British writer and enfant terrible Martin Amis celebrates his 63rd birthday today. Perhaps phrasing it that way suggests the curmudgeonly scribe might actually be enjoying himself. Just a few years ago, Amis spoke about his 60th milestone to GQ magazine. “It is true. It all ends in dissolution and chaos and indignity and tears. I’m very conscious of that… there’s something about 60 that can’t be laughed off,” he gravely reflected. We imagine his outlook hasn’t changed a mere three years later, especially while the author is being greeted with negative press about his latest novel, Lionel Asbo .
While Amis is busy wrestling with the gross consumerism of greeting cards and cursing the deadly clichés of birthday cheers, we wanted to honor his pith and loathing by rounding up ten things the writer despises. It’s all in good fun — for us anyway. Amis would probably just scowl in our general direction.
It seems with every birthday, Amis is quick to remind himself — and us — that the end is near. He expressed this to the Telegraph last year when breaking down the doom of each mortal decade: “I’m 62 now… Another feeling comes on you when you’re 60, which can be expressed by the thought, ‘This can’t turn out well.’ And that’s the bit I’m at the moment. And really that’s the arrival of fear. In my case not fear of death, but fear of getting there.” Slice it how you like Amis, but we have evidence:
“The worst thing about growing old is the fear of declining powers.”
“It’s so uncool. Like getting a telegram from the mortuary.” (On becoming a grandfather.)
“At 45 you accept mortality. At 55 you think ‘Death is intrigued by me.’ At 60, where I am now, you think ‘This is not going to turn out well!'”
“You get ugly when you get old. It’s all perfectly simple. In fact I can tell you how it’s going to go. Everything seems fine until you’re about 40. Then something is definitely beginning to go wrong.”
“And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”
“Oh Christ, the exhaustion of not knowing anything. It’s so tiring and hard on the nerves. It really takes it out of you, not knowing anything. You’re given comedy and miss all the jokes. Every hour you get weaker. Sometimes, as I sit alone in my flat in London and stare at the window, I think how dismal it is, how heavy, to watch the rain and not know why it falls.”
“The universe is a million billion light-years wide, and every inch of it would kill you if you went there. This is the position of the universe with regards to human life.”
“It was the tiredness of time lived, with its days and days. It was the tiredness of gravity — gravity, which wants you down in the center of the earth.”
“Old always gets you in the end.”
“The development given to us by modern medicine is that writers now have to endure the loss of their powers. This is horribly evident when you read the late novels of writers who live beyond 70. Shakespeare died at 56, Jane Austen at 41. They never had to feel their powers deserting them. Now, writers die twice!”
Television and the Media
A recent article in The Daily Beast by Liam Hoare defended Amis’ new novel, Lionel Asbo. “Amis’s real target is the media itself — and they don’t get the joke,” the lede reads. “The real baddie of Lionel Asbo is in fact the tabloid media, which elevates Asbo and exploits him, splashing him all over their front pages to boost circulation,” Hoare expounds. Amis has aimed his hatred at television on a number of occasions:
“Television: Every household, be it ever so mean, shared this square of dead gray.”
“Television is cretinizing me — I can feel it. Soon I’ll be like the TV artists. You know the people I mean. Girls who subliminally model themselves on kid-show presenters, full of faulty melody and joy, Melody and Joy. Men whose manners show newscaster interference, soap stains, film smears. Or the cretinized, those who talk on buses and streets as if TV were real, who call up networks with strange questions, stranger demands… If you lose your rug, you can get a false one. If you lose your laugh, you can get a false one. If you lose your mind, you can get a false one.”
“You couldn’t get far enough away from it, and the colours swam and everyone wore a wraithlike nimbus of white. Whatever was actually showing, Des always felt he was watching a documentary of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“On dope he sometimes thought that all the televisions on Calchalk Street were softly cackling about Richard Tull: news flashes about his most recent failures, panel discussions about his obscurity, his neglect.”
In 1962, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked Sir Kingsley Amis if he was an atheist. “Well, yes — but it’s more that I hate Him,” Amis Sr. replied. His son doesn’t take quite the same stance when it comes to God. “I’m an agnostic, which is the only rational position,” he professed in 2010. Still, Amis Jr. seems to despise organized religion according to these quotes:
“If God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.”
“Belief is otiose; reality is sufficiently awesome as it stands.”
“Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful.”
“Religion is the enemy of art in fiction.”
“As Flaubert said: all the artistic stuff comes, in post-Romantic cases, from frustrated religious feeling. It’s fine for poetry and, obviously, for music and painting. But the minute you get into the discursive world of fiction, it’s a disaster, because it runs the show, and it is the opposite of art: it is tendentious, schematic, predictable.”
Although he had a stint as a Professor of Creative Writing, Amis doesn’t have time for the younger generation of writers. When asked what books he was currently reading, the grumpy author had a snarky retort. “What I am not reading is 25-year-old novelists.” He also told Prospect magazine about his distaste for young writers. “I don’t read them. I read my friends: Will Self and Zadie Smith. But it’s a fantastically uneconomical way of reading, to read your youngers. No-one knows if they are any good. Only time knows that.” Part of this may also be due to the veil between worlds. “They don’t interact with you at all, the young. They hardly see you [and] they don’t show themselves to you,” he has stated.
Lazy Prose and Sloppy Language
A few words in his line of fire: no brainer, big time, went ballistic, whatever, helloooooooo, yeah right.
Ways he describes lazy language: Princess Diana language, herd words, verbal high fives.
“It’s all a quest for precision. It’s not for ostentation. Words are what a writer is made of. They’re your first love, your eternal love and it’s difficult. Words make life difficult, make writing difficult. Social realism is incredibly difficult to describe,” he has said. “Just finding the words to describe the ordinary ways that people behave or a gesture as simple as picking something up and looking at it is hard to do with precision and in a way that’s enjoyable for the reader, but solving these tiny little intricacies in everyday description and locking a novel together is so satisfying.”
Writing about Sex
Amis has often expressed his aversion to writing sex scenes — a task he believes is “almost impossible to write about… ever.” He does credit female writers as being the more authentic scribes when it comes to sex, attributing it to the “song” and “sincerity” in their work. “It is the great hidden weakness in men, that potency can fail, and it’s not something that troubles women. They have a lot else to worry about, but not that. So once a man is writing a sex scene he’s feeling omnipotent and he’s forgotten about all those fiascos and no-shows. But women don’t, and they write better about it,” he told the Telegraph a few months ago. “Sex is hard to write about because you lose the universal and succumb to the particular. We all have our different favorites. Good sex is impossible to write about. Lawrence and Updike have given it their all, and the result is still uneasy and unsure. It may be that good sex is something fiction just can’t do — like dreams,” he’s also said. How does he view the sex scenes he has unleashed into the world? “Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny, but not very sexy.”
Cliché and Banality
This sentiment permeates all of his work, but if you’ve read his erudite, humorous collection of essays, The War Against Cliché , then you’ll know exactly what we mean. “All writing is a campaign against cliché,” he writes. “Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.”
Nice and Easy Laughter
In his first novel, The Rachel Papers , Amis’ autobiographical character Charles Highway introduces the author’s trademark biting humor. “Surely, nice things are dull, and nasty things are funny. The nastier a thing is, the funnier it gets,” Highway announces. During the 1990s, Amis told Susan Morrison more about his particular brand of humor:
“What I am interested in is heavy comedy, rather than light comedy. It’s a wincing laughter, or a sort of funky laughter, rather than tee-hee-hee. Sort of a hung-over laughter, where it hurts. If you start off with the premise of me being a comic writer, you are taking an interesting line because there are clearly things in my novels that shouldn’t really be in comic novels. And there are people who don’t like that, who just want the comedy. But I think that comedy never works when all it is, is comedy.”
“I’m one of those terrible shits who works on Christmas Day. It’s what I want to do.”
All of These Things
Amis feels most novels are autobiographical. “When I teach literature I always tell them, identify with the author, not with the characters. Your affinity is not with the characters, always with the writer. Because the characters are artifacts,” he has said. This extends to his 1973 debut work, The Rachel Papers. His young narrator Charles Highway — a character the writer modeled after himself and a friend dubbed his “terrible twin” — announces: “In my world, reserved Italians, heterosexual hairdressers, clouds without silver linings, ignoble savages, hard-hearted whores, advantageous ill-winds, sober Irishmen, and so on, are not permitted to exist.”