Hiding your opinions of famous writers as “fiction” is a cop-out
The publication of Martin Amis’s autobiographical book, Inside Story, has been the literary event of the Fall. Amis enjoys a lot of respect in the world of letters, but his recent work is uneven, and this book’s official classification as a novel—the word appears in big print on the cover, just below the famous writer’s pensive face—seems, at times, like a slippery way of hedging bets, qualifying potentially actionable claims, and validating authorial self-indulgence. It gives Amis a pretext for writing more than five hundred unfocused pages about the lives, loves, habits, and views of such figures as Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ian McEwan, and Philip Larkin without having to worry too much if the stories and characterizations aren’t 100 percent correct. The reader gets all kinds of anecdotes, descriptions, and dialogue that seem hard if not impossible to verify.
No wonder the copyright page includes a more detailed disclaimer than we would find in some books: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental [emphasis added].”
Well, better safe than sorry, we might say, except that Amis, as noted in a recent review on this site, appears to detest the use of clichés.
But wanting to have it both ways is curious, not that it’s likely hurt sales at all. If you’re going to title a book Inside Story, you should be aware of the expectations that this is likely to arouse in some readers. Inside Story purports to be the career-capping work of a writer who has known the luminaries named above fairly well and has much to share about what they were like in person and what they might have said about one or another passion or issue or hot-button topic, like the Iraq war or waterboarding or the merits of John Updike or Philip Roth. Amis is milking his celebrity acquaintances, Hitchens especially, for every drop of sensation he can squeeze out. Of course he plays up the autobiographical element.
The marketing concept here is obvious, and understandable to a degree. It’s hard to imagine who would buy an intimate memoir-style book about the private lives and friendships of all these luminaries, or any famous people, written by someone who had never met them. Amis knew both the public and private sides of these celebs, and that’s the allure of Inside Story.
At the same time, calling a book a novel frees the writer from having to meet the obligations, and the standards, of this kind of work. If the author doesn’t recall an evening many years ago exactly as it played out, gets facts wrong, mischaracterizes someone’s views, repeatedly vilifies people he doesn’t like, or fabricates dialogue or events, any bogus information imparted to the reader is the reader’s problem, not the author’s. Nothing wrong with a little miseducation in the name of entertainment, right? Having your cake and eating it is just another hoary cliché. By the way, Inside Story’s list price is a modest $28.95.
The Larkin Factor
I came to Inside Story full of curiosity about the British poet Philip Larkin, who critics justly regard as one of the greatest poets of the last century, but I can’t say that Inside Story enhanced my understanding of the man or his work. This book raises the question of how well Amis himself really knows those subjects.
The Philip Larkin presented in these pages is deeply conflicted: burdened by the memory of a repressive father with openly fascist sympathies, put off by sex to the point of declaring that he’d rather stay home touching himself than go out and spend money on a date, yet at the same time, neurotically attracted to the other sex to the point of harboring fantasies about caning schoolgirls. There is even a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Larkin, not Kingsley Amis, got together with Amis’s mom one weekend. One wonders how to make sense of such a farrago of impulses. On page 345 of Inside Story, Amis states that Larkin’s late poem “Love Again” is the only poem in which Larkin tried to explain “what we may call his erotic misalignment.” (Note the abandon with which Amis ridicules someone who isn’t here to defend himself.)
Did these incidents, and not a few others, really happen the way Amis presents them in Inside Story? We may never know, but Inside Story overflows with juicy gossip, and, for most people, that resolves the issue.
Amis characterizes this poem as a lyric about sexual jealousy, conveyed in lines like “Love again, wanking at ten past three / (Surely he’s taken her home by now?),” that morphs into a more ruminative verse in which the poet looks back to search out a force or influence in his past that may have messed him up—“Something to do with violence / A long way back, and wrong rewards”—and implicitly pines for a more healthy and organic kind of sexual relationship. That malevolent, misaligning force, Amis has no doubt, is Larkin’s father, whose innate sadism responded to the call of fascism.
But is “Love Again” the only poem that might be useful for understanding Larkin’s dalliances with multiple women in spite of his hang-ups?
If you know Larkin’s poetry, it may be a little surprising that Amis mentions the poem “The Whitsun Weddings” without really exploring what it might mean in this context. Amis’s sensational and attention-getting book sells itself short, in a way. It fails to comprehend just how trenchantly Larkin critiqued the institution of marriage and shows a rather bald ignorance of its supposed subject. One wonders whether Amis has ever bothered to try to understand “The Whitsun Weddings.”
As someone with conservative instincts, Larkin objects to what marriage has degenerated into in our day. In this sad poem, a narrator traveling by train from Lincolnshire to London watches as crowds turn out at each major stop to fete just-married couples. The speaker does not share the new couples’ joy, but broods about their short-sightedness, reflecting, “They watched the landscape. . . . / and none / Thought of the others they would never meet / Or how their lives would all contain this hour.”
Where couples, and the crowds cheering them on, think they’ve achieved a sort of liberation, the narrator sees confinement and future unhappiness. Nor is the dolor really that far from the surface on this supposedly festive occasion. Kids wear dull looks, young women are “grinning and pomaded, girls / In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,” mothers are “loud and fat,” and an uncle “shouts smut.” Everywhere are perms, nylon gloves, and fake jewelry. The grubby crowds are trying too hard to be festive, and it’s painful to watch. You can practically hear the narrator shout, “Fools! Don’t you know half of marriages end in divorce?”
Hype aside, real freedom exists outside of marriage. If Amis wanted us to entertain, even playfully, the idea that Larkin might have slept with his mom, he might have come up with a more convincing basis by understanding Larkin in more depth.
Inside Story is not kind to certain other writers it depicts. Amis reserves a special venom for John Updike, whose views on health care, he tells us in a Chapter in Part III titled “Rabbitism,” echoed in slightly more refined form the attitudes of a woman Amis had heard on the radio, speaking at a town hall meeting about the then-pending passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a.k.a. Obamacare. The woman said, “I happen to be an American, and I don’t want to live in a country like the Soviet Union!” Amis, who has said the election of Trump appalled him, holds up the unnamed woman, and her aversion to big government, for ridicule. God, can you even believe some of the rubes who live in America and sometimes make their voices heard?
Amis wants us to know that for-profit healthcare is a failure, and that when it comes to life expectancy, the U.S. ranks just behind Costa Rica. When he mentions this factoid in a footnote, you can practically hear him yell, “gotcha!” If you want to be part of respectable literary society, you’d better not echo the sentiments of that woman Amis heard on the radio, but Updike committed this indiscretion.
Listen to the condescension in this passage, from page 322 of Inside Story: “A marginally better phrased version of the same distaste was put to me by John Updike, in the panoramic setting of Mass. Gen., or Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston (the year was 1987).” People were milling around the place, inquiring about deals they could get on one or another healthcare package, and rather than agreeing with Amis, who called it a “shameful spectacle,” Updike had the gall to defend the free-market approach and to rule others out as un-American. Recounting this discussion, Amis uses some of the meanest slurs to appear in any book in living memory, stating that it was “the lumpen bohunk Updike, the Rabbit Angstrom side of Updike” who defended free-market principles to him that day in 1987.
Updike died in 2009, and insulting him publicly in this manner is not the bravest thing that an author has ever done. Even if Updike were alive, his options would be limited. This is a work of fiction, and any similarity… et cetera. What courage.
You may or may not agree with any political opinions that Updike let slip here or there, but he wrote some of the nimblest and most elegant prose in the modern American literary canon, was endlessly inventive, and suffused certain of his tales with an understanding of Kierkegaard that would put philosophy professors to shame. All too often Martin Amis writes mannered, arch prose. He does not write better prose than Updike did, though he certainly cranks out salacious stuff, rife with lewdness and vulgarity, and grabs attention in a way that was beneath Updike’s dignity.
Since Updike is no longer with us, I’ll take the liberty of pointing out that nothing Updike allegedly says in the anecdote presented here is unfounded or misguided. It’s Amis’s critique of U.S. healthcare that seems unsophisticated. The U.S. may rank behind Costa Rica in terms of life expectancy, but that is simply a national average, dragged down by things like gun violence and opioid overdoses and in no way predictive of how long the majority of people who take reasonably good care of themselves are likely to live. The deployment of this factoid seems designed to stoke the guilt of anyone who dares remind us that nowhere does the Constitution confer on the federal government any role in healthcare. If you believe that, Amis implies, you’re acquiescing in the Third World life expectancy that now obtains in America.
Amis is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the elephant in the room here. Christopher Hitchens’s well-known, prolonged, suicidal self-indulgence, which led to his death from cancer at age 62, is one of the primary subjects of this book. In the face of the severe alcoholism and relentless smoking of a fellow Brit (Hitchens once wrote, “Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I am always lighting another cigarette”), Amis has the gall to suggest that Americans live a uniquely unhealthy lifestyle and are unrealistic about mortality. Verily, let who is without sin cast the first stone.
Amis is baldly confessional about an ostensible friend’s alleged money worries. He provides an anecdote in which Hitchens, despite being a best-selling author and highly paid columnist, worries aloud about how much money he’s making. Hitchens sounds petty and conniving in this passage. See—even the more widely known writers have it tough in philistine America. If Hitchens had it this hard at the heights of his career, just imagine if he had remained the hard leftist he was in his youth. A compromise with centrism is a precondition for even partial success. Hitchens’s evolution from a reliable leftist to a contrarian with views that sometimes infuriated the left, namely his support for the Iraq war and his very public feud with Michael Moore, may have had less than pure motives. Controversy sells—just look at this book.
Hitchens might not have been too happy about these implications or about Amis disclosing his money worries to the world, and, knowing Hitchens, he might have liked to get a word in here in his defense. But the courageous Amis has taken liberties with the private moments of another deceased person, in a work conveniently straddling fiction and memoir and accountable to the standards of neither.
Did these incidents, and not a few others, really happen the way Amis presents them in Inside Story? We may never know, but Inside Story overflows with juicy gossip, and, for most people, that resolves the issue. Never mind that Amis, while castigating reactionaries and earning ever more points among the progressive intelligentsia, at times abandons fairness and objectivity altogether. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he fails to show the frontal-lobe activity (to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, writing about another very insipid memoir) required for analysis of complex social issues or accomplished writing, but the book is a letdown on many levels.
Amis can’t stop making fun of Americans and their guns and values. Railing against the Puritan streak in the American identity, Amis thunders, “Good, rich, clean-living Americans want to punish the unregenerate—as they would want to punish their own vulnerabilities, temptations, and nostalgias.” It’s the insight of the century: rich Americans lash out at the poor as a way of fighting back or denying their own carefully hidden weaknesses. I guess Americans in general do not practice charity, and Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Seattle-based foundation they run, with its piddling $46.8 billion endowment, are incapable of doing anything for schools, scholarships, libraries, technology, hygiene, public health, or infrastructure anywhere in the world that might reasonably compare with the efforts of charities in Amis’s native U.K. And I won’t even bring up Warren Buffett.
Amis’s authority as a pundit is about on par with his literary judgment. On page 334, he refers to Evelyn Waugh as “the most reactionary writer in the English canon.” Waugh was only one of the greatest prose writers of his or any time, and he turned a satirical eye on a fallen world rife with progressive manias. Calling him reactionary is roughly as intelligent as calling Galileo a bearded weirdo.
The Coincidence of the Arts
Reading this book, I thought of Amis’s short story, “The Coincidence of the Arts,” which came out in Granta in 1997 and appears in his collection Heavy Water and Other Stories. The tale is about someone rather like Amis, though it doesn’t try to have things both ways by purporting to be a work of fiction about real people. Rodney Peel is a hotshot British creative type, in this case an artist rather than a writer, who has emigrated to New York, where he enjoys sleeping around, painting models, and boozy meetings in restaurants with others in his set. Pharsin Courier, who works in the lobby of Peel’s Manhattan building and has a number of different street hustles going on the side, approaches Peel and asks the artist to read and provide a critique of an 1,100-page, singled-spaced manuscript he has written.
Though Peel is busy, he seems unable to do or say anything that might not seem in keeping with the good intentions and racial condescension of a member of the progressive class. He agrees to the request, then promptly tosses the manuscript into a closet and all but forgets about it. This leads to an escalating tragi-comic scenario, with Courier repeatedly approaching Peel to ask for the critique and getting increasingly fed up with excuses for why Peel hasn’t gotten around to it, until finally Courier forces the issue by demanding to enter Peel’s apartment and giving Peel exactly sixty seconds to open the door. In a hilarious scene, Peel ends up having to try to offer a critique of a manuscript based on having read a few dozen words.
It’s easy enough to write a parody about the consequences of pretending to have the best intentions when you really couldn’t care less. Peel shows the approved lofty liberal sentiments vis à vis Courier, when in fact their relationship is made of air. He doesn’t know the guy at all.
Rodney Peel comes over from London to New York and condescends to a local resident he vaguely feels he should try to help, but doesn’t bother to read the man’s work. Martin Amis makes the same move and writes a sprawling, self-indulgent work that maligns Philip Larkin, and others, without having done the proper work of textual exegesis. The coincidence of the arts, indeed.