AUGUST 3, 2012
ONCE UPON A TIME, in a realm called England, literary fiction was an obscure and blameless pursuit. It was more respectable than angelology, true, and more esteemed than the study of phosphorescent mold; but it was without question a minority-interest sphere.
In 1972, I submitted my first novel: I typed it out on a second-hand Olivetti and sent it in from the sub-editorial office I shared at The Times Literary Supplement. The print run was 1,000 (and the advance was 250 pounds). It was published, and reviewed, and that was that. There was no launch party and no book tour; there were no interviews, no profiles, no photo shoots, no signings, no readings, no panels, no on-stage conversations, no Woodstocks of the Mind in Hay-on-Wye, in Toledo, in Mantova, in Parati, in Cartagena, in Jaipur, in Dubai; and there was no radio and no television. The same went for my second novel (1975) and my third (1978). By the time of my fourth novel (1981), nearly all the collateral activities were in place, and writers, in effect, had been transferred from vanity press to Vanity Fair.
What happened in the interim? We can safely say that as the 1970s became the 1980s, there was no spontaneous flowering of enthusiasm for the psychological nuance, the artful simile, and the curlicued sentence. The phenomenon, as I now see it, was entirely media-borne. To put it crudely, the newspapers had been getting fatter and fatter (first the Sundays, then the Saturdays, then all the days in between), and what filled these extra pages was not additional news but additional features. And the featurists were running out of people to write about—running out of alcoholic actors, ne’er-do-well royals, depressive comedians, jailed rock stars, defecting ballet dancers, reclusive film directors, hysterical fashion models, indigent marquises, wife-beating footballers, adulterous golfers, and rapist boxers. The dragnet went on widening until journalists, often to their patent dismay, were writing about writers: literary writers.
This modest and perhaps temporary change in status involved a number of costs and benefits. A storyteller is nothing without a listener, and the novelists started getting what they can’t help but covet: not more sales, necessarily, but more readers. And it was gratifying to find that many people were indeed quite intrigued by the business of creating fiction: To prove the point, one need only adduce the fact that every last acre of the planet is now the scene of a boisterous literary festival. With its interplay of the conscious and the unconscious, the novel involves a process that no writers, and no critics, really understand. Nor can they quite see why it arouses such curiosity. (“Do you write in longhand?” “How hard do you press on the paper?”) All the same, as J.G. Ballard once said, readers and listeners “are your supporters—urging on this one-man team.” They release you from your habitual solitude, and they give you heart. So far, so good: These are the benefits. Now we come to the costs, which, I suppose, are the usual costs of conspicuousness.
Needless to say, the enlarging and emboldening of the mass-communications sector was not confined to the United Kingdom. And “visibility,” as Americans call it, was no doubt granted to writers in all the advanced democracies—with variations determined by national character. In my home country, the situation is, as always, paradoxical. Despite the existence of a literary tradition of unparalleled magnificence (presided over by the world’s only obvious authorial divinity), writers are regarded with a studied skepticism—not by the English public, but by the English commentariat. It sometimes seems that a curious circularity is at work. If it is true that writers owe their ascendancy to the media, then the media has promoted the very people that irritate them most: a crowd of pretentious—and by now quite prosperous—egomaniacs. When writers complain about this, or about anything else, they are accused of self-pity (“celebrity whinge”). But the unspoken gravamen is not self-pity. It is ingratitude.
Nor should we neglect a profound peculiarity of fiction and the column inches that attend it: a fortuitous consanguinity. The appraisal of an exhibition does not involve the use of an easel and a palette; the appraisal of a ballet does not involve the use of a pair of slippers and a tutu. And the same goes for the written arts: You don’t review poetry by writing verse (unless you’re a jerk), and you don’t review plays by writing dialogue. Novels, though, come in the form of prose narrative; and so does journalism. This odd affinity causes no great tension elsewhere, but it sits less well, perhaps, with certain traits of the Albionic Fourth Estate—emulousness, a kind of cruising belligerence, and an instinctive proprietoriality.
Conspicuous persons, in my motherland, are most seriously advised to lead a private life denuded of all color and complication. They should also, if they are prudent, have as little as possible to do with America—seen as the world HQ of arrogance and glitz. When I and my wife, who is a New Yorker, entrained the epic project of moving house, from Camden Town in London to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, I took every public opportunity to make it clear that our reasons for doing so were exclusively personal and familial, and had nothing to do with any supposed dissatisfaction with England or the English people (whom, as I truthfully stressed, I have always admired for their tolerance, generosity, and wit). Backed up by lavish misquotes together with satirical impersonations (“cod” interviews and the like), the impression given was that I was leaving because of a vicious hatred of my native land and because I could no longer bear the well-aimed barbs of patriotic journalists.
“I wish I weren’t English”: Of all the fake tags affixed to my name, this is the one I greet with the deepest moan of inanition. I suggest that the remark—and its equivalent in any language or any alphabet—is unutterable by anyone whose IQ reaches double figures. “I wish I weren’t North Korean” might make a bit of sense, assuming the existence of a North Korean sufficiently well-informed and intrepid to give voice to it. Otherwise and elsewhere, the sentiment is inconceivably null. And to say it of England—the country of Dickens, George Eliot, Blake, Milton, and, yes, William Shakespeare—isn’t even perverse. It is merely whimsical.
The phrase “American exceptionalism” was coined in 1929 by none other than Josef Stalin, who condemned it as a “heresy.” (He meant that America, like everywhere else, was subject to the iron laws of Karl Marx.) If that much-mocked notion still means anything, we should apply it to America’s exceptionally hospitable attitude to outsiders (and America has certainly been exceptionally hospitable to me and my family). All friends of the stars and stripes are pained to see that this unique and noble tradition is now under threat, and from all sides; but America remains, definingly, an immigrant society, vast and formless; writers have always occupied an unresented place in it, because everyone subliminally understood that they would play a part in construing its protean immensity. Remarkably, the “American Century” (to take another semi-wowserism) is due to last exactly that long—with China scheduled for prepotence in about 2045. The role of the writers, for the time being, is at least clear enough. They will be taking America’s temperature, and checking its pulse, as the New World follows the old country down the long road of decline.
Martin Amis is the author, most recently, of Lionel Asbo: State of England.
This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.