Friday, February 01, 2008

Engagement

A Guardian leader today is, in the words of Norman Geras, a short blast in praise of Martin Amis. I agree with the good professor that the remarks by 'Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski' seem philistine, but the whole piece seems wrong-headed.

Witnessing the travails of Africa, he wondered why he never met other writers out there.


Perhaps that's because - ahem - newspapers don't bother sending writers to faraway places of which we know little. It seems a little odd for a newspaper editorial to complain about the practices of newspaper editors.

A frequent complaint against contemporary writers is that they are not engaged. Where is the great novel to take on turbo-capitalism, climate change or house prices? What are all the great talents doing in their studies with their £150,000 advances, other than reimagining favourite bits of history, such as Dunkirk or the Empire Windrush? Don't they realise there is a big, often bad, world out there that needs vivid description and intelligent illumination?


I don't know about you, but I've been waiting for years for a novel about house prices. Most novelists are lucky to earn the equivalent of the minimum wage; very few get six-figure advances. Wasn't the point of 'Money' that John Self's cheque at the end was 'half way to six figures'? 'It was three figures'. From memory, because I'm too lazy to find the book.

It could also be the case that, if you wanted to know about what was happening in the world economically and politically and scientifically, reading a made-up story may not be the best way to go about this. You could try reading a newspaper (one that employs journalists rather than columnists, so not the Guardian then) or watching TV.

A stylist with the trick of defamiliarising the familiar, [Martin Amis] is also a keen student of the public realm. His writing on Islamist terrorism has made him enemies; his opinions are sometimes cruder and shallower than the language that dresses them. Still, we should prize him - for his engagement as well as his gifts.


The thing about Amis is that he's not the most well-informed writer on Islam. If you want to understand al Qaeda, you're better off looking for its roots in Chechnya and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rather than a couple of books by Sayyid Qutb.

As for Amis' language, I stand with David Sexton in the Evening Standard (quoted here):

The writing is so preening, so self-important about its own vocabulary and phrase-making that it always draws attention to its own display, not to the matter in hand. None of the formulae - 'worldflash of a coming future'; 'horrorism'; 'hemispherical abjection' - rings quite true.


Martin Amis used to have gifts, but it's because he tries to be engaged that he's become so tedious. Doesn't it say something when we're told to prize a writer because we should rather than because he's a pleasure to read? Sartre, who pretty much invented all this silly nonsense about engagement once said that he'd rather read Raymond Chandler than Wittgenstein. Quite.

20 Comments:

Blogger ejh said...

he'd rather read Raymond Chandler than Wittgenstein

I've read Chandler but not Wittgenstein and I used to have one of those nice Farewell My Lovely t-shirts.

But I don't much interest myself in "engagements" in novelists (insofar as I read them any more). To me, it's a bit like political pop music - the more engaged it is, the better it has to be to make up for it. Now there's some great political pop music (and some even greater political novels) but is the greatest thing about Catch-22, for instance, that it's about war?

If this comments box makes it through to Saturday morning without any quotations from Inside the Whale, it'll only be because I'm working...

2/01/2008 02:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you wanted to know about Islamism, why on earth would you read Amis ? What would be wrong with reading Orhan Pamuk, or Alaa Al Aswany ? ~They write Islamist characters, but I suppose they are off limits to decency because their novels (and these are not Islamist writers) have a bit of "root cause" understanding about them instead of just asserting islamists have small willies. Christ, even Monica Ali's Brick Lane has an Islamist character who is quite well written - and, quite attractive (and quite obsessed with the Former Yugoslavia, as the UK Islamists where then). All this "we're so literary we read Amis" is just cover for a narrow minded philistine old fartism

2/01/2008 02:54:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Catch-22 is a very good example. It was published in 1961 or 16 years after WWII ended, so it would fail miserably at explaining the contemporary world. Yet it's one of the greatest books of the last century.

The Guardian has always been pro 'worthiness' and that seems to be Amis's importance to the paper. I'm absolutely against worthiness, like Morrissey, 'wild wild Wilde' is on my side. Anyway, the greatest piece of political writing in this country ever has to be P G Wodehouse's invention of Roderick Spode. British fascism can never be serious after that. Wodehouse is just about the least engaged writer one can imagine.

2/01/2008 02:54:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

The obvious must be stated. Amis has usually been the utterly least engaged writer imaginable; constantly fluttering around style and Hampstead mores and trips to New York. And frankly, his engagement since 2001 has consisted of the following statement: Terrorism is bad.

What would be wrong with reading Orhan Pamuk, or Alaa Al Aswany?

Wrong kind of suntan. I mean, what do you fucking think?

2/01/2008 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger donpaskini said...

Martin Amis' "engagement" may be going in new and even more exciting directions in the future. From the interview with Johann Hari:

'I'm going to take this up because I think it's such an enormous question – has feminism cost us Europe?"'

2/01/2008 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Alex, totally agree. I did say "tries to be engaged" :-)

Don, oh good grief. He then drags Steyn's arguments into a whole other swamp of reaction. "He doesn't even dare say it actually," he says, "but his thesis is that when you allow women to choose [through contraception and abortion], you will face demographic disaster, because they won't choose to have the necessary amount of children. The reason that America is the only first world country with a non-declining birth rate is because of all those things we hate about it, you know – [it's] patriarchal, church going. I'm going to take this up because I think it's such an enormous question – has feminism cost us Europe?" OK Amis backtracks when Hari asks if "we need to restore those misogynist values in Europe" but it's sadly typical that he doesn't think things through.

2/01/2008 03:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Dear God, it's worse than I thought. (Innocent that I am, when I first read Don's quote I couldn't make any sense of it - it looked like asking 'has Freemasonry cost us trees?')

You've got to wonder if the people who offered Amis his current post had the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 in mind (...shall, in carrying out its functions, have due regard to the need—
(a) to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination; and
(b) to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups.
)

But of course we know Amis isn't a racist. We know because he says so. So that's all right then.

2/01/2008 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Anyway, the greatest piece of political writing in this country ever has to be P G Wodehouse's invention of Roderick Spode.

This might or might not be true, but it's worth saying that it's not a claim consistent with the defences made of Wodehouse during the war (regarding his radio broadcasts) that he was a naïve apolitical bloke who didn't resally know what he was doing.

2/01/2008 04:15:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Well, I actually think Wodehouse was a naive apolitical bloke. He clearly saw great comic potential in Oswald Mosley. Spode's ideas are never engaged with; but the idea of dressing up and marching about and being a leader is. I don't think you need to be political to see fascist rallies as ridiculous. Wodehouse has just left an indelible image of British fascism. He achieved political writing by not being politically engaged. (I think that makes sense.)

2/01/2008 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous ShaunCG said...

Turbo-capitalism: Richard Morgan's 'Market Forces'.

Climate change: Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Science in the Capitol' trilogy.

There you go, that took me all of 30 seconds and I don't even write for a newspaper.

2/01/2008 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

but Wittgenstein is a pleasure to read.

I think there are two kinds of politics, and this is part of the reason that most political "ART" is so bad. There's politics as just another thread in life. The world we live in, power, class, etc. Plenty of great novels deal with these things - or at least have them as the necessary background and context to the character's lives. Crime and Punishment, say, is a political novel. Or for that matter anything written by Toni Morrison. But I don't think that's what self-important opinion writers mean when they talk about political novels.

Then there's the world of campaigns, political action, change, etc. And that tends to make for bad art. Partly because campaigning is quite boring in itself, partly because if you want to win a campaign you have to simplify and propogandise - both of which lead to bad art (if possibly the kind of art that opinion journalists can understand).

2/01/2008 05:20:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Shauncg: Neither of them are very good though...

2/01/2008 05:28:00 PM  
Anonymous redpesto said...

'I'm going to take this up because I think it's such an enormous question – has feminism cost us Europe?"'

Ye Gods, this is a Seal of Dacre and no mistake (either that, or Amis has listened to far too much US talk radio) - 'Women Must Breed for the Sake of the Motherland' and all that. (I really hope that a good feminist writer calls Amis on this, in the manner of Ronan Bennett's piece in the Guardian.)

Incidentally, that David Sexton quote helps me understand why Jeannette Winterson defended Amis's book on Newsnight Review last week: I wonder if she's another writer too in love with language to see what happens when you try and 'engage' with ideas and politics.

As for that Guardian leader, I do wonder whether the sainted Kettle is at work here. Then again, when it states: A frequent complaint against contemporary writers is that they are not engaged. Where is the great novel to take on turbo-capitalism, climate change or house prices?, it depends on whether the complaint is by Michael Billington or that other well-known theatre critic, Nick Cohen.

2/01/2008 05:43:00 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

More turbo-capitalism: K W Jeter's Noir.

More climate change: John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up.

2/01/2008 06:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Graham said...

So, Amis said this:

“One of the reasons I reacted the way I did [in August 2006] is because I am protective of our multiracial society. I thought – they’re going to fuck it up. Look at London, this amazing multiracial city, but there’s a few miserable bastards, who through an absolutely vile brew of dreams of impotence, or omnipotence, and sadism, and the love of blood and sadism and horror, are going to ruin it for us. It wasn’t just about protecting white people. A multiracial society is very vulnerable to that kind of thing.”

Does anyone know what (if anything) he said in 1999, when a mad Nazi was running about London bombing blacks, Asians and gays?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Copeland

2/01/2008 07:16:00 PM  
Anonymous matt w said...

Climate change: J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World. Done before we knew anything about the coming global warming, though.

2/01/2008 11:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amis has taken SEVEN YEARS to 'engage with' 9/11 and has managed to read 2 books on the subject in this time - Berman and Bernard Lewis. This is not 'engagemnt' with anything, it's retreading outdated arguments in outdated prose.

What are all the great talents doing in their studies with their £150,000 advances, other than reimagining favourite bits of history

sorry, remind me again what Martin Amis's last novel was about? and what time's Arrow is about? and isn't the only book worthy of all this attention - Money - actually a historical novel as well?

His writing on Islamist terrorism has made him enemies; his opinions are sometimes cruder and shallower than the language that dresses them.

I don't understand this at all. expressing crude, unthought-through opinions, in interviews, is not excusable because you are 'engaging with an issue'. If you brought up the protocols in a discussion on israel would that be acceptable because you're 'engaging with the issue of Judaism'?

What are all the great talents doing in their studies with their £150,000 advances

Very few novelists get advances this big. And the guardian don't seem to have noticed a writer who is genuinely engaging with all these issues and more in a genuinely intelligent way - J. M. Coetzee. But hey, you actually have to read his books, which weren't serialised in the guardian, to find that out...

2/02/2008 08:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i missed the other implication of this:

What are all the great talents doing in their studies with their £150,000 advances

the leader writer is forgetting that Amis won't have got an advance on 'the second plane' because he has already been paid for everything in it once already. by the guardian media group.

2/02/2008 09:21:00 AM  
Anonymous dsquared said...

The reason that America is the only first world country with a non-declining birth rate

apart from France and the UK, that would be (I presume he means a total fertility rate greater than the replacement rate, as nearly every country in Europe has a rising birth rate compared to the mid-90s trough).

2/03/2008 06:11:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Sweden. Australia, I think. Spain. (demographics being a bit of an AFOE speciality)

2/04/2008 12:32:00 PM  

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