Amis and the ‘Talent Elite’-Count on a Fancy Prose Style

The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000 , by Martin Amis. Talk Miramax Books, 506 pages, $35.

In Experience , the memoir he published last year, Martin Amis confessed to a sad truth: “A writer’s life is all anxiety and ambition.” The memoir was more concerned with other matters-his father, the late Kingsley Amis; a murdered cousin; an illegitimate daughter; his famously bad teeth. But now we have The War Against Cliché , a fat collection of essays and reviews, abundant confirmation that Martin Amis is indeed anxious and ambitious.

The anxiety of writers is always the same, its engrossing object being the failure of writerly ambition, which comes in two flavors: the personal and the artistic. The writer’s personal ambition, mostly a simple top-of-the-heap scramble, finds its classic expression in the ranking of talent, an activity Mr. Amis pursues with gusto. Artistic ambition is more interesting and varied: There are writers who dream of coining words, others who aim at inventing unforgettable characters, a few who will settle for nothing less than epic achievement. Mr. Amis has written some hefty novels, but always his preoccupation is with prose style. His eye is fixed on phrases and sentences, even le mot juste -everything else is background. In a long and overexcited essay about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March , Mr. Amis assures us that “style is morality. Style judges.” In a review of Fay Weldon’s Words of Advice , he warns that “Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does.” Surface dazzle clearly means a lot to Mr. Amis; ditto its absence.

Mr. Amis is a huge fan of the ever-dazzling Vladimir Nabokov, and so fans of Mr. Amis will be eager to hear what he has to say about the “irresistible and unforgivable” Lolita (I’m sorry to report that the tenor of the essay is established early on when he refers to the novel’s “livid and juddering heart”). As Nabokov did, Mr. Amis worries about “forces of democratization”; he fears that the egalitarian impulse has bulldozed the “structure of echelons and hierarchies” upon which literary judgment rests. And yet Mr. Amis is confident that the threat will pass, that “literature will resist levelling and revert to hierarchy.” Honest critics will go back to the invidious and sometimes hurtful task of identifying the “talent elite”-a responsibility Mr. Amis has never shirked in the 30 years he’s been turning out reviews. In The War Against Cliché , he makes nice noises about a handful of living writers, including Mr. Bellow, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and John Updike. (The verdict on Rabbit’s progenitor: “I sense genius, but not the heavy impact of greatness, not yet.”)

Does Mr. Amis himself belong to the “talent elite”? He sure hopes so. This book can be seen as an attempt to bully posterity, personified here in the figure of “Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don’t.” A collection of miscellaneous essays and reviews makes sense if Mr. Amis is a truly important novelist: If our great-grandchildren will be revering him, then by all means, let’s gather up every casual scribble. Let’s preserve the review he wrote in 1971, at age 21, of The Guinness Book of Records (18th edition), and his racy 1973 review of The Best of Forum , and the relentlessly sour attack he launched two decades ago against The Best of Modern Humour , edited by Mordecai Richler. Are you itching to know what Martin Amis thought of The Malacia Tapestry , by Brian Aldiss?”Bewilderingly trite.” Do you yearn to discover his opinion of posthumous Capote? “Even with running heads, broad margins and fancifully aerated line-spacing, Answered Prayers is nothing more than a frazzled novella.” Because Mr. Amis enjoys chess, soccer and poker, a section of The War Against Cliché is devoted to these topics.

I’m guessing that Mr. Amis’ anxiety about membership in the “talent elite” is mild compared with his panic at the thought of stylistic failure. The pieces in this collection, even the recent ones, are (as he says of Augie March ) “extraordinarily written “-and if you were reading them in a newspaper or a magazine, you’d be grateful. Sentence by sentence, Mr. Amis works hard for his reader’s pleasure. In five consecutive reviews (this is a randomly selected sequence), we hear “the clip-clop of the hobbyhorse”; we watch Malcolm Lowry “wallow in the ooze and booze beneath Popocatepetl”; we inventory Raymond Chandler’s mug: “spectacles, receding hairline, lips so thin they seem to be licked away”; we cut the very tall Michael Crichton down to size: “the artist in him (a diminutive personage, true, but a definite presence)”; and we anatomize Elmore Leonard: “the essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.” Five hundred pages of this kind of cleverness can be exhausting. And it tempts you to play gotcha! , to try to catch the clever one coasting or-heaven forfend-smuggling in a cliché. Don’t bother: The essence of Mr. Amis is to be found in his ceaseless vigilance. Not in a million years would he kick back, let a sentence slide.

But is he a good reviewer? Yes. It’s no surprise to find that his great strength is in selecting quotations, which he rightly identifies as “the reviewer’s only hard evidence.” He knows how to communicate the feel of a writer’s work. Sometimes he skimps on the reader’s-report elements, which can be annoying if you’re more concerned with content than style. But where the point is the writing (as in his brilliant, revelatory hymn to Mr. Leonard’s Riding the Rap , or in his devastating takedown of Richard Rhodes’ Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey ), he’s delightfully exact.

At least one item is of enduring importance: a 1993 New Yorker essay about Philip Larkin. Mr. Amis’ mission is to defend the poet against the attacks that followed the publication of the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (a good many of which were addressed to Kingsley Amis). The letters revealed that Larkin had been a mean old man with ugly habits (he made racist and sexist remarks in private, used pornography and aired-again in private-some repellent political views). When word got around that he had harbored offensive attitudes, critics suddenly slashed at his reputation as a poet (Mr. Amis calls this the “process of literary disposal”). The “anti-Larkin crusade” was in fact brutal and short-sighted; Mr. Amis’ recap makes it look ludicrous. He shares with the reader a telling glimpse of the man himself: “slightly fussy, cumbrous, long-suffering.” So far, so good. But the essay is built around a review of Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin, and here Mr. Amis is led astray by the otherwise laudable urge to protect the memory of his father’s old buddy (defending Larkin is also a roundabout way of defending Kingsley, who kindled his own share of politically correct outrage). Mr. Amis detects a “tone” that offends his ear: “In Andrew Motion’s book we have the constant sense that Larkin is somehow falling short of the cloudless emotional health enjoyed by (for instance) Andrew Motion.” In fact, Mr. Motion’s book is both sympathetic and unfailingly honest. Sure, it makes Larkin out to be a sad case-but that’s what he was. (In a rare relaxed sentence, Mr. Amis gets it right: “In a sense, none of this matters, because only the poems matter.”)

Often Mr. Amis ends with a long quotation; I think I’ll do the same. Here he’s passing judgment on a collection of reviews and essays even fatter than this one:

“A rather workaday grumble to be made about Picked-Up Pieces is that many of its pieces ought never to have been picked up …. Complaints about … a book’s margin-sizes may look well enough in the columns of The New Yorker but appear footling between hardcovers …. [H]ere, plainly, Mr. Updike is more interested in his personal filing-system than in his normal courteousness towards the reader. And then, too, the hot snort of the hobby-horse can be felt on and off throughout books of this kind.”

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.