Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Martin Amis Wages "War Against Cliché"

I just finished this nearly 500-page behemoth of literary criticism (The War Against Cliché - Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis) and I don’t feel the least bit exhausted. If anything, Amis’ writing is so fresh and lively that I found myself thinking: “It’s ending already?”

Literary criticism, Amis writes, is for everyone. “Interacting with literature is easy. Anyone can join in.” But his literary populism doesn’t equate to dumbing down the English language. Amis is open to all types of letters, and he analyzes and catalogues each piece with the dedication of a taxonomist. But, as the title suggests, he has no patience for what a professor of mine once referred to as The L.A.W — lazy-ass writing. When a writer falls back on clichéd phrases, empty words, bland characters and half-assed plots, Amis brings the knives. And it’s evident in his work that he truly enjoys shredding bad writing. But he’s not just a literary assassin. He’s much more constructive than many other literary critics. He’s not a prophet of a particular school. I guess he has an agenda, but at least it’s an honest one: Amis is a lover of good writing and believes in the inherent worth of literature in all its forms. He’s read more books than I could in five lifetimes. But this isn’t a badge of superiority he wears on his jacket.

Amis starts off with acerbic insight into the American political psyche. “The facts of the dispute hardly mater. What matters is the way things can be made to look. In American politics, you go through gates and you get to the doors: the doors of perception.” Politicians speak in “the sanitized anti-poetry of soft jargon.” His take on nuclear weapons is great: “For the first time in history, human beings have come up with something that may eliminate all second chances, something that therefore must never go wrong.” Later, he writes about the contradiction inherent in the notion of nuclear security. In the past, “the State was your enemy’s enemy; but nuclear logic decreed that the State was no longer your friend.” In a world of nuclear armed states, who is the average person’s friend?

While Amis is a great dissector of writing in all its form, his criticism of fictional work takes up most of the book. Amis is able to view works of fiction as a whole and also break them down into their smallest parts. His arguments are superbly crafted and his language meticulously chosen. Amis is indeed horny for the English language. A great way to start a fictional work, according to Amis, is, “in the aftermath, with familiar cadences of exhaustion, of slow recuperation after some obscure psychic struggle...” I liked this, especially considering it’s pretty much how I began my first novel, Broken Bones.

Amis has lots to say on some of everyone from Normal Mailer to Cervantes.

Writing of the work of J. G. Ballard, Amis points out lasting, haunting impact of an incredible work of fiction. “You finish the book with some bafflement and irritation. But this is only half the experience. You then it around waiting for the novel to come and haunt you. And it does.”

His take on Philip Roth, especially Roth’s Zuckerman books, had me cracking up: “perhaps the most cramped and stubborn exercise in self-examination known to modern letters.”

Amis rightly refers to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night” as, “a work of moral and comic near-perfection.” Since Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite American novelist and Martin Amis is my favorite literary critic, I’m glad to see the two get along. It's like introducing your parents to your girlfriend. It’s nice when they can sit at the same table and engage in cordial conversation.

While Amis respects fiction as an art form, he doesn’t idolize it. “There is no reason, for instance, why a novelist's opinions or positions' should be of special value, let alone special authority.” I agree. Novelists are probably, on the average, far more screwed up and far less adept at giving advice than the average person on the street.

Overall, this book is a love poem to writing and reading. “When we read, we are doing more than delectating words on a page – stories, characters, images, notions. We are communing with mind of the author.” Agreed. And communing with Amis’ mind is a joy.

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