Was it Tibor Fischer’s hatchet job on Yellow Dog? Was it the fallout from the Islamophobia row? Was it getting his teeth fixed? Who knows, but at some point in the last decade or so, Martin Amis fell out of fashion – hard. It’s closer to croquet than football, I grant you, but slagging him off is now a national sport.
Reading his books in public has become a bourgeois taboo. Flicking through one of his essay collections on the bus the other day, it didn’t take me long to figure out why my neighbour was eyeing me like I was a sex offender. The insults that get thrown his way, meanwhile, range from ‘not as good as his dad’ to the sort of stuff normally reserved for Holocaust deniers.
But the most consistent slur is that he’s ‘out-of-touch’ – and for a literary novelist and self-appointed chronicler of British culture, that’s kryptonite. ‘Out of touch’ means you’re damaged goods, redundant. He’s obviously not in the best position to pontificate on the state of the nation – he lives in hipster exile in Brooklyn and the dives where he used to slum it are now Michelin-starred gastropubs – but this doesn’t make it any less compelling to watch him go off on one.
Pompous arse he may be, but he’s our pompous arse. No other literary novelist can spark anything like the attention Mart gets whenever he opens his mouth. We keep up to date with him because, as both a writer and an upper-middlebrow celeb, he’s extremely (though often unintentionally) entertaining. If he wasn’t, would we have sat through an hour of his mug on telly the other week? Would we still buy his books?
He’s dropped a couple of stinkers, admittedly – Dead Babies is a snore, London Fields is overrated and Night Train was a misfire – but his best stuff pulls off acrobatics. Amis’ stylistic affectations are much mocked, sometimes justly; but when these affectations are built on a mathematical hybrid of Bellow, Updike, Nabokov and knob gags, what’s not to like? I think he can still pull off the formula in spite of the floppy-haired imitators who’ve turned it into a cliché – his last two, The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo, were a riot. I fear social Siberia slightly too much to defend Yellow Dog, but you see where this is going.
The trouble is that Amis isn’t as chummy as our other soi-disant public intellectuals. He takes himself seriously enough to come across as a bit of a prat, isn’t given to self-deprecation and doesn’t do Have I Got News for You. But whatever you think of his books or views on yob culture, you’d be hard-pushed to claim he didn’t liven up the books pages; what other writer could follow up a novel as harrowing as Other People with a manual on how to master Space Invaders? Or, for that matter, get into top-class public spats with everyone from Terry Eagleton to Katie Price?
In any case, it’s a given that worthwhile novelists are dicks. Singling out Martin Amis for a kicking seems silly when certain of his contemporaries get praised for writing that rolls with the tumbleweed. On the other hand, it does spare him one fate worse than unpopularity – nobody, however ironically, is ever going to miss the point so far as to designate him a ‘national treasure’.