David Hartley/Shutterstock

10 Essential Martin Amis Cultural Essays

By
Share:

When Martin Amis spoke to GQ about his 60th birthday, he seemed defeated, noting: “It all ends in dissolution and chaos and indignity and tears.” We can only imagine what he’s thinking today, with the passing of another birthday. While the British novelist ponders mortality with cranky resignation, we’ve gathered a few of Amis’ must-read cultural reviews and essays on literature, art, film, porn, and politics.

Amis on Steven Spielberg

“His line to the common heart is so direct that he unmans you with the frailty of your own defences, and the transparency of your most intimate fears and hopes.”

This 1983 essay reveals that Amis was absolutely “bewildered” over Spielberg’s E.T. He even admits to shedding a few tears. Amis describes the director as a “genius” and appreciates his uncynical approach to storytelling. Opposites really do attract.

Amis on Vladimir Nabokov

“Writers lead a double life. And they die doubly, too. This is modern literature’s dirty little secret. Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.”

Shortly after Nabokov’s The Original of Laura was published in 2009, his incomplete and final novel that he requested be destroyed upon his death, Amis penned this essay on the “Nabokovian essence” and “a genius in decline.”

Amis on J. G. Ballard

“Ballard is beleaguered by his obsessions. Mood and setting are identical in him. He had very little interest in human beings in the conventional sense (and no ear for dialogue); he is remorselessly visual.”

Amis remembers the SF novelist (“all purists call science fiction SF, and have nothing but contempt for “sci fi”) and waxes poetic about the “creaminess of his prose.” His anecdotes are touching. The elder Amis was a supporter of Ballard’s early work, but it seems the friendship didn’t last.

Amis on Hillary Rodham Clinton

“Our baser instincts will always want to turn the First Lady into the Last Lady. And the resentment would seem to have its sexual component. What these women have in common is that they go to bed with presidents.”

Amis’ scathing review of Clinton’s vision for the children of America, It Takes a Village , published in 1996.

Amis on Don DeLillo

“I long ago assented to DeLillo’s unspoken premise — that fiction exaggerates the ever-weakening power of motive in human dealings. Yes, it does; but there’s a reason for that. Motive tends to provide coherence, and fiction needs things that cohere.”

A review of DeLillo’s first collection of short stories, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories , published in 2011, and musings about literature and the pieces of a whole.

Amis on horror cinema (Child’s Play 3)

“What we have to imagine is a mind that, on exposure to Chucky, is already brimful of Chucky and things like Chucky. Then, even if you mix in psychopathology, stupidity, moral deformation, dreams of omnipotence and sadism, and whatever else, Chucky is unlikely to affect anything but the style of your subsequent atrocities.”

In perhaps the most unexpected Amis essay, published in The War Against Cliche, the author tackles fright cinema’s killer doll, Chucky, and a real-life horror story.

Amis on John Updike

“Updike was congenitally unembarrassable and we are the beneficiaries of that. He took the novel onto another plane of intimacy: he took us beyond the bedroom and into the bathroom. It’s as if nothing human seemed closed to his eye.”

Written in memory of the American novelist, Amis praises his “compulsive and unstoppable vividness and musicality.” Months later, Amis reviewed Updike’s posthumously published short fiction collection, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories.

Amis on Andy Warhol

“Warhol was a fame snob, a looks snob, a weight snob, a height snob and an age snob. But he got older, and iller, and was obliged to wander the biological desert of middle-aged gaydom. Childish himself, he became a frustrated parent.”

We get the feeling that Amis and Andy wouldn’t share a bowl of Campbell’s, even if someone paid them. The author picks at Andy’s published diaries, but admits the writings aren’t “without a certain charm.”

Amis on porn

“Porno is a proletarian form. And porno people are a hard-grafting, ill-paid fraternity who, by and large, look out for each other and help each other through. They pay their rent, with the deaths of feelings.”

In case you wanted to read Amis explain the difference between double anal and DP, here’s a 2001 essay on the porn industry.

Amis on Jane Austen

“Each age will bring its peculiar emphasis, and in the current Austen festival our own anxieties stand fully revealed. We like to wallow in the accents and accoutrements of Jane’s world, but our response is predominantly sombre. We notice, above all, the constriction of female opportunity: how brief was their nubility, and yet how slowly and deadeningly time passed within it. We notice how plentiful were the occasions for inflicting social pain, and how interested the powerful were in this infliction. We see how little the powerless had to use against those who might hate them.”

On the cult of Jane Austen in 1996.