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"Writers die twice," wrote Martin Amis, "once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies." In the case of Philip Larkin, it was decided that two deaths weren't enough. The dead bores attacked the poems as dead bores do: by trashing the dead man's reputation. When he went to the grave in 1985, Larkin was known by many people to be a great poet. Eight years later — after the publication of the first Collected Poems, the Selected Letters and the Life — Larkin was known by many more people to be a racist, a womaniser, a porn collector and a drunk. It was soon questioned whether Larkin wrote great poetry. Then it seemed irrelevant that he wrote poetry at all.

A few serious writers stood up for Larkin with sensible words. Martin Amis was one of those writers. Clive James was another. They said what mattered, and what still matters: that Larkin had talent, and that the man's private failures were a private affair, because the man chose to keep them that way. Amis was still defending Larkin in October. On Letters to Monica he wrote that "Larkin's life was a failure; his work was a triumph. That is all that matters. Because the work, unlike the life, lives on." In September, Faber will publish the Selected Poems of Philip Larkin. The poems are chosen by Martin Amis.

Many people who write about literature think that Martin Amis's talent is dead. That talent, apparently, fell terminally ill about the same time as Larkin's funeral: in the mid 1980s, after the publication of Money. One reviewer, writing in The Sunday Times in 2003, offered a neat summary of this popular opinion in the press. London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995) "threw into embarrassing relief the meagreness of his fictional repertoire". Einstein's Monsters (1987) and Heavy Water (1998) "showed that even the short story format couldn't curb his tendency to meander and repeat". "Two experimental novellas", Time's Arrow (1991) and Night Train (1997), "both proved ill-judged". In Koba the Dread (2002) Amis sounded "even more egotistical than he did in his autobiography, Experience [2000]". Yellow Dog (2003) "ends with a baby getting triumphantly up on to its feet. But the impression it leaves is of a talent on its last legs."

Clive James made an elegant point when he wrote that: "Literature says most things itself, when it is allowed to." Books, in liberal democracies, live or die over time on their own merits. The dead bores' criticisms simply don't matter to the literature. But they matter to how we talk about literature, which means —to borrow another elegant idea from Clive James — they matter to civilisation. There's something curious about a pack of dead bores trying to take down a living novelist. It's curious that they think nothing of doing it with dead boring prose. They should, because to write like a bore is to think like one.

True literary style is unique. It's a voice heard above the immense hum of printed words. For Nabokov, style was matter. For Amis, style is perception: "It's not the flashy twist, the abrupt climax, or the seamless sequence of events that characterises a writer and makes him unique. It's a tone, it's a way of looking at things." A unique voice on the page provokes a unique response. No two readers can react to a real prose style in the same way. Yet many literary journalists try to persuade us that that's exactly what happens when they read a new Martin Amis novel. The style they use to describe his work is almost always the same. There are, of course, occasional warm reviews. The Pregnant Widow, rereleased in March in a Vintage paperback edition, was briefly praised in the Guardian and The Independent recently. But it is true to say that there's a consensus on Amis's work that is wholly unrelated to the quality of his words. The tale of Amis's dead talent is so popular in the press nowadays that it's a cliché. The cliché is betrayed by the dead boring style adopted by many writers when they write about Amis.

Even worse is the consensus on Amis as a person. He's Keith Talent. He's a very bad guy. In Larkin's case, the vicious ad hominem attacks began after he died. In Amis's case, personal abuse already passes for legitimate literary criticism. Critics have accused Amis of racism, misogyny and egotism. He's vain (the teeth), and greedy (the £500,000 advance, the Manchester University salary). He's "ageist", a shameless self-promoter and "past HIS sell-by date" (the euthanasia drama). He sprouts "arrogant twaddle" (the children's writing melee). Professor Terry Eagleton famously shot a rocket at the House of Amis: "[Kingsley Amis was] a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals." Eagleton added that: "Amis fils has clearly learnt more from him than how to turn a shapely phrase."

But the bores don't need to put up with him for much longer, because Martin Amis is moving to New York. Amis is leaving for his family. His wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, wants to live closer to her parents. Nonetheless, there was speculation in the papers recently that he's fed up with hostile reviews of his books and intrusive reporting about his life. Amis's editor at Jonathan Cape, Dan Franklin, told The Sunday Times in September that: "Martin plans to go to live in New York mainly because of Isabel, but I would also not blame him for leaving because of the way the media treats him and looks at the minutiae of his personal life. In America he would not, and does not, get that close personal scrutiny." The bores are claiming a victory in hounding "Wounded Amis" out of London.

They're also booing Amis because he's trash-talking England. As I write, he's reportedly called the royal family "philistines" in an interview with a French magazine. Last month he said that he's embarrassed the English "don't see that England doesn't matter in the world". England is "an old drunk with airs of grandeur". It's the "land of Shakespeare", where everybody "wants to know about Jordan". Katie Price was once described by Amis as "two bags of silicone", and he's recommended readers think of her when they meet a character called Threnody in his next novel. The novel, tentatively due for publication next February, was initially titled State of England. A.N. Wilson, who sang in the cowardly choir that abused Larkin after the poet's death — he called him a "kind of petty-bourgeois fascist" and "nutcase" — responded to all this good news in the Daily Mail on Monday:

The reality is that the former enfant terrible of English novelists has turned into a strange, purple-faced parody of his father — only without the back catalogue of great books that Kingsley so impressively notched up. [...] Increasingly, his public utterances are more and more bizarre. He announced he will soon be leaving Britain to live in the US, and maybe that is just as well. Most of us have had enough of him — his mean-minded denunciations of the poor old Queen and her grandson's wedding being the final straw.

Amis has been trashing England for years. In much of his fiction, England is a land of cheats, pimps, liars, murderers, gangsters, slackers, drunks and dopes. It's Big Mal's world, in an Amis short story published in The New Yorker in 1996 and reprinted in Heavy Water. The short story was titled "State of England":

He was leaving early, and there on the steps was the usual shower of chauffeurs and minicabbies, hookers, hustlers, ponces, tricks, twanks, mugs and marks, and, as Mal jovially shouldered his way through, a small shape came close, saying breathily, dry-mouthed, Hold that, mate .... Suddenly Mal was backing off fast in an attempt to get a good look at himself: at the blade in his gut and the blood following the pleats of his soiled white shirt. He thought, What's all this you hear about getting stabbed not hurting? Comes later, doesn't it — the pain? No, mate: it comes now. Like a great paper cut to the heart. Mal's belly, his proud, placid belly, was abruptly the scene of hysterical rearrangements. And he felt the need to speak, before he fell.

What's literature about? What's it for? What are writers up to at their desks, or in the kitchen watching the kettle? These are difficult questions. George Orwell wondered if the "demon" that drove writers was "simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention". What literature is not about is pandering to the poor tastes of dead bores; bores who try to take down a talented writer because they don't have any talent of their own. Nor is it about writers pitching platitudes at the public, or twisting their talents to suit the times. Good writers, I suspect, sit at desks chasing what Zadie Smith beautifully calls "the truth of your own conception". They do not temper their writing to please people who couldn't spot talented prose if pyrotechnics burst from the page to point it out to them.

The voice of conscience in The Pregnant Widow says that sex has two unique characteristics: "It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn't find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone's mind." You can't describe real literary talent either. You simply sense it in the shape and sound of the prose, or you don't. And while literary talent doesn't do anything as grand as peopling the world, it is the only thing that time gives a damn about when it ranks the world's writers. We shouldn't find it surprising, then, that the writers who've got talent right now are much on the minds of the writers who don't.

You can't prove why next century's readers are more likely to seek out Martin Amis's words than they are to seek out the dead bores' words. If they do seek out the bores' words, they may marvel that so much sour ink was spat at a writer who refused to temper his speech and his writing for anyone. They may ask why the bores wasted their time, and their readers' time, bashing a writer who had interesting things to say about how we lived back then, and who wrote it down with true style. They may also ask why we listened to so many words from a person named Katie Price; a person who left nothing of any value to anyone, and who had nothing interesting to say even in her own time. I think Paul Berman, the author of Terror and Liberalism and The Flight of the Intellectuals, is asking the right questions in our time: "Who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure?"

In The Second Plane Amis wrote that the age of terror will also be remembered as the "age of boredom". Amis is the author of some of the sharpest words yet written about Islamism's challenge to the West. But his fiction speaks to what is sacred in the secular world: the imaginative play of a talented mind. It's unsettling that when faced with real talent, so many people who write about literature choose to be boring about it when they're fortunate enough to be under no obligation to be so. But as Amis wrote of the reaction against Larkin: "In a sense, none of this matters, because only the poems matter." Only the literature matters, and this is great literature:

I felt the baby's fear when I entered. A sudden pall of mid-afternoon, and silence, and no Keith and no Kath: just Kim, the squirming bagel at my feet on the kitchen floor. She seemed unhurt, only soaked and crying — and afraid. And that was enough, too much, should never happen. Oh I know when the babies come how we patter and creep like mice through the dark tunnels, to tend them, anticipate them, to pick them up and give them comfort. But it must be like that. It must always be like that. Because when we're not there, their worlds begin to fall away. On every side the horizon climbs until it pushes out the sky. The walls come in. Pain they can take, maybe. Pain is close and they know where it comes from. Not fear, though. Keep them from fear. Jesus, if they only knew what was out there. And that's why they must never be left alone like this.

— London Fields

Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that ... Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women — and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses — will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, "What is it?" And the men say, "Nothing. No it isn't anything really. Just sad dreams."

— The Information

She had been unconscious for over a hundred hours, and he told his mother and brother that there was no point in coming, she would not be waking up and there was no point in coming, coming from Andalucia, from Sierra Leone ... It was nearly midnight. Her body was flat, sunken, on the raised bed, all buoyancy gone; but the lifeline on the monitor continued to undulate, like a childish representation of the ocean, and she continued to breathe — to breathe with preternatural force.

Yes Violet looked forceful. For the first time in her life, she seemed to be someone it would be foolish to treat lightly or underestimate, ridge-faced, totemic, like a squaw queen with orange hair.

"She's gone," said the doctor and pointed with her hand.

The wavering line had levelled out. "She's still breathing," said Keith. But of course it was the machine that was still breathing. He stood over a breathless corpse, the chest filling, heaving, and he thought of her running and running, flying over the fields.

— The Pregnant Widow

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The Sanity Inspector
April 25th, 2011
9:04 PM
"Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae." -- Kurt Vonnegut "Some critics are like chimney-sweepers: they put out the fire below, or frighten the swallows from their nests above; they scrape a long time in the chimney, cover themselves with soot, and bring nothing away but a bag of cinders, and then sing from the top of the house as if they had built it." -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "I might also say, regarding reviews and reviewers, that I have yet to read a review of any of my own books which I could not have written much better myself." ~ Edward Abbey

William Gazy
April 25th, 2011
7:04 PM
Bravo. Amis is in the cultural doghouse because he had the absolute damn cheek to say things that are true in an age sunk deep in cant. He has learned that you cannot criticise the cretinous sections of the Left and expect to have a career.

Anonymous
April 25th, 2011
5:04 PM
Spot on, Mr Barrett - Amis looks at this country with a clear and steady gaze - as did Larkin and that is really all that counts....but of course that conflicts directly with the fatal english disease - nostalgia. The english critics have never felt comfortable with writers who won't sweeten the view - Beckett got a rough time, as did Swift and even the writer who I think Mr Amis most echoes, Henry Fielding...same as it ever was...as for the boundless talent of the bores such as A.N. Wilson ( ever tried actually reading anything by this chap - I have - as Kenneth Williams commented in his final diary entry - "whats the bloody point ?") it should be left to squeak for itself. I wish Martin Amis well - hope he keeps writing about England and is able to comfort his old mate Mr Hitchens in his last days - come back soon - you won't be forgotten.

Martin Walker
April 25th, 2011
4:04 PM
The trouble is,Mr Barrett, you go on about the "dead bores" who dismiss Amis, of whom a leading named example is A.N. Wilson - who is perhaps a royalist nutter and whatever else but decidedly not boring, in fact he is one of the only entertaining and instructive book reviewers left in the UK. Your examples of Amis's "greatness" are also not convincing - and I pass over the boredom factor of your own critical prose...

Joel Posner
April 25th, 2011
9:04 AM
Good article. Amis is indeed a talented writer. He is at times also rather annoying. Histrionic at heart, with a paranoid and masochistic twist, he would always try to generate as much negative attention as possible to boost sales and to reaffirm his position as the eternal outsider and enfant terrible, the sorely misunderstood genius full of goodbyes to all that. But it would certainly be a loss for England if he settles in America.

Anonymous
April 25th, 2011
8:04 AM
God help Martin Amis if this is the best he can summon in the way of defenders. 'Dead bores'? The problem many readers have with Amis is the contradiction between the indifferent quality of his production for the last twenty-five years and his continuing presumption that he is an important - perhaps the most important - British writer. Moments of stylistic felicity don't excuse the poverty of his ideas, the narrowness of his range, or the pomposity of his public persona.

John
April 25th, 2011
5:04 AM
M. Amis, always overrated, lost whatever talent he had many years ago. I still stand by my opinion that in his case nepotism means something. If his papa wasn't kinsgley amis, M.A. would be a dead issue. Like the smooth writing, shallow thinker Christopher Hitchens, these Brits are best unread. Many other writers need readers, or rather the readers need the writers' work product. One thinks of Flannery O' Connor and William Faulkner and Tolstoy, WAr and Peace, not Anna Karenina. Also, keep reading Shak's plays till you really understand them, even if it means reading critics' explications. Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear surpass anything written by the authors listed above, except O'Connor. Tolstoy's over long and often boring W and P is worth reading, only if you have not read all of Dickens, some o Balzac, The Red and the Black, Moby Dick, most of Conrad and Homer's and Joyce's Ulysses. Also, many of modern writer William Trevor's short stories are worth reading before tackling W and P. Please not that The Possessed and Crime and Punishment are better novels than Brothers K. We live in a literary world where reviewers (actually acolytes) praise Francine Prose and ignore Evelyn WAugh. So much to read--don't waste your life on Proust, or more than 2 novels by Balzac. Trollope can be safely ignored and unread. There are many better poets than fiction writers. Read poetry, not just Shak. If you've never read shelley's Prometheus Unbound, Byron's Don Juan, all of keats's mature poetry, including especially The Eve of St. Agnes., then read Shelley, Keats, Tomlinson, Montague, and many other first rate poets--usually not confessional crap by Plath, Sexton, and Berryman. Read all of Spenser before taking the time to read Robertson DAvies, though dAvies is worth reading. And it's too bad, all things being equal, that Cormac McCarthy's adapted novel won an Oscar. He's the best novelist of the last 50 years of the 20th century. Make sure to read the mostly ignored first three "southern novels" and the masterpiece, Suttree. Also, the texture and imagery of All the Pretty Horses, also its characterization, plot and mind-blasting descriptions of the fight in the prison and the breaking of the horses--along with the descriptions of the amerian southwest bleeding over to northern Mexico. Blood Meridian is good, but the border trilogy and first four novels mentioned above will enlarge your way of seeing things and make you a better reader and in most cases a better person. Tom Jones should be read before all 20th century novels. If you go to college and take a Novel class or classes and the teacher doesn't assign something by Trevor or McCarthym then you must move on and drop the course immediately. Keats's poetry, tied for second with Milton, should be memorized. You don't have to memorize Shak., but you should have read all his plays at least 5 times, and viewed them in a theater as many times as possible. The Twelfth Night is bewitching and electric.

George Balanchinebut
April 25th, 2011
5:04 AM
Well, Amis is coming here to the US, the land of the creative writing MFA, where he'll be left alone, because in general, we don't pay attention to writers, but he'll also be in a country that takes Jonathen Franzen seriously, so how much will things really change for him in terms of "bores"? If he wanted things to be different, why didn't he just move to the French countryside? or better yet Majorca, like Robert Graves? Most likely, it's just a personal move because of his family, nothing else. And Zadie Smith saying writers follow, "...the truth of their own conception...", is true but...it's not a jejune phrase exactly, just very trite, which fits her exactly(not a fan). You do go on a bit about bores, though. Sincerely, George Balanchine

miasmadude
April 25th, 2011
5:04 AM
Yes, the writing is what matters, and, alas, Martin Amis is a really lousy writer. And further, Terry Eagleton is exactly right about both of them. The problem is that the personal nastiness of both Amis pere and fils seeps into everything they write or have written, leaving sour little squibs, instead of literature.

Anonymous
April 25th, 2011
3:04 AM
The article would have been more effective if the author had not indulged in ad hominem attacks on Amis's critics.

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