Women and the Novel

Marilyn Butler

  • Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis
    Hutchinson, 256 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 09 156240 6

Like Norman Mailer in America, Kingsley Amis has made a career out of being nasty to women. Even in the days of low consciousness, Lucky Jim had liberals protesting at its treatment of the academic spinster Margaret, a woman whose sole offence was to be physically unattractive to young men. As the woman question has grown more noticeable, Amis’s gallery of male chauvinists has grown too, until in Stanley and the Women he has created a world in which only men appear to communicate with one another, and their favourite topic is their dislike of women.

For nearly three hundred years, the notional reader of the mainstream novel has been a woman, not a man. (It takes a specialised genre, like fantasy of the James Bond type, or Science Fiction, actively to posit a male reader; perhaps that is why Amis is interested in both.) The classic field of novels, domestic life and its relationships, used to be described as a microcosm of the greater world, but of course it wasn’t: the home was unique, the one sphere in which the woman reader could feel at home, and the woman character could act decisively. From Moll Flanders and Clarissa onwards, women have supplied, at least as often as men, the novel’s models of virtue and heroism. Against the tradition of all those fictional women who are vessels of consciousness, and keepers of conscience, Amis can get a shock effect merely by withholding the thoughts of his women characters, who seem, here as elsewhere in his novels, to have little social altruism, and no inner life at all. And shock effects are what this parodic woman’s novel seems initially all about.

The title proclaims another skirmish in the sex war, and an unprepossessing jacket reinforces this theme: an unnaturally small, weakly-looking male, the hero, Stanley Duke, is threatened by a half-circle of four towering women. The blurb beckons to women to read, in order to be outraged: ‘it is not a book that is likely to win many prizes for fairness or fashionable social attitudes.’ It is certainly not a book that is likely to win many prizes for accurate representation of itself. After the coat-trailing comes a sensitive, thoughtful and open-minded novel. What can be discerned of social philosophy seems humane, non-doctrinaire, neither radical nor Thatcherite, but clearly preferring state intervention to the-devil-take-the-hindmost. On this showing, the worst that can be said of Amis’s disposition towards his women readers is that he mischievously hopes to make fools of them, by showing them in advance how to read him superficially.

It would have to be a superficial reading that perceived this novel as an anti-feminist tract. A good feminist book, according to one current dictum, is a book that inverts the feminine stereotype: instead of depicting women as passive and subordinate, as in current society and in literature they generally are, a feminist book depicts them as authoritative, so that it presents women with wholesome models to follow, and men with objects of chastening respect, or terror. Stanley, whose surname Duke recalls notions of status and of a male hierarchy, spends the novel lamenting his lot as the perennial victim of women who are self-centred, bossy, exploitative and vengeful. Amis’s subject is not man’s objective hold on power in our times, but his morale; tougher-minded women readers are going to feel gratified rather than insulted by Stanley’s witness, because he is delightfully demoralised. A somewhat less polemic definition of a feminist book is one that exposes the formative influence of the arbitrary concept of gender on our thinking. Relevantly again, Stanley spends the novel contrasting the characteristics of women with those of men – who to him represent the human norm – for the purpose of getting women declared constitutionally, generically mad. This must be one of the most persuasive accounts in fiction of a mind imprisoned in received categories, a condition so impenetrable to evidence and common sense that it might itself be labelled delusory, except that much of the population shares it.

Two sets of polarities, male and female, healthy and sick, are giving consistency to Amis’s work in mid-career. This is the third of his novels to turn on the threat women are offering to male confidence. The Alteration (1976) imagined an England that might have been. If the Reformation had not taken place, we should have had less of what we call progress – less materialism, individualism, democracy, competitiveness, egalitarianism; instead, a world in which spiritual and intellectual authority resided in a Church staffed by male priests worshipping a male God. But this is no mere nostalgic fantasy about the man’s world we have lost. The boy hero in The Alteration has a wonderful soprano voice; to realise his musical gifts, he is advised to submit to castration. Becoming a eunuch could be a striking way of symbolising a proposition advanced in all Amis’s recent novels – that the men who find happiness are likely to be the minority who succeed in going it alone; on the other hand, The Alteration also conveyed the subversive suggestion that without the male organ, in a world feminised, we should have harmony. So far it is the first and more macho reading that Amis’s public seems more aware of. A similar moral seemed to emerge from Jake’s Thing (1978), which you may reasonably regard as Amis’s best novel if you have not yet read Stanley and the Women. Jake is conned by the Zeitgeist into thinking his middle-aged impotence a disability, and undergoes a series of humiliating public treatments for it, until he comes to realise he is happier sexless – released from his North London modern marriage, regressing into his monastic, homosexual Oxford community, though that is at the very point of succumbing to co-education. The more you think about this novel, the less the end reads like a solution, and the less Amis’s thinking seems to coincide with Jake’s. Someone is having someone on.

At first sight, Stanley and the Women seems to be, despite the title, less about gender than about madness. The story begins when Steve, Stanley’s 19-year-old son by a previous marriage, arrives at his father’s new marital home in a state which a layman like Stanley simply describes as mad. On one level the plot unfolds as a tightly written and acutely observed study of Steve’s advancing disorder and of its effect upon Stanley, his first wife Nowell, his current wife Susan, their relationships and their relations. As well as domestic drama, the topic gives scope for a satire of that classic kind which anatomises some current intellectual folly – in this case, competing theories about madness. Steve’s breakdown functions like Jake’s impotence in the earlier book, as the occasion for a series of set-pieces in which the physicians need a cure as much as the patients.

Stanley first calls in his doctor friend Cliff, a kind of alter ego from the same South London suburb as himself, and as Amis. ‘Most people seem to have come from a place. Wainwright and I got out of an area.’ Wainwright recommends a rather outmoded psychiatrist called Nash, the author in the long-ago Fifties of a book on madness in literature. Nash firmly declares Steve to be indeed mad, diagnoses his condition as acute schizophrenia, and has him admitted to hospital for treatment with drugs.

Once there, however, Steve becomes the patient of a more up-to-date and radical doctor, Trish Collings, who stands in relation to Nash as Szasz and Bateson in America and Laing in Britain stood in the Sixties and Seventies to their orthodox precursors. Collings is suspicious of labels like ‘schizophrenia’, prefabricated categories fixed upon their victims by the self-appointedly sane. Like so many recent psychiatric researchers, in America especially, she looks to the family unit for the source of Steve’s apparent madness: ‘I think we’re dealing with a problem in living, something involving not just him but also the people close to him, especially his parents.’ Though Stanley is quite willing to supply evidence to corroborate Nowell’s neglect of Steve, Collings seems more interested in Stanley’s own shortcomings as a father, including the fact that he hasn’t wanted children by Susan, and didn’t want Steve until Nowell took the initiative and conceived him.

All this while Amis stirs things up by making Stanley, the narrator, a bigot of the most unabashed kind. He announces early in the book that women are mad, using his first wife Nowell as an instance: ‘she knows your name and what day it is, but ... nothing’s what it is, it’s always something else.’ He is given to random asides against the rich Jew-boys down the road. Though he feels for Steve, and feels guilty about him, he despises his son’s friends, his clothes, his language, his pursuits and his mental equipment. ‘Poor old Steve of course belonged to one of the generations which had never been taught anything about anything.’ What Stanley does like includes drink, casual encounters with women, the police, and above all his powerful car, an Apfelsine FK3, with which he has a relationship passing the love of women. At the beginning you can imagine that Amis likes Stanley, but it soon becomes hard to believe that he could ever be caught confessing the ‘secret admiration’ Mailer has owned to feeling for his sadistic Sergeant Croft in The Naked and the Dead. In fact, Amis maintains his distance from the petty chauvinist Stanley more unmistakably than he did from the sexual separatist Jake, so that what Stanley says and what the book says must be two very different things.

The key episodes are Stanley’s two interviews with Dr Collings, which Amis on the whole lets Collings win. Before this, the reader has no reason to mistrust Stanley’s account of the insincerity and manipulativeness of his first wife, Nowell. But after Collings has dug concessions out of him, his version of that marriage, which holds Nowell to blame for everything that went wrong, no longer fits the evidence. Steve emerges as the unlucky off-spring of two egotists, who until he was eight intermittently neglected him, and used him as a pawn in their quarrels. Recently, his attentive stepmother Susan has made a fresh set of demands, establishing standards of gentility and literariness which he is even less equipped than Stanley to meet. As the detail which Stanley has repressed returns, Collings makes it plain that it is just what she expects. ‘I could see now that for some reason, like to fit a theory, Collings was trying to make out that father and son had got on badly or in a distant sort of way.’ He protests that this is wrong, but the reader observes that Stanley is constitutionally prevented from seeing things as Collings sees them. He wants a doctor to be an authority. She won’t use her medical title, reminds him insistently that she is a woman, contrives a first discussion with him in a pub, and adopts a democratic, non-technical idiom like the one he despises in Steve:

I told myself it ... had to make sense somehow, somewhere. The resemblance to TV must be a mistake, an illusion based on my ignorance, which had made me miss all sorts of subtle points and misunderstand phrases and expressions that were nearly or even exactly the same as bits of drivel but actually conveyed a precise scientific meaning to those in the know, and getting in touch with your anger and finding out who you really were, etc, were technical terms referring to definite, observable processes. Or she was hopeless at talking about what she did but shit-hot in action. Or something else that made it all right, because something must. Whatever she might say and however she might behave, the bint was a doctor.

If Amis’s primary intention had been to satirise Collings, it would have been simple enough to produce a comic caricature of the schizophrenic family, as established by the Collings type of researcher in real life. In Psychopolitics, Peter Sedgwick gave a comically exaggerated résumé of the alleged pattern, in order to convey some scepticism about it. Sedgwick’s might be taken as the informed and articulated version of Stanley’s derisory view:

The cumulative bibliography of the Schizophrenic Family forms a veritable saga of modern home-life, running in repeated instalments through some half-dozen scholarly channels over about 25 past years, and with no end yet in sight. The origin of the series is usually traced to Bateson’s 1956 paper outlining what has become known as the ‘double bind’ theory of the origins of schizophrenia. The expression ‘double bind’ refers to a specific pattern of disturbed communications, detectable within pathological families .... Mr Doublebind is reported to be a shifty, spineless, passive father, impoverished and rigid in his mental processes and bewildered by tasks involving quite elementary social graces. In the enactment of the family drama, he is constantly upstaged by his spouse, a domineering dragon of a woman who sets unrealisable demands on the life-style of her children and is then insecurely reproachful to them when they fail to live up to her immature stereotypes. The suffocating, spiky embrace of Mrs Doublebind, her tiresome niggling obsession with conventional manners, her intellectual and emotional dishonesty and her incessant moral blackmail are all repeatedly documented in the literature. The Doublebind children are a dependent, weedy brood, mentally unstimulating and mutually disloyal. If they are ever more than bit-players in the tribal charade, it is through their role in ganging up, in coalition with their unspeakable parents, against the unlucky fall-guy or -girl of the house: Charles (or Clarissa) Doublebind. It comes as no surprise to note that Charles/Clarissa, a naive and dithering but basically rather sweet personality, has been driven into a spiralling psychosis through this unholy conspiracy of pressures from his/her nearest and purportedly dearest. The Doublebind ménage is a blood-besmirched arena for internecine assaults and insults, a telephone network of crossed lines, scrambled messages and hung-up receivers. The research agents who have eavesdropped on Doublebind conversations and painstakingly decoded their obscure content have let us know just what has been going on in this grim parlour. The Doublebind family is duly incriminated as a pathogenic communications system or nexus of mystification. They are convicted in the fact of their disagreement one with another, for such discordances of outlook are to be taken as attempts to disconfirm, disqualify and invalidate the autonomous personal experience of the other, especially of the victim Charles/Clarissa. Let them not, on the other hand, try to escape the charge by agreeing with one another: the common assent of the Doublebinds is a collusion, and any mannerisms of warmth or co-operativeness should be seen as expressions of pseudo-mutuality, a false front of domestic solidarity tricked up for the outside world by this collection of competitive, mutually suspicious individuals.

But Amis doesn’t guy the Doublebind family or their academic observer Collings along these lines, as he so easily might have done: on the contrary, he uses the case-histories in the medical literature to supply much of his fine detail. The reader won’t readily suspect Amis of anything so apparently uncharacteristic as research, and in fact he neatly masks his knowledge by putting the narration into Stanley’s profoundly unclinical idiom, and by overlaying the family portrait with Stanley’s delusions about himself as a man and a father. All the same, his hero is eventually revealed as Mr Doublebind, passive and spineless as a father, rigid in his mental processes, and, confronted by a ‘mad’ Steve, instantly ready to gang up – first with Nowell, afterwards with Susan – to have him admitted to hospital.

Although it may look at the outset as though Amis means to satirise the trendy anti-psychiatrists of the Sixties and Seventies, this is not, then, the case. Their representative, Collings, seems justified in her criticisms of Stanley, which means that she is also broadly right about the hidebound and limited insights of Nash and of Wainwright, Stanley’s double inside the medical profession. Whatever the blurb insinuates, on the politics of medicine Amis is revealed not as a diehard but as a sceptic. He undoubtedly makes his hero the kind of man who would be happy to see more money spent on the Police, less on the National Health Service – until, that is, his own son requires treatment. But the novel as a whole clearly implies that the world’s Steves need more rather than less of our collective attention; its few amiable characters tend to work for the NHS, as nurses and orderlies rather than doctors obsessed with medical politics and theory. This is obviously not a campaigning fictionalised documentary about medical health, like Ken Kesey’s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, but more people are likely to suspect it of being cynical or superficial about mental illness, and it isn’t that either. Words like ‘enlightened’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘decent’ have become so devalued by over-use in centre-left political rhetoric that they have to be given a rest for at least a generation, but when they make their reappearance, someone is going to use them of the social attitudes latent in Stanley and the Women.

Nash remarks that madness itself is not interesting, only its effect on others. Amis might modify that by saying it’s not madness we should be looking at, but how we create it, construct it, and deploy it in contexts other than illness. Non-professional Stanley is the book’s leading speaker about madness, a great one for fixing it as a label on others, an insistent mental categoriser. As the revisionists of the Sixties observed, an alleged case of madness, and especially of schizophrenia, is a prime occasion for studying power relationships, since it can bring into conflict husband and wife, parent and child, doctor and patient, policeman and offender. All these clashes (plus housewife and cleaning woman) occur within Stanley’s stricken household, and Stanley’s reactions are predictable: he defers to the outside authority-figures when they are male, but struggles to assert himself over women and children. He admits to having opposed Nowell’s career; wants Susan to dress in a style that will do him credit; tries to give orders to Steve; threatens to call on ‘Security’ to throw Collings out of his office. Though always unsuccessful as an authoritarian, he doesn’t suspect that the error lies in the notion itself, and he persists with it to the point of obsession.

The chapters are named apparently after the stages of Steve’s illness – Onset, Progress, Relapse, Prognosis – but it soon becomes plain that the real subject is either the schizophrenic family, or more specifically the neurotically defensive male. Stanley himself fits the definition of madness he fixed on Nowell and all women, of inability to see as others see. He also has much in common with Steve, apart from the opening letters of their names: Steve’s fantasy, that the world is being taken over by Jews, parodies his father’s anti-semitism and his yearning after power and violence. The middle of the novel is Amis’s nearest approach yet to the deconstruction of his own favourite macho persona, which is rendered here as hysterical and terrified. The last part shifts to a more external focus, a picaresque series of encounters in the male world in which Stanley takes refuge while in flight from his marriages and from Collings. But the focus never shifts from middle-aged male thinking; Stanley’s companions fortify his prejudices, and turn out to be his clones. Bert, for example, Nowell’s second husband, another Stanley, boozy, womanising, the proud owner of a Mark One Jaguar. Harry, the editor of the newspaper for which Stanley works, mean, unclubbable, undersexed, a non-driver, who nevertheless comes good as a supportive male when he makes Stanley the motoring correspondent. And Nash, the doctor, who (even if henpecked at home) can still do his bit for the tattered dogmas of authority, by carefully placing women in a third category – not mad but not male either:

  ‘For God’s sake, Dr Nash, does somebody have to be frothing at the mouth or going for you with an axe or chattering about reincarnated Old Testament prophets before you’ll pass them as mad? Can’t they be mad part-time, a bit mad? Like you can have a grumbling appendix without actually ... ’

  Nash was not listening. His chest slowly filled with air. This was going to be the big one. ‘Would ... that ... they ... were ... mmmmad,’ he grated out in five loud sliced-off screeches, displaying his off-white teeth and looking far from sane himself. ‘If only ... they were ... off their heads. Then we could treat-’em, lock-’em-up, bung-’em-in-a-straitjacket, cut-’em-off-from-society. But they’re not. They’re not.’

  He sprang up, came round his desk and advanced on me. I wondered briefly if he took me for a transvestite, a male impersonator, but he was only on the first leg of a series of pacings to and fro. ‘Mad people,’ he went on in a tone not much less strung-up than before, ‘can’t run their lives, they’re incapable of dealing with reality. How many women are like that? Mad people are hopelessly muddled with their thoughts, their feelings, their behaviour, their talk at variance with one another and all over the place. Does that sound like a description of a woman? Mad people are confused, adrift, troubled, even frightened. What woman is? – really is, I mean.

  ‘No,’ he said, starting another crescendo. ‘No. They’re not mad. They’re all too monstrously, sickeningly, terrifyingly sane. That’s the whole trouble. That’s the whole trouble,’ he repeated in his normal voice, blinking and moving his head about like a fellow coming round after a blackout. ‘Well, Mr Duke, I hope your marital difficulties sort themselves out. Because after all one has to be married. That’s where they’ve ... Now I know you’re a busy man and I too have things to do. We will be in touch.’

  At the door he said: ‘Your boy has a good chance.’

In the middle of the novel you begin to take this for Amis’s Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, his mid or late-career probe into his own crusty authorial personality. Stanley and the Women does have such an element of self-reference, and deeply fascinating that makes it, but it also remains, more than Pinfold, a novel in which common attitudes are under scrutiny. The weird little scene with Nash seems characteristic of Amis’s essentially serious comedy as it now is (which is far beyond Lucky Jim). The humour has something to do with witty lines, and something with unexpected revelation into character, but at the same time the frame of reference is so wide that the interest has to be thought of as philosophical.

It’s hard to convey merely by quotation how this final meeting with Nash strikes the reader of the novel, because the scene is one of a series, and the points of view being expressed are taking shape as a pattern. Stanley, for example, has just been given a chance to re-organise his notions of madness in women, because Susan seems to have stabbed herself with a knife – pretending presumably to be Steve, in order to get her share of Stanley’s attention. To a certain point, men like Stanley and Nash want and need to label women as mad: but they know better than to do so when the effect would be to drive women out of society, or to rob men of sexual companionship, however impaired, uncomprehending and destructive. This reckless labelling may seem mad, as Nash and also Stanley intermittently do to the reader, but they and their mental practices presumably aren’t mad while they are likely to secure a rational objective – their own domestic comfort. So, just when Susan does prove mad, and demands sympathetic treatment, Stanley chooses to regard her as calculating, and thus sane. Stanley’s comfort has been, however, Steve’s destruction, which is why Nash’s abrupt conclusion strikes him, and the reader, as less than reassuring. Reflecting afterwards, Stanley uneasily tries to square Nash’s technological optimism with brief impressions of Steve in his old home and of Susan in his present one. For Steve to be well, he has to find a working idea of sanity, or a place where it exists, and what and where that might be has become the problem.

In practice, Amis upholds a vein of criticism primarily associated with feminists, of the male and ‘orthodox’ habit of so structuring the world that male comes out superior to female, sane to mad, and who gets into which category is left to the gerrymandering of men themselves. The messages conveyed by the packaging, that the book is stupid, old-fashioned, illiberal and likely to displease women, are nonsense, the very reverse of the novel’s actual messages – unless the ‘fashionable social attitudes’ which it is alleged not to have are some of the current conservative ones. It may be silly to wonder why Amis or his publisher chose to present the book this way, if it was only in order to sell more copies off station bookstalls. But there could be another reason, if the ‘labelling’ and ‘fashionable attitudes’ that rile Amis are really literary. Could he be tilting in advance at some of his critics?

Some academics are going to call the novel old-fashioned, not because of its subject-matter or its attitudes, but because of its format. Amis belongs to what is perhaps the dominant school of ambitious novels in England since about 1930, the school of Waugh, a type of intellectual comedy with a naturalistic veneer and a more or less covert philosophic dimension. The world represented in such novels has to correspond to an observable real-life community, inhabited by articulate and generally professional people. The campus novel with which Amis and his younger contemporaries Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge began is a sub-division of the genre. The more recent campus novels have allowed more serious, ‘shop’ conversations into their dialogues than ever Lucky Jim did, but then Stanley and the Women does too: it’s not the university setting but a general taste for intellectual controversy that seems to be raising the comic tone.

Already this spring we have had a rival comic-novel-of-the-season, David Lodge’s Small World, a stylish extension and updating of the campus format of his and Amis’s younger days. Amis and Lodge are alike in pitching plot and dialogue at an undemanding, quite lowbrow level, and in having the journalist’s nose for the intellectual news-story. If anything, the comic effects seem broader, more slapstick and one-off in Lodge, subtler and more thematically justifiable in Amis; the intellectual references are more signposted, more pinned to real-life ‘texts’, in Lodge. In essence, the two may seem comparable, but in one important particular they are not. Lodge, who as an academic specialises in contemporary writing, creative and critical, sets the action of Small World at a series of conferences on literary method, and his dialogue incorporates parts of lectures on competing theories, while his narrative devices are often borrowed from Renaissance romance. Lodge’s novel is earmarked for the trained academic reader, and the common reader tempted by its comic charm may have an experience of trespassing.

In academic institutions, ‘the modern novel’ has become a subject for comparativists: the aesthetic standards and values brought to bear are international, as surely as in architecture. This means that in terms of critical cachet, novels written for the international academic clientele have a head-start over those written for a domestic market. It doesn’t diminish the status or the motives of, say, Grass, Nabokov, Borges, Marquez, Calvino, White and Coetzee to say that some external circumstances make a writer more inclined to address the international market and its highbrow critics (which means concentrating on universal, ‘essentialist’ themes, and making sure one’s style is translatable): you are much more likely to write to suit these conditions if you come from a small country or if, in a large country, you are an alien or a dissident. Equally there happen to be reasons, neither creditable nor discreditable, merely practical considerations, why British writers who are not necessarily obscurantist, nor nostalgic, nor dense, have not adopted the international style.

It is true that the academic critic, like other academics, has less prestige in Britain than in some other European cultures. Among the compensations is an exceptionally diverse, competitive, market-based literary culture, which long preceded the rise of the university English department. Lodge, who knows very well what the ambitious internationalist novel is supposed to read like, also has to operate within a non-professionalised ambience. His solution is to graft the ‘correct’ self-referential highbrow narration onto a comedy of manners, character and situation; it amuses the English very much, but you do wonder how they are taking the lightness in Bogota. Amis attempts a similar compromise, but from the other direction. Stanley and the Women is a family romance which you can read even if unaware that the phrase has a specialised meaning for someone; without the local nuances in Amis’s writing, the difference of class between his idiom and Susan’s, or of generation between Stanley’s and Steve’s, you might lose more. In Small World and Stanley and the Women, the circumstances of production, the pressures, the notional readers are all different, which means that the two novels are also substantially different, but not that one can be pre-judged, or labelled, better than the other. Better for whom? A-Level English Literature candidates are already at work on Paul Scott’s Staying On, a novel about retired gentlefolk in far-off India; what a bombshell Stanley and the Women could make among that clientele, a stunning demolition of the family next door, or even nearer home. Leavis’s critical criteria of relevance and felt life may not cut as much ice in university departments as they used to, but they are considerations which general readers and new readers are less ready to give up. On the other hand, it is Lodge who has newer things to say to advanced students, about how art precisely shouldn’t stray (like an Amis novel) into life, but should acknowledge itself for what it is, a formalistic and intriguing game.

It must be quite hard for an intellectual novelist like Amis to shrug off those literary academics who deny him the status appropriate to his talents because he is writing for the wrong market. Academics have numbers, organisation, a captive audience, and considerable money and influence at their command. But they are not gods, and their judgments, like everyone else’s, can be interested. In one respect at least, Amis’s type of novel, or a first-class example like Stanley and the Women, has the advantage over the self-referential and new campus novels in its capacity to criticise the intellectual community, the collusive large family in which readers as well as characters and author are included. In Stanley and the Women, it isn’t only the male who is closely and sometimes humiliatingty scrutinised: medical professionalism, institutionalised intellectuality, proves as mad and riven as the common-or-garden North London household. A campus novel, which bars sustained reference to the outside world, cannot interrogate the academic profession so rigorously, or examine it at all in terms of its performance in society. Those learned manoeuvres that at least partially keep the unqualified reader out must serve to flatter the reader who has been allowed in. Lodge’s type of novel compliments academic readers because its range of allusion fits their specialised literary knowledge, because its word play draws attention to their advanced literary competence.

As the judgment of good new novels passes more and more to professionals in universities, the criteria become technically more refined, while the intellectual and ethical range looked for may actually be more confined. If Amis’s pose of anti-intellectualism is a protest against that creeping progress, that move to standardise what we call serious, it’s worth attending to.