Novels are still not about you

I have been reading Martin Amis’s The Second Plane, and shaking my head in amused admiration.

In this collection of essays Amis writes about religion, terrorism, misogyny and war. We’ve heard a lot about Amis’s political views and we will hear a lot more. He has said some wise things, some very stupid things.

But I’d like to talk about Amis’s views on contemporary writing as expressed in the essay, ‘The Voice of the Lonely Crowd.’ (You can find an abridged version of this here.)

I can’t believe I missed this:

Noticeable, too, is the re-emergence of sentiment as the prince of the critical utensils. Commentators respond, not to the novel, but to its personnel, whom they want to “care about”, in whom they want to “believe”. Such remarks as “I didn’t like the characters” are now thought capable of settling the hash of a work of fiction. A critical approach of this kind will eventually elicit what it fully deserves – a literature of ingratiation. And we will then have reached the destiny that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted for American democracy: a flabby stupor of mutual reassurance.

Six years after Amis wrote that essay, the standard still holds. I’ve heard students in creative writing classes and also people in publishing judge a book on whether they like, or identify with, the characters. This criterion can swing a book deal.

A detail Amis hasn’t mentioned here is that critics tend to be put off by sexually confident female protagonists; the feminist writers Maggie Gee and Helen McNeil kept London Fields off the Booker shortlist because of the character Nicola Six. Julie Burchill dismissed her as a ‘murderer dream-girl’, and the voracious Zoya in House of Meetings also drew criticism, with reviewers describing her a two-dimensional fantasy figure. (Amis later said, ‘I love this stuff about “dream-girls”… All they’re saying is that she’s pretty. The subtext is that certain reviewers think that novelists can’t pull, or can only pull eyesores, and are reduced to having male fantasies about the pretty ones.’)

I don’t think this is the fault of ‘political correctness’ as Amis says – it’s just a general poverty of the imagination. People want to read about themselves, and write about themselves – or at least what they imagine themselves to be. Hence acres of novels featuring sensitive, intelligent metropolitans with minor relationship and money problems. Not very interesting as a story, but it makes the reader feel like a good person. It is literature as mutual reassurance.

In The Information, Amis pitted his failed alter ego Richard Tull against an old rival, Gwyn Barry, who has got rich through writing dull utopian fiction. Tull hasn’t had a book out for years and is forced to take a part time job at a vanity publisher called the Tantalus Press. The manuscripts he edits there are not ‘bad literature’ but ‘anti-literature. Propaganda, aimed at the self.’

Tull also says this:

‘Private’ publishing was not organised crime exactly, but it had close links with prostitution. The Tantalus Press was the brothel… Their writers paid them… And a writer ought to be able to claim that he had never paid for it – never in his life.

In Barry’s bestselling Amelior:

Twelve youngish human beings forgathered in an unnamed and perhaps imaginary but certainly very temperate hinterland some time in the near future. No holocaust or meteorite or convulsing dystopia brought them there. They just showed up. To find a better way.

Every racial group was represented, the usual rainbow plus a couple of superexotic extras – an Inuit, an Amerindian, even a taciturn Aborigine. Each of them boasted a serious but non-disfiguring affliction: Piotr had haemophilia, Conchita endometriosis, Sachine colitis, Eagle Woman diabetes. Of this twelve, naturally, six were men and six were women; but the sexual characteristics were deliberately hazed. The women were broad-shouldered and thin-hipped. The men tended to be comfortably plump. In the place called Amelior, where they had come to dwell, there was no beauty, no humour and no incident; there was no hate and there was no love.

As James Diedrick says in Understanding Martin Amis, Gwyn’s writing is different from that of the Tantalus writers in only one respect – his writing massages other people’s egos as well as his own. This is the reason for Gwyn’s massive success.

I have to declare a personal interest here. People who don’t like my own fiction (and there are some – incredible, isn’t it?) always say it is because they don’t like or identify with the characters. I generally reply that it doesn’t matter whether you like the character in a book, or identify with them – all that’s necessary is that you believe in them, are convinced by them, and want to follow their stories to the end.

That’s why people still read the Ripley novels, it’s why Irvine Welsh has just bought a house in Los Angeles, and it’s why the Hannibal Lecter books, which detail the adventures of an erudite serial killer, have sold millions worldwide.

Characters have always been one of Amis’s main strength. Yet critics are turned off by the flailing consumerism of John Self, the relentless eroticism of Nicola Six, the hard-drinking desperation of Richard Tull. When they read other novelists, they see what they want to be. When they read Amis, they see what they are.

4 Responses to “Novels are still not about you”

  1. petersonion Says:

    Good post.

    This is one of a few major problems I am seeing in current literature. Another is how everyone seems to be looking over their own shoulder at what they are writing. Then, in order to defend themselves against self-accusations of pretension they take refuge in irony — and what results is an insipid overly cleverness.

    No stories. No characters. No insights. No music in language. Just a lot of throwaway concept pieces on video-games or pregnancy-tests or open-letters-to-people-who-won’t-respond.

  2. John Self Says:

    Wise words. There’s something intrinsically childlike – even childish – in this desire for characters the reader likes or can ‘identify with’. All that a character needs to do is engage our attention, be it Patrick Bateman, Tony Last or John Self (no relation).

  3. maxdunbar Says:

    Peter – yes, an obsession with irony is another weakness here.

    John – thanks. I liked your review of Second Plane.

  4. The great reading public « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] not even enough that the reader should like the character; apparently, stories must have an inbuilt karmic […]

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