DVD Review Of The War Against Cliché, by Martin Amis
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/5/06
‘All writing is a war against cliché. Not just the clichés of the pen but the clichés of the mind and the clichés of the heart.’
Of recent vintage there has been a spate of the talentless children of talented literary figures getting into print. The two worst examples are Thomas Steinbeck- son of John Steinbeck, who whined of ‘being forced to write a novel’ by his publishers; and Frieda Hughes- spawn of Sylvia Plath’s unholy coupling with Ted Hughes. A precursor to this trend is Martin Amis- a fictionist (London Fields, The Information), son of Kingsley Amis- a minor writer. The difference is the younger Amis, eased into a literature by birthright, surpassed his father long ago. Unfortunately, as this review’s epigraph, selected from the titular book, proves, Amis is no stranger to banalities in his own work
The essays in his 2001 book, The War Against Cliché: Essays And Reviews, 1971-2000, do prove, however, that he’s several cuts above such critics as Harold Bloom, Jacques Barzun, and Joyce Carol Oates, despite the dust jacket photo showing the fiftysomething Amis scowling like a perpetual badboy. Critics of his reviews have labeled him biased, but that’s terminal PC- even as they conflate his objective critiques with terms like ‘he likes’. Amis is refreshing in that he speaks his mind more often than not, even if he’s dead wrong, which he is more often than not in his literary assessments.
He’s a far more engaging critic of culture, as his pieces on soccer (He says, ‘[those] who like football probably like football so much that, having begun the present article, they will be obliged to finish it’); the Guinness Book Of World Records; Hillary Clinton’s book- It Takes A Village, on child-rearing; the sexiness of Margaret Thatcher; poker; Penthouse Forum; and nuclear weapons prove. He is especially good at nailing pomposity, like that of cultural critic Michael Medved, whom he nails for stolidity in not realizing the pop baseness of modern film is a natural trend, one all new art forms follow, and is merely a passing phase. Amis is even more deadly when he takes on cultural jesters as poet Robert Bly and his silly book on masculinity and culture, Iron John. He asks, ‘Naturally, it’s much too easy to laugh at Robert Bly’s vision. But why is it so easy? Partly because he’s one of those writers….whose impregnable humorlessness will always prompt a (humorous) counter-commentary in the reader’s mind.’ As someone who knows Bly, this is the best definition by a known writer of the reason behind Bly’s idiotic cultural isolation.
Amis’s takes on literature are more questionable. While correct to lampoon the Who’s Who In Twentieth Century Literature giving every minor writer a nod, he too often fawns over writers like James Joyce- whom he correctly details as being at his greatest in Dubliners, while weakening progressively with each book through Finnegans Wake. Yet, his lengthy essay says nothing unsaid before. For example, he never asks what was the effect of Joyce’s syphilis on the breakdown of his mind and writing? And while no one doubts Joyce employed brilliant metaphors and striking images, and was last century’s prose equivalent of Edmund Spenser, one cannot dismiss the fact that, like The Faerie Queen, capable of shafts of incandescent grace, Joyce’s novels also held far too many dismal canopies of dull, tongue-twisting terrible prose.
Even more disappointing is his literary fellatio of Vladimir Nabokov. Yes, Nabokov was capable of spurts of brilliance, but, as a whole, his oeuvre does not compare to Dostoevsky, Chekhov, nor even Dickens. Lolita is an interesting, funny book, but it has not held up well. One wonders if Amis’s jaws tired from the ‘fluffing.’ Amis also wholly misses the weaknesses in wooden writers like John Updike, or genre writers like Elmore Leonard. But why in the world would he even waste time reading such pulp crap? Much less that of Michael Crichton’s The Lost World or Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, which he calls a novel of ‘profound and virtuoso vulgarity,’ even as he claims to enjoy it? Yes, it’s humorous, to a degree, when Amis writes of Crichton’s book, ‘Out there, beyond the foliage, you see herds of clichés, roaming free. You will listen in ‘stunned silence’ to an ‘unearthly cry’ or a ‘deafening roar’. Raptors are ‘rapacious’. Reptiles are ‘reptilian’. Pain is ‘searing’.’ But, the ‘establishment’ does not take him nor Harris seriously the way a Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, or T.C. Boyle are for their atrocious prose, so why go after small game? When he does attack an icon it’s usually safely removed by the centuries. Yes, Don Quixote is an overly long book, but, unlike, say Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it was trying to do something new, and Cervantes succeeds in its best spots far more than many overrated novels since.
Aside from the fact of not being able to objectively evaluate the worth of writing, Amis’s literary essays fail mainly because they are too long and rambling. This is true, even when he defends a writer in need of it, like poet Philip Larkin. Of course, the fact that Larkin and his father were running buddies leaves the piece’s hagiographizing with a distinctly foul odor. The worst example of a too long essay is a twenty-four page apotheosis of The Adventures Of Augie March, by Saul Bellow. Greater books have been dealt with in less space, and the piece obsesses on the Jewishness of book and writer.
Amis can be smack on when he pleads for an end to the desuetude of the helpful semi-colon; a position I’ve long agreed with, and reflected in my writing; or in his praise for the poetry of John Donne; or of Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant 1985 novel Galapagos- the man’s last great book. Yet, he can turn around, and write a lengthy piece on Andy Warhol and his vapid diaries, and bemoan them as a cultural bane simply because he does not get the fact that everything about Warhol was an act- even the act!
Even worse than not getting Andy Warhol is not recognizing the sludge of a Charles Bukowski. Of the noted poetaster’s bad novel The Wild Boys, Amis writes, ‘Burroughs doesn’t want to convert or convince us; he wants only to write well, and very often does.’ Now, anyone who could write such a sentence is in serious need of a re-evaluation of their critical skills, but let’s acknowledge that indefensible assessment was written when Amis was a stripling of twenty-three. What’s even worse than defending such a hack is turning around, three decades later, and claiming you were too hard on the hack. In the Foreword to this book, Amis writes, ‘Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember….’ This is a bad enough sentiment, in that it’s wrong, and smacks too severely of being an old man’s caveat to assure his posthumous evaluations are given Kid Gloves, in the least, and an old man’s copout, at its worst, but this piece goes on to lament the hurt feelings Bukowski held against Amis. Boo-hoo! The fact is that a) Bukowski was a terrible writer of prose and poetry, b) he NEVER tried to write well, and c) he crafted a whole career, persona, and posse of acolytes over the very fact that he did not write well, and never tried, and saw trying for excellence as ‘conforming.’ That Bukowski, and countless other hacks- writers, editors, agents, publishers, critics- in the writing game are manifestly not even trying these days undermines Amis’s very claim.
Beyond that, and Amis’s age when he penned such nonsense, is the fact that it is never the point to merely insult a bad writer or work in reviews nor criticism. Insults, however, are fair when just, preferably loaded with humor, and amply demonstrate the flaws they reference in the negative. In this last sense, Amis’s barbs often fail and flail, for he is a poor selector of quotations in his essays, even as he can occasionally zing a barb as well as Randall Jarrell- or even this writer. The point is to let the horror show, for it is the bad writer whose work is truly insulting the reader, not the inverse in regard to the critic’s assessment. When Amis learns this he may one day take his place as a good critic, but he will have to learn that the real war is not merely against cliché, but against critical and literary schizophrenia; something his solid, if not greatly worded, essays fall prey to. But, hey, if nothing else, he’s no Thomas Steinbeck.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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