ‘describing the world as if she was seeing it totally anew, not unlike ... the persona in Craig Raine’s poem ... Did you enjoy playing that game, and do you feel any link with Craig Raine over this?’ Well, there are any number of perfectly respectable and unfraught ways of saying yes on a matter that was by then public knowledge and had long been coterie-knowledge, but Amis seemed to me to answer as if someone had accused him of a parasitic act: ‘Well, I think I’ve sort of covered myself with Craig Raine, because he said he got the idea for that poem from a poem of mine, which is called “An American airman looks ahead” ... so I think I’m in the clear there. Also, I gave that kid all his breaks by publishing his early poems, so I think he’s not going to give me a bad time about that.’ Perfectly true, no doubt, and perfectly fair. But Amis seemed to me much more cheerfully brazen confessing in the Observer article those bits of copying which might genuinely be thought parasitic. It would be an intriguing irony if this slightly laborious defence by overkill had been caused by the charge of which he was actually the least likely to be thought guilty.
Bragg was criticised as an interviewer, notably for not allowing Amis to have a proper say. But in this exchange Amis went on to say that his method differed from Raine’s Martian, who described the world in terms of misconceptions while his heroine did so without preconceptions at all. He spoke well on this and on other things, and was allowed to. On the whole, I think the Martian topic brought out the best in several reviewers, both in the supply of factual information, and in critical insights, sympathetic (as in Richard Rayner’s comparison with Borges) or unsympathetic, as in this exceptionally alert comment by Alan Hollinghurst:
The Martian technique can turn on its user: it celebrates the phenomenal suggestiveness of things, but bring it to play on a human subject and the wit of the writer can seem to be achieved at the expense of the human subject’s witlessness. This suits Amis fine – but it does give rise to certain questions about knowledge: like Virginia Woolf, Amis elides authorial free-ranging intelligence with the restricted reactions of the protagonist, and it is often hard to see where one becomes the other. Would an amnesiac think of cars as ‘daredevil roadsters’ or invent the elaborately overwritten descriptions of the sky, aeroplanes, the night, which recur through the book? The question is not really a censure, for it leads to a central issue of the novel: the identity and purpose of the narrator. The careful reader will soon pick up hints, and many aspects of the story have been ingeniously arranged ... a lot of the time the peculiar relation of Amy to Life seems used as a cover to produce comic or strange effects which do little to further the story, just as Amy herself shows curiously little interest in her life before she lost her memory.
Mr Morrison pointed out that Martianism is an anagram of Martin Amis and thought this ‘may not be entirely beside the point’, but nobody so far as I know has yet pointed out that Jacob Epstein’s name is plagiarised from Jacob Epstein (1880-1959).