I’ve been watching Sebastian Faulks’ series on the development of character in the British novel, the first episode of which was about the “hero”. Taking us from the resourceful, self-sufficient Robinson Crusoe to the slobbish anti-hero John Self, Faulks’ series is an entertaining, if not very deep, exploration of some of the central themes in British fiction. It’s worth watching, and the second episode (about the figure of “the lover”) is on BBC2 tonight.
Of more interest for me was the short interview with Martin Amis towards the end of the first episode. (Amis is probably my favourite writer, living or dead, although he has been overtaken recently by WH Auden. I need to think about it some more before I come to a firm conclusion.) Faulks was talking about his belief that the heroic character had disappeared from “literary” fiction and was now only to be found within children’s fiction – Harry Potter was the new Robinson Crusoe, in resourceful temperament if not in his circumstances. Asked if he would ever consider writing a children’s novel, Amis responded flippantly by saying that he only would if he’d suffered a brain injury and could no longer write to his highest capabilities – for him, writing was absolute freedom, and he wouldn’t want to constrain himself by aiming his tone and register downwards. So far, so uncontroversial, you might think. But Amis clearly didn’t take into consideration the Guardian newspaper’s Rapid Reaction Amis Response Force, which exists seemingly for the sole purpose of scouring all media for any utterance the man might make in the course of an interview, and then, with positive intent, whipping up a shit-storm over his supposedly “controversial” remarks. The appropriate authorities (who are probably on speed-dial) are invited to make a spittle-flecked rebuttal, denouncing Amis for his sneering bad taste, then usually continuing with something about his teeth, his father, his declining book sales etc etc etc. Here is the link to the article. The comments below the line are particularly vicious. (And fair play to the Guardian for finding someone to respond who is not only a children’s author but also brain damaged.)
There are two things to note about this. One: the Guardian is weirdly obsessed with Martin Amis. Two: if you watch the interview, which takes up all of five minutes in an hour-long programme, you will note that Amis does not say at any time that you have to be brain damaged to write for children, that all children’s writers are suffering from irreversible brain injuries, that children themselves are somehow irreparably brain damaged through their exposure to children’s fiction. All he says is that the stylistic compromises that he personally would have to make in order to write for children would not allow him to do it. The massively disingenuous quote towards the end of the article, “Controversial remarks from Amis … remain a regular occurrence” is a gross distortion of fact. The “controversy” doesn’t exist until the newspaper phones round a raft of people to make a predictable response, then labels and prints the “story” as a controversy.
If you are the kind of person pre-programmed and poised to take “offence” (a word that is increasingly losing any of its original meaning) at the way in which Amis expressed this opinion, then I don’t think anything can be done for you. All sense has left you, and irony is a distant memory. You can hate Amis the writer and his books as much as you like, but this kind of thing should be beneath anyone’s dignity. (Except mine, obviously.)