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Martin Amis and James Wood Riff off and Contradict Each Other

I’ve been so wrapped up in his writing lately that I seem to be seeing everything through James-Wood coloured glasses. Reading this:

" But this idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the "culture" can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk-smarts – in short, the contemporary American novel in its current, triumphalist form – are novelists’ chosen sport, then they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material" James Wood in the Guardian, October 6, 2001


…fogged my view when reading this:

" Imaginative writing is understood to be slightly mysterious. In fact it is very mysterious. A great deal of the work gets done beneath the threshold of consciousness, without the intercession of reason. When the novelists went into newsprint about September 11, there was a murmur to the effect that they were now being obliged to snap out of their solipsistic daydreams: to attend, as best they could, to the facts of life. For politics – once defined as "what’s going on" -suddenly filled the sky. True, novelists don’t normally write about what’s going on; they write about what’s not going on. Yet the worlds so created aspire to pattern and shape and moral point. A novel is a rational undertaking; it is reason at play, perhaps, but it is still reason."  Martin Amis in the Guardian, June 1, 2002.

Tell me that these two quotes don’t riff off each other in a fascinating, strangely contradictory way.

Wood famously attacks  American novelists for their lack of human connection, and suggests that 9/11 should make it  harder for them "to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not "how the world works" but "how somebody felt about something""

Amis on the other hand writes that 9/11 turned novelists’ works in progress into ‘blue streak[s] of autistic babble, because now we have to live with war. I assume he means that everything written up until the twin towers now seems irrelevant, picayune given the gravity of reality. Here he seems to agree with Wood. But then he says that novelists, far from being shaken out of ‘solipsistic daydream’ by 9/11, habitually write rationally about what’s going on. In the face of religions, they show us, (this is me borrowing Wood’s words), how the world to ‘attend…to the facts of life.’

Wood is saying that they fail to do this precisely because they exhaust and overwork the conventions of realism. Their inhuman stories, and unconvincingly intertwined characters defy the laws of persuasion, and as such, undermine their claim to rationality. But he is also saying paradoxically that perhaps, because reality outruns their attempts at topical social commentary, these novelists may well return to an approach that genuinely helps readers to deal with the real world.

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5 Responses to “Martin Amis and James Wood Riff off and Contradict Each Other”

  1. Finn Harvor Says:

    Nigel: This is an interesting pair of quotes, but don’t they create a false dichotomy? We’re presented — when wearing James Wood-coloured glasses — with two choices, and even if we take the Wood goggles off and put the Amis specs on, we’re still not really touching on one of the most essential aspects of 9/11, which is its being an event situated very much in the world of military intelligence and geopolitical high theory.

    It’s painfully clear that 9/11 — the day — wasn’t just a day. It wasn’t even just a disaster (3,000 plus people killed during a catastrophic, human-engineered event is not common, but it doesn’t usually change the course of history, either). Instead, it was — and this should now be clear no matter what one’s own politics — a stepping-stone for a new American geopolitical strategy.

    There doesn’t seem to be any reason why being conscious of this should necessitate a lack of the novelist’s traditional consciousness of individual life and sensitivity to the aesthetic (i.e., good writing). But it does mean that if we live in political times, we should be able to recognize that in our art. And there is an unwillingness to do that partly because N. American/UK literary discourse assumes that political writing is by its very nature bad writing. It’s not true, and this assumption immediately moves the conversation in a particular direction. It’s not a conversation not worth having, but there is *another* conversation that, I think, is even more worth having: and that is the possibility that we, collectively, have been hoodwinked on some pretty monumental scales.

    Instead, however, a lot of media attention is paid to Amis’s instigation of debates about the xenophobic aspects of some forms of Muslim culture. These debates (as you’ve pointed out) do require some emotional courage. But these are not the only debates worth engaging in, and, within the larger context of what is happening in the world today, they are relatively minor. Furthermore, there is a strong argument for saying Amis is, in his present incarnation as enfant terrible et reactionnaire, something of a patsy. (And Wood, despite all his good intentions, something of a naif.)

  2. Nigel Beale Says:

    Hi Finn. Thanks for the comment. Love your name…any connection with Huckleberry?

    Re: "N. American/UK literary discourse assumes that political writing is by its very nature bad writing." 

    Not sure what you mean here. "Political" novels are poorly written? If this is what you mean, I’d tend to agree with you. Although influential, books like 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World didn’t work that well as novels.

    What I find interesting is that although most acknowledge that Amis has talent, his recent musings and essays have brought on frequent accusations that he is simply unqualified to write about Islamism. As if you have to be some kind of renowned expert before your opinion counts.

    As far as I can tell Amis is getting his facts largely correct, what I find a mite disturbing is that his arguments seem, at least to this point…I’ve only read about 50 pages of his Second Plane, seem to be somewhat incoherent, somehow lacking in conviction. This tends to support what Johan Hari says in his interview, that Amis may just be bored, and is pissing in the Islamic sandbox to stir things up for his own amusement.

    Speaking of false dichotomies, I think the fact that Bush et al falsely connected Al Qaeda to Saddam, and used this and WMDs as an excuse to secure a source of oil is a topic that has seen quite a bit of air time. If you’re suggesting that Amis is Bush and Blair’s patsy I think you are underestimating him. As for Wood being a naif, nice word, but it amounts to little more than name calling. What aspect of Wood’s criticism is naive?

  3. Finn Harvor Says:

    Hi Nigel,Nope, not connected to Huckleberry. (I am, however, an Ottawa boy originally — we might know some people in common.) re:  Amis — I tend to agree that some kind of debate about Islamism is necessary. But this debate exists within a context, and that is, as we all know, what Mssrs. Bush, Rumsfeld and Gates call The War on Terror. The point I’m driving at is that war was triggered by the 9/11 attacks, and therefore both the 9/11 attacks have to be viewed with scrutiny, and the change in U.S. geopolitical policy that has become evident since then  has to be viewed with scrutiny as well.

    Furthermore, literary people (in my experience) are woefully naive about how geopolitical policy or military intelligence work. This would be neither here nor there, except for two things: first, literary people *do* pride themselves on their braininess, including their knowledge of global affairs, and second, there is a tendency that is prevalent in literary circles — especially Canadian ones — to adopt a patronizing attitude toward writing that deals with these topics, because it is automatically assumed it is genre fiction and of lesser quality.   As I said, I think this is particularly true in Canada, where this mindset is exacerbated by our national — well, national what? inferiority complex? shyness? you have to be Canadian to understand with a mixture of sympathy and insight what I’m talking about here. But in any event, we Canadians don’t often do big themes in our writing, and that is because we (unlike Americans) view ourselves as bit players on The Stage of  Global Politics. But that’s a pity, because it’s our globe as much as anyone else’s, and it might elevate our national literature in the eyes of the world if we tackled big themes a little more often. 

    re: political writing being, generally, bad writing. Just disagree with you here — or rather, would agree if the only examples that existed were the ones to be found in the English canon. But since moving to Korea (around five years ago), I’ve found that there is a lot of good writing around that is both well-written and "political" … its political aspect sometimes being self-conscious, and sometimes the result of simply writing truthfully about day-to-day life under what was for a long time a dictatorship. Ergo, the idea that politics and art don’t mix is very much a Western (specifically, Anglo-American) idea. It’s a belief resulting from particular cultural circumstances.  

    re: Wood being a naive critic — well, I didn’t quite put it like that. (I like Wood’s criticism.) I *do* think he’s a naif in the sense that he is presenting us with a characterization of 9/11 as a compelling catastrophe. When he says, "But this idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the "culture" can always get up to something bigger", he suggests, to me at least, that we already "know" what 9/11 means. What I’m saying is — and I’m certainly not an expert on the intelligence surrounding that event, but, because of the writing I’m doing, I’ve developed a strong interest in how mil. intelligence links to foreign policy — we don’t yet know what 9/11 *is*. But Wood seems to suggest that we do (that is, do know the essentials of the event and its consequent policies). This, given the situation that we are still collectively living through, seems to me a little too quick to accept the status quo, and, in this regard, is a sign of naivete. 

  4. Jim H. Says:

    I’ve only just discovered your blog. This particular recent entry sparked my interest because I am blogging about Wood’s How Fiction Works over at Wisdom of the West.

    Someone once said that the novelist brings the news of the soul. That seems to be where Amis and Wood concur. Though, what that news is, I suspect, is at issue. Wood seems to have no love lost for the so-called ‘great American novel’ of social commentary. He prefers the close study of the essential gesture and le mot juste. Wood wants the writer to get out of the way and let his/her characters hold sway. Let the reader see the action through the POV of the character, without authorial intrusion.

    Amis, on the other hand, has brought his politics into play in his art. He intrudes mightily and polemically. Here, I think, they diverge.

    Jim H.

  5. Nigel Beale Says:

    Hi Jim, 

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll check out your site. I’d agree with you about Wood preferring a less intrusive narrator. It’s interesting his take on Flaubert. I think he admires his magnificent use of metaphor, but only to a point. When it affects believability…and interferes with the reader losing him/her self in the narrative, then he’s not such a fan. This is how he separates Flaubert from Tolstoy…who deftly handles metaphor…uses it, but subordinates it to love of character. If I had to choose between War and Peace and Madame Bovary I’d go with the former precisely because of how attached I became to the characters. Not that I don’t love Bovary. The metaphors are breathtaking, and finding them is one of the main reasons I enjoy reading so much. Vaguely ironic that Wood is wary of overly metaphorical language when he himself is such a master.

    As for Amis, I’m not so sure that politics play much of a role in his art. Sure he alludes to nuclear devastation and apocalypse but its mostly about the writing. The fabulous, clever humour.

    The fact that he writes on Islamism as an intelligent observer, and uses his writing skills to argue contentious points brings up another issue: the role of writer and literature in society. To engage or not. I think he has every right to speak his mind. Others think that just because he isn’t an ‘expert’ he should stay silent.

    I’m reading The Second Plane right now, and even though I am a fan, I’m getting a vibe that perhaps his emphasis on style and clever coinage is a tad much for such an inflammatory subject. Using the opportunity to show what a good writer he is, rather than communicating deeply felt beliefs. This may be too harsh though.


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