At one time, "Literature and Society" was a phrase so much on everyone's lips that it earned itself an abbreviation: Lit & Soc. And Lit & Soc, I seemed to remember, had been for me a long-running enthusiasm. When complacently preparing my new collection of essays and reviews, The War Against Cliché, I planned to assemble my pieces on literature and society (pieces on FR Leavis and Lionel Trilling, and on lesser figures like Ian Robinson and Denis Donoghue). But when I leafed through the massed manuscripts I found only a handful of essays, all of them written, rather ominously, in the early 70s (when I was in my early 20s). Having re-read them, I toyed with the idea of including a nice little section called something like "Literature and Society: The Vanished Debate". Then I decided that my debate had better vanish too. The pieces themselves I considered earnest, overweening, and contentedly dull. More decisively, though, Lit & Soc, and indeed literary criticism, felt dead and gone.
That time now seems unrecognisably remote. I had a day job at the Times Literary Supplement. Even then I sensed discrepancy, as I joined an editorial conference (to help prepare, perhaps, a special number on Literature and Society), wearing shoulder-length hair, a flowered shirt, and knee-high tricoloured boots (well concealed, it is true, by the twin tepees of my flared trousers). My private life was middle-bohemian - hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time, in the tub, on the tube; I always had about me my Edmund Wilson - or my William Empson. I took it seriously.
We all did. We hung around the place talking about literary criticism. We sat in pubs and coffee bars talking about WK Wimsatt and G Wilson Knight, about Richard Hoggart and Northrop Frye, about Richard Poirier, Tony Tanner and George Steiner. It might have been in such a locale that my friend and colleague Clive James first formulated his view that, while literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to civilisation. Everyone concurred. Literature, we felt, was the core discipline; criticism explored and popularised the significance of that centrality, creating a space around literature and thereby further exalting it. The early 70s, I should add, saw the great controversy about the Two Cultures: Art v Science (or FR Leavis v CP Snow). Perhaps the most fantastic thing about this cultural moment was that Art seemed to be winning.
Literary historians know it as the Age of Criticism. It began, let us suggest, in 1948, with the publication of Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture and Leavis's The Great Tradition. What ended it? The brutalist answer would consist of a single four-letter word: Opec. In the 60s, you could live on 10 shillings a week: you slept on people's floors and sponged off your friends and sang for your supper - about literary criticism. Then, abruptly, a bus fare cost 10 shillings. The oil hike, and inflation, and then stagflation, revealed literary criticism as one of the many leisure-class fripperies we would have to get along without. Well, that's how it felt. But it now seems clear that literary criticism was inherently doomed. Explicitly or otherwise it had based itself on a structure of echelons and hierarchies; it was about the talent elite. And the structure atomised as soon as the forces of democratisation gave their next concerted push.
Those forces - incomparably the most potent in our culture - have gone on pushing. And they are now running up against a natural barrier. Some citadels, true, have proved stormable. You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerd-othon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.
Literary criticism, now almost entirely confined to the universities, thus moves against talent by moving against the canon. Academic preferment will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth's poetics; it will come from a challenging study of his politics - his attitude to the poor, say, or his unconscious "valourisation" of Napoleon; and it will come still faster if you ignore Wordsworth and elevate some (justly) neglected contemporary, by which process the canon may be quietly and steadily sapped. A brief consultation of the internet will show that meanwhile, at the other end of the business, everyone has become a literary critic - or at least a book-reviewer.
Democratisation has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments. I think Gore Vidal said this first, and he said it, not quite with mockery, but with lively scepticism. He said that, nowadays, nobody's feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else's. This is the new credo, the new privilege. It is a privilege much exercised in the contemporary book review, whether on the web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. The right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature.
Probably some readers are getting the impression that I think these developments are to be deplored. Not so. It is the summit of idleness to deplore the present, to deplore actuality. Say whatever else you like about it, the present is unavoidable. And we, in the 70s, were frequently ridiculous, too, with our Fallacies and our Seven Types (and Leavis's besieged intensity was ridiculous. His shaping embarrassment, however, was to nominate as his model for sanity the person of DH Lawrence). Emotional egalitarianism, for example, looks hard to attack. I honour it, in a way, but it has to me the pale glow of illusion. It is utopian, which is to say that reality cannot be expected to support it. Then, too, these "feelings" are seldom unadulterated; they are admixtures of herd opinions and social anxieties, vanities, touchinesses, and everything else that makes up a self.
One of the historical vulnerabilities of literature, as a subject for study, is that it has never seemed difficult enough. This may come as news to the buckled figure of the book-reviewer, and to the literary critic, but it's true. Hence the various attempts to elevate it, complicate it, systematise it. Interacting with literature is easy. Anyone can join in, because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence. It is not surprising, therefore, that individual sensitivities come so strongly into play; not surprising, either, that the discipline has rolled over for democratisation far more readily than, for example, chemistry and Ancient Greek. In the long term, though, literature will resist levelling and revert to hierarchy. This isn't the decision of some snob of a belletrist. It is the decision of Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don't.
Let me run, for a while, with an extended simile. Literature is the great garden that is always there and is open to everyone 24 hours a day. Who tends it? The old tour guides and sylviculturists, the wardens, the fuming parkies in their sweat-soaked serge: these have died off. If you do see an official, a professional, these days, then he's likely to be a scowl in a labcoat, come to flatten a forest or decapitate a peak. The public wanders, with its oohs and ahs, its groans and jeers, its million opinions. The wanderers feed the animals, they walk on the grass, they step in the flowerbeds. But the garden never suffers. It is, of course, Eden; it is unfallen and needs no care.
Readers of my book are asked to keep an eye on the datelines which end these pieces, for they span nearly 30 years. You hope to get more relaxed and confident over time; and you should certainly get (or seem to get) kinder, simply by avoiding the stuff you are unlikely to warm to. Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realise how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember (Angus Wilson and William Burroughs nursed my animadversions - and no doubt the animadversions of others - to the grave). . . I am also struck by how hard I sometimes was on writers who (I erroneously felt) were trying to influence me: Roth, Mailer, Ballard.
You proceed by quotation. Quotation is the reviewer's only hard evidence. Or semi-hard evidence. Without it, in any case, criticism is a shop-queue monologue. Gallingly for the lit-crit imperialists (especially IA Richards), there is no means for distinguishing the excellent from the less excellent. The most muscular literary critics on earth have no equipment for establishing that:
"Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears"
is a better line than
"When all at once I saw a crowd"
- and, if they did, they would have to begin by saying that the former contains a dead expletive ("do") brought in to sustain the metre. Yet quotation is all we have. To idealise: all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting cliches. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.
© Martin Amis, 2001. This is an edited version of the preface to The War Against Cliché - Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis, published by Jonathan Cape on April 26.
The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000
Jonathan Cape £20, pp512
Buy it at a discount at BOL
Tied through a quirk of birth to the writing life, Martin Amis is unusually interested in what it means to be a novelist, in what it means to dare to cover the world in language - in your own language, in a style that is inimitably and ostentatiously your own. His method of writing about low-life in a high style, his blokey banter and cool, languorous wit, his ironic fascination with the junk and trash of contemporary culture mean that, for better or worse, he remains the commanding presence of British fiction, the one the new literary lads jostle to imitate, the writer-as-celebrity, the main man.
Conrad famously said that any work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line. In this sense and this sense only, Amis's prose has a Conradian urgency: he has always been aggressively competitive, seeking to invent his own idiom and discover daring new ways of writing about the modern world.
'I don't want to write a sentence that any guy could have written,' he once said - and only a writer as anxiously self-evaluating as Amis would have called his new book The War Against Cliché, a title that, at once, seeks to elevate (himself) and to challenge (others). Look at my words and despair, he seems to say: you won't find any ready-made formulation between these hard covers, nothing ordinary, banal or commonplace. So Amis is a self-styled gladiator of language, a warrior of words in daily battle against the forces of mediocrity, as represented by the journalist, the genre writer, the hack biographer and the instant opinion merchant, all of whom he remorselessly slays in this book, until there is nothing left but their words: bad words, clichéd words.
But an essential loneliness underscores his quest for absolute originality. So much of what he says and does is motivated by the same questions: What am I worth? How good am I? In one of the essays he suggests that the canon, in which he is steeped as a reader and of which he so longs to be a part, is exclusively the work of writers in early middle-age, from which he has passed. Does this mean that Amis has written his best book; that with the publication first of his memoir, Experience, last year, and now this collection, he is taking one last, long, lingering backward glance at the showman he once was before entering a phase that, tentatively, we can already describe as Late Amis?
If so, Late Amis, judging from Night Train (1997) - his noir-ish novella about a murder investigation without a murderer - and Experience, seems set to be characterised by a peculiarly sombre music, a darkening of mood and tone, a tauter, more controlled artistry and by a diminished desire for cruelty and self-enthronement. In an essay on Saul Bellow, first collected in The Moronic Inferno but not republished here, Amis argued that Bellow wrote in a style fit for heroes: the High Style.
'To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the twentieth century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work. The High Style attempts to speak for the whole of mankind, to remind us of what we once knew and have since forgotten. "It was especially important," [Bellow writes], "to think what a human being really was." '
Does Amis write in a style fit for heroes? Well, he is pre-eminently a prose surrealist: he distorts and parodies as reality is heightened and mangled by comedy. The twin engines of his work are inversion and paradox; he thrives on opposites, polarities, thrilling reversals. And there is something heroic about his attempt to evolve his own exalted voice. But, unlike Bellow's, his fiction has little philosophical or ethical rigour; he hasn't, you feel, really thought hard enough about what a human being really is.
What Amis is, in essence, is a turbocharged cartoonist; no matter how hard he struggles to import seriousness into his work - through writing about the nuclear threat, the Holocaust, Fred West or the new physics - his characters remain trapped between two sets of inverted commas, for ever destined to be lost in the monotonous sublime of caricature, mere puppets controlled by a master who never allows you to forget that you are in the grip of his superior, knowing intelligence.
Which means, in many ways, Amis destabilises his own best instincts: no one reading this book can doubt his immense verbal gifts, his wit and insight. Nor, reading Experience, can they doubt his boundless capacity for empathy and love - for family and friends, for the writing life itself that he dignifies as a heroic activity. And yet he remains a resolutely more impressive essayist than novelist. Compared with, say, Philip Roth, who is embarked on a similar mission to recast the modern world in fiction, he is a mere baggage-handler of literature.
Reading Roth's recent trilogy of novels about the corruption of postwar American society and Sabbath's Theater before that, you sense that here is a writer, even at the age of 67, who burns to invent. As a result, his fiction has a peculiar moral resonance, an existential frenzy of the kind that is entirely absent from Amis's work, with its wised-up patter and easy grotesques.
The more you read of Late Roth, the more you are convinced he is writing against extinction, that he works to the sound of death panting behind him, feels its cankerous breath on his neck. Equally, the more you read of Roth the more you realise that Amis is wrong about the canon being the work of writers in early middle-age - because Roth is producing canonical work late in life.
Can Amis - changed by the death of his father and humbled by experience - do the same? He certainly owes it to his talent to try, to start writing against, if not extinction, then his own overfamiliar preoccupations, to free himself finally from the entanglement of his own obsessions. So, go on, Mart - let it unfurl.