War against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000

Overview

In this collection of essays and reviews spanning twenty-five years of criticism, Martin Amis asserts the writer's obligation to battle "not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart." He marshals the forces of his infamous arsenal: his language, his wit, and his intolerance for suffering fools to review, consider, and in some cases, condemn. He takes to task the best and the brightest, including Cervantes and Milton, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and Norman Mailer and Elmore ...
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Overview

In this collection of essays and reviews spanning twenty-five years of criticism, Martin Amis asserts the writer's obligation to battle "not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart." He marshals the forces of his infamous arsenal: his language, his wit, and his intolerance for suffering fools to review, consider, and in some cases, condemn. He takes to task the best and the brightest, including Cervantes and Milton, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and Norman Mailer and Elmore Leonard. From "Great Books" to "Some American Prose," from "Popularity Contest" to the "Ultramundane," Amis parses the classics and the unconventional with the subversive brilliance he brings to everything he touches.

He also skewers myths about masculinity, with great skepticism and more than a dash of nose-thumbing humor. Unflinchingly, he lambastes the "supercharged banality" of Elvis, the monumentally self-absorption of Andy Warhol, and American squeamishness about movie violence. Evaluating the present participle, casting a cold eye on the Guinness Book of Records, and the sacrosanct image of Abraham Lincoln, Amis astutely surveys our cultural landscape and fluctuates between celebration and castigation, with the precision of a hypodermic.

About the Author:
Martin Amis is the best-selling author of several books, including London Fields, Money, The Information, and, most recently, Experience. He lives in London.

Winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, Criticism.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post
As a critic, Amis is honest and patient. The man's a genius with words. As one avidly turns page after page, Amis deftly keeps the reader's excitement ratcheted up.
Seattle Times Post Intelligencer
This fine collection performs an essential job of book criticism: It makes you want to go out and read.
Village Voice
His arguments inject charm and energy...Amis's prose combines a liveliness and vulnerability that's rare in criticism.
Time Out New York
Illuminating....unfailingly funny, perceptive and guillotine-sharp.
New York Post
His writing makes this a rare book of criticism, its pages full of grinning wit, piercing insight and confident, modest erudition.
San Francisco Chronicle
Whatever the book, there is no one whose review of it you'd rather read.
Miami Herald
Terrific . . . The collection is an absolute necessity for avid lovers of literature, most of whom will agree that Judge Time is most likely to be kind to a writer as fine as Amis.
Newsday
Amis has amassed a collection of material so sharp that it reminds you not only of why he was invited to the party in the first place, but why he might stay longer than some of the other literary loudmouths.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Sharply written...striking assessment.
San Jose Mercury News
A delicious book...Amis sets such a high standard.
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
A man of enormous wit, blinding intelligence, and instructive passion.
Rocky Mountain News
Amis' talent is to write books and book reviews, and to do both very well.
New York Times Book Review
Amis's journalism is narrowly focused but uncannily vivid. He proselytizes for talent by demonstrating it, by doing it, by believing in its necessity, himself.
Michiko Kakutani
In The War Against Cliché, these reviews and essays provide a melodic accompaniment to Mr. Amis's glittering achievements as a novelist.
New York Times
Library Journal
Amis's critiques cover wide-ranging topics and are well worth reading, particularly when the erudition on display is liberated by humor, regarding not only the subject under examination but often the examiner himself. Amis, best known for his novels (e.g., London Fields, The Information), recognizes an authorial foible, then pounces on it not without grace, not without vigor. His evaluations are lively, scholarly, and, on rare occasion, numbing though probably less so for those few who know as much about literature as Amis. Requiring less literary background are his essays on poker or chess, Elvis Presley, or the sexual allure of Margaret Thatcher. The Amis view is at its best or at least at its most readable when he is chatting up such standards as Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses, and Lolita. His lengthy commentary on Nabokov, Larkin, and Updike certainly informs, as do shorter pieces on Roth, Burroughs, Capote, Burgess, and Vidal. To paraphrase Vidal, the best writing allows the reader to participate. Without question, Amis appreciates this concept and puts it into practice in his most accomplished criticisms. Recommended for academic libraries. Robert L. Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“[A] compulsively readable book … Amis can turn his reviews into such fetching objects -- with his wit expensively bound in rich, calfskin diction -- that the results put us mere hacks on notice…. Funny, unflinching and near-undupable, Amis never misses a chance to frisk a book to within an inch of its pretensions.” -- National Post

“[Amis] is a fanatically disciplined and craftsmanlike writer. He is a prose stylist, like Nabokov or Flaubert, an oarsman in the gilded barge.” -- The Gazette

“[The War Against Cliché] confirms that in a merciless 30-year campaign, this verbally combative Brit has scored a decisive victory against the enervating forces of mediocrity and convention.” -- eye (Toronto)

“Distinguished by its hothouse intensity, its singleness of purpose, its nippy aggression -- and its stylishness. . . . Amis’ journalism is narrowly focused but uncannily vivid -- the details are fluorescent.” -- The New York Times Book Review

“Amis is a force unto himself. . . . There is, quite simply, no one else like him.” -- The Washington Post

“Funny, impeccably calm, highly intelligent and almost never polite.” -- USA Today

“[Written] with intelligence and ardor and panache. . . . Speaks not just to a lifetime of reading, but also to a fascination with how individual writers mature, how some distill their language and ideas, while others . . . misplace or misdirect their energies." -- The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780224050593
  • Publisher: Unknown Publisher
  • Publication date: 1/1/2001
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.49 (h) x 1.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Martin Amis is the author of nine novels, two collections of stories, four works of non-fiction and a memoir. He lives in London.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

The son of legendary English writer Kingley Amis, Martin Amis was born in Oxford in 1949 and attended a number of schools in Great Britain, Spain, and America. By his own admission he was a lackluster student. He spent much of his youth reading comic books, until his stepmother, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, took him under her wing, introducing him to literature and encouraging him to study for university entrance. After months of furious cramming, he was accepted into Exeter College in Oxford, graduating with First Class Honors in English.

After graduation, Amis went to work as an editorial assistant at The Times Literary Supplement. In 1973, at the tender of age of 24, he published his award-winning debut novel, The Rachel Papers. Rife with the mordant black humor that would characterize all his fiction, this comic coming-of-age tale was a fitting debut for a career that would be fixated on sex, drugs, and the seamier aspects of modern culture. It also proved to be the first in a long string of bestsellers.

Amis is often grouped with the generation of British-based novelists that emerged during the 1980s and included Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes; but it is safe to say he has generated more controversy than his esteemed colleagues. No one feels neutral about Amis's novels. In a 1999 profile in Esquire, Sven Birkerts put it this way: "He is seen either as a cynically chugging bubble machine, way overrated for his hammy turns, or else as a dazzler, the next real thing."

In addition to his provocative fiction, Amis has grabbed more than his fair share of attention for antics off the page. Graced with youthful good looks, he enjoyed a reputation as a notorious womanizer (not unlike his famous father). Much photographed and buzzed about, he was dubbed early on the "enfant terrible" of English literature -- two parts writer, one part rock star. He attracted headlines like a magnet when he left his wife and children for a younger woman; when he fired his longtime literary agent, the wife of his good friend Julian Barnes; and when his new agent (unaffectionately nicknamed "the Jackal) secured for him an advance of 500,000 pounds, 20,000 pounds of which Amis spent on expensive American dental surgery.

Although reviewers are divided over Amis's long-range literary legacy, even his harshest critics begrudgingly acknowledge his stylistic genius, verbal agility, and biting, satirical wit. The novels for which he is best known (and most respected) comprise an informal trilogy: Money (1984), London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995). In addition, he has written short stories, essays, a nonfiction work on 20th-century communism, and an acclaimed memoir, Experience, detailing his relationship with his father, his writing career, and his convoluted family life. He also contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines, and journals.

Good To Know

Amis attended more than 13 schools while growing up in Great Britain, Spain and the United States.

He was named the "rock star of English literature" by the London Daily Telegraph in 1996.

Amis was profoundly shocked and grieved to discover that his long-lost, beloved cousin Lucy Partington, thought to have simply disappeared in 1973, had fallen victim to Fred West, one of England's most notorious serial killers.

In a much-publicized reunion in 1996, Amis met for the first time a young woman named Delilah Seale who was his daughter from a brief 1970s affair.

Amis has been influenced by several American novelists, including Philip Roth and John Updike, but none so profoundly as Saul Bellow, who became a mentor and something of a father figure.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Martin Louis Amis (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      Oxford, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 25, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Oxford, England
    1. Education:
      B.A., Exeter College, Oxford

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Zeus and the Garbage


Iron John: A Book about Men by Robert Bly;
The Way Men Think: Intellect, Intimacy and the Erotic Imagination
by Liam Hudson and Bernadine Jacot;
Utne Reader: Men, It's Time to Pull Together: The Politics
of Masculinity


In 1919, after prolonged study, the Harvard ethologist William Morton Wheeler pronounced the male wasp 'an ethological non-entity'. An animal behaviourist had scrutinized the male wasp and found — no behaviour. We can well imagine the male wasp's response to such a verdict: his initial shock and hurt; his descent into a period of depressed introspection; his eventual decision to behave more intriguingly. For nowadays, according to a recent Scientific American, 'interest in the long-neglected male is flourishing, a tribute to the animal's broad array of activities'. Male humans will surely feel for their brothers in the wasp kingdom. After a phase of relative obscurity, we too have rallied. In fact, we seem to have bounced back pretty well immediately, with all kinds of fresh claims on everyone's attention. Male wounds. Male fights. Male grandeur. Male whimpers of neglect.

    What is the deep background on the 'deep male'? From 100,000 BC until, let's say, 1792 (Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman), there was, simply, the Man, whose chief characteristic was that he got awaywith everything. From 1792 until about 1970, there was, in theory anyway, the Enlightened Man, who, while continuing to get away with everything, agreed to meet women for talks about talks which would lead to political concessions. Post-1970, the Enlightened Man became the New Man, who isn't interested in getting away with anything — who believes, indeed, that the female is not merely equal to the male but is his plain superior. The masculine cultivation of his feminine 'side' can be seen as a kind of homage to a better and gentler principle. Well, the New Man is becoming an old man, perhaps prematurely, what with all the washing-up he's done; there he stands in the kitchen, a nappy in one hand, a pack of tarot cards in the other, with his sympathetic pregnancies, his hot flushes and contact pre-menstrual tensions, and with a duped frown on his ageing face. The time is ripe. And now the back door swings open and in he comes, preceded by a gust of testosterone and a few tumbleweeds of pubic hair: the Old Man, the Deep Male — Iron John.

    Iron John, a short work of psychological, literary and anthropological speculation by the poet Robert Bly, 'dominated' the New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year, and has made, as we shall see, a heavy impact on many aspects of American life. It has not done so well over here. For this there are many reasons, but let us begin with the most trivial. Iron John runs into trouble — into outfight catastrophe — with the first word of its title. I don't know why I find this quite so funny (what's wrong with me?); I don't know why I still scream with laughter every time I think about it. Is it the spectacle of Bly's immediate self-defeat? Or is it because the title itself so firmly establishes the cultural impossibility of taking Iron John straight? Anyway, here's the difficulty: in England iron (iron hoof) means 'poof'—just as ginger (ginger beer) means 'queer', and oily (oily rag) means 'fag'. Iron means 'poof'.

    At my local sports club in Paddington, where I do most of my male bonding, there is much talk about irons. Not long ago I joined in a conversation whose notional aim was to select an iron football team. The mood was earnest rather than hostile, and we didn't get very far with this particular team sheet. 'Chairman: Elton John. Elton is an iron, isn't he?' 'Centre-forward: Justin Fashanu. He's an iron. He came clean about it in the Sun.' So I can easily conjure the fickle leers that would await me if, one morning, I walked into the club saying: 'Well, guys — there's a new book about men and masculinity that's going to straighten out all the problems we've been having with our male identity. It says we should spend much more time together and exult in our hairiness and sliminess and zaniness. It says we should leave the women at home and go camping and take all our clothes off and rough-house in the woods. It says we should hang out more with older men. It's called Iron John.'

    Naturally, it's much too easy to laugh at Robert Bly's vision. But why is it so easy? Partly because he is one of those writers, like F.R. Leavis and Hermann Hesse, whose impregnable humourlessness will always prompt a (humorous) counter-commentary in the reader's mind. Then, too, we are British, over here; we are sceptical, ironical, etc., and are not given, as Americans are, to seeking expert advice on basic matters, especially such matters as our manhood. But the main reason has to do with embarrassment. Being more or less unembarrassable, Americans are fatally attracted to the embarrassing: they have an anti-talent for it (the Oscars, the primaries, the hearings, the trials, Shirley Temple, Clarence Thomas, Andrea Dworkin, Al Sharpton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Swaggart). Whereas, over here, maleness itself has become an embarrassment. Male consciousness, male pride, male rage — we don't want to hear about it.

    This of course is the very diffidence and inhibition that Bly wants to goad us out of. His exemplar is the old tale of Iron John, which 'could be ten or twenty thousand years old', or could be 'pre-Christian by a thousand years or so', but which is, at any rate, old. Let us quickly do Iron John, or its first and more interesting half, and without any of the twinkly demotic ('okay', 'there's no problem', 'yuck!') that Bly uses to keep his modern audience reassured. The King's hunters start vanishing in the forest. One day a man appears, and offers to investigate. He goes out there accompanied by his dog, which gets tugged into a pond by a naked arm. The pond is bucketed out. At the bottom lies a Wild Man. The King has him locked up in a cage in the courtyard. One day the King's eight-year-old son drops his best toy — a golden ball — into the cage of the Wild Man. A trade is arranged: the golden ball for the Wild Man's freedom. The boy agrees to open the cage — but he can't find the key. The Wild Man tells him that the key is to be found beneath his mother's pillow. The boy does as he is told but is worried about punishment. So the Wild Man hoists him on to his shoulders, and off to the forest they go.

    The story trundles on from here — the golden spring, the trial, the descent into the world, horses, battles, ending with the usual stuff involving glory/princess/kingdom/treasure — and Bly trundles on alongside it, increasingly drunk on panoptic explication. Late in the book, encountering some conventional guff about the boy's white horse, Bly has us know that white stands for 'semen, saliva, water, milk, lakes, rivers ... the sea, and priesthood ... health, strength and all good things ... fellowship and good company ... the purity of children and brides ... persons with high moral purposes ... purification ... [and] a sort of abstract, ideal state'. That's what white stands for. Bly takes the tale, in any event, as an allegory of male maturation.

    Iron John, the Wild Man, smothered in his ginger hair, is the 'deep male', the embodiment and awakener of, variously, 'Zeus energy', 'divine energy', 'hurricane energy', 'masculine grandeur' and 'sun-like integrity', brandishing 'the Varja sword' of sexuality, courage and resolve, and championing 'the moist, the swampish, the wild, the untamed'. Iron John is hard to find and awkward to contain and dangerous to release; but his mentorship brings huge rewards (all his treasure). The story's single beauty — the location of the key to the cage — is also its crux, for the boy must put aside womanly things in his journey from 'soft' male to 'hard'. The rest of his development (learning to shudder, tasting ashes, warriorhood) comes over as a cross between adolescent fantasy and middle-aged encounter-group sessions, with many a crackup and primal scream. The forest is an arcadia splattered with mud and blood.

    What emerges? Feminist writers have done their job on Iron John, and intelligibly. It hardly needs to be pointed out that Bly is phallocentric to the ends of his hair, and rollickingly tendentious even in his imagery:


'The King' and 'the Queen' send energy down. They resemble the sun and the moon that pierce down through the earth's atmosphere. Even on cloudy days something of their radiant energy comes through.


Yes, but the moon has no energy, and doesn't radiate; the Queen merely reflects the heavenly power of the King. Not that Bly is at all forgetful of women's interests. He wants to establish, or re-establish, a world where men are so great that women like being lorded over:


We know that for hundreds of thousands of years men have admired each other, and been admired by women, in particular for their activity. Men and women alike once called on men to pierce the dangerous places, carry handfuls of courage to the waterfalls, dust the tails of the wild boars.


After a few hours of that kind of talk, the women will get their reward — in the bedroom:


Sometimes in a love affair, the lovers make love with the Wild Man — and Wild Woman — right in the room; and if we are those lovers, we may feel certain body cells turn gold that we thought were made entirely of lead.


So there will be that: Wild Sex. Bly knows about women's ascensionism, but he thinks 'it is appropriate for women to describe it'. 'We will confine ourselves here to men's ascensionism.' The dialogue had better start soon, before the yodelling gets any louder.

    Bly is a poet. He is a big cat, so to speak, and not some chipmunk or beaver from the how-to industry. Then again, maybe Bly is more like a stag or a peacock, contentedly absorbed in the 'display' rituals he so admires. To pick up a book like The Way Men Think: Intellect, Intimacy and the Erotic Imagination, a sober, chatty, palliative study of gender differences, is to be transported into another — dramatically blander — world; but it is the civilized world, the modern world, the real world. Bly's utopia is as remote in time as the story of Iron John, and can be recreated, now, only as a Rockwellian fantasy — the gruff dads, with their tools and their guileless dungarees. At the end of Lady Chatterley's Lover Mellors tells Connie that everything would be all right if men sang and danced every evening, dressed in tight red trousers. Bly, who likes his Lawrence, can think of nothing to do about the modern landscape except turn away from it. Iron John finally settles on the mind as a tangled mop of vivid and cumbrous nostalgies.

    Turning to a quite elderly copy of the Utne Reader (a monthly digest of America's 'alternative press' — always informative, always revealing), we are confronted by an astonishing and unchallengeable fact: Iron John has transformed male consciousness in the United States. There can be no argument. It has already happened. The Wild Man Weekends and Initiation Adventure Holidays and whatnot, which are now big business, may prove ephemeral. But what does one make of the unabashed references to 'men's liberation' and 'the men's movement', and the fact that there are now at least half a dozen magazines devoted to nothing else (Changing Men, Journeymen, Man!). Men, the male argument goes, are 'oppressed', coming out second best on longevity, suicide rates, drug use, homelessness and work hours. The political platform being nailed together includes the Federal encouragement of boys' clubs and scout troops, male-only early-grade classes taught by men, right down to such things as male-friendly tax breaks for home-based employment. Now that men are just another minority, the way forward, or the way back, lies with 'eco-masculinity', an emphasis on husbandry which will 'affirm the "seedbearing", creative capacity of the male'. Actually, part of me always did suspect that there was something in it — in Blyism; and now I suppose I'll eventually have to act on that dawning conviction. When my boys reach a certain age, and the time comes to establish a distance from their mother and introduce them to the rugged lineaments of the male world, then I'll probably take them to the Hilton for at least a night or two.

    It is relevant, I think, to ask what Iron John is like as a husband and father. How tight a ship does Captain Bly run? There he is on the back cover, assuming the stance of a man warming the backs of his legs over a log fire, with wispy white hair, with specs, tapestry waistcoat, crimson cravat, and tight, dutiful, chinny smile. He doesn't look like a man of iron, but there's definitely something steely about him. He is unironical about himself, and naïvely vain (Iron John features a book-length running joke on authorial pretension, in which quoted gobbets from such poets as Rilke, Antonio Machado, the Norwegian Rolph Jacobsen, and many others, including Dante, are all 'translated by R.B.'). Mr Bly wants respect; he has plenty of bristles and prickles; like Bronco toilet-paper, he takes no shit from anyone. He is, in fact, that familiar being, the 'strong personality'. This kind of strength is innate and not acquired, and is always looking for ways to expand. 'Zeus energy is male authority accepted for the sake of the community.' It sounds like a marvellously elemental excuse for getting away with everything. Zeus energy, 'hurricane energy': here is something that sweeps all before it. Would you want to tell Zeus to take out the garbage? Would you want to ask a hurricane to wipe its feet on the mat?

    Feminists have often claimed a moral equivalence for sexual and racial prejudice. There are certain affinities; and one or two of these affinities are mildly, and paradoxically, encouraging. Sexism is like racism: we all feel such impulses. Our parents feel them more strongly than we feel them. Our children, we hope, will feel them less strongly than we feel them. People don't change or improve much, but they do evolve. It is very slow. Feminism (endlessly diverging, towards the stolidly Benthamite, towards the ungraspably rarefied), the New Man, emotional bisexuality, the Old Man, Iron Johnism, male crisis-centres — these are convulsions, some of them necessary, some of them not so necessary, along the way, intensified by the contemporary search for role and guise and form.

London Review of Books December 1991


Excerpted from The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis. Copyright © 2001 by Martin Amis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Foreword
On Masculinity and Related Questions: Iron John. Movie Violence. Thatcher, Lincoln, Hillary Clinton. The End of Nature. Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol. Nuclear Weapons. Writing About Sex 1
Some English Prose: V. S. Pritchett. Angus Wilson. Iris Murdoch. J. G. Ballard. Anthony Burgess. C. P. Snow, Brian Aldiss, Cyril Connolly, Fay Weldon, John Fowles. D. M. Thomas 63
Philip Larkin 147
From the Canon: Coleridge Jane Austen. Milton. Dickens. Donne. Waugh and Wodehouse. Malcolm Lowry 173
Popularity Contest: Robert B. Parker: Chandler Prolonged. Michael Crichton. Elmore Leonard. Tom Wolfe. Thomas Harris 213
Vladimir Nabokov 243
Some American Prose: Norman Mailer. Gore Vidal. Philip Roth. William Burroughs. Kurt Vonnegut. Truman Capote. Don DeLillo. Saul Bellow 265
Obsessions and Curiosities: Chess. Football. Poker. World Records. Modern Humour 329
John Updike 367
Ultramundane: World Literature. Zamyatin. Kafka. Shive Naipaul. A Journey in Ladakh. V. S. Naipaul 389
Great Books: Don Quixote. Pride and Prejudice. Ulysses. The Adventures of Augie March Lolita 425
Index 491
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First Chapter

While complacently planning this volume in my mind I always thought I would include a nice little section called — let us say — 'Literature and Society', where I would assemble my pieces on literature and society (pieces on F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, and on lesser figures like Ian Robinson an Denis Donoghue). 'Literature and society' was, at one time, a phrase so much on everyone's lips that it earned itself an abbreviation: Lit & Soc. And Lit & Soc, I seemed to remember, had been for me a long-running enthusiasm. But when I leafed through the massed manuscripts I found only a handful of essays, all of them written, rather ominously, in the early Seventies (when I was in my early twenties). Having reread them, I toyed with the idea of calling my nice little section something like 'Literature and Society: The Vanished Debate'. Then I decided that my debate had better vanish too. The pieces themselves I considered earnest, overweening, and contentedly dull. More decisively, though, Lit & Soc, and indeed literary criticism, felt dead and gone.

That time now seems unrecognizably remote. I had a day job at the Times Literary Supplement. Even then I sensed discrepancy, as I joined an editorial conference (to help prepare, perhaps, a special number on Literature and Society), wearing shoulder-length hair, a flower shirt, and knee-high tricoloured boots (well-concealed, it is true, by the twin tepees of my flared trousers). My private life was middle-bohemian — hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time, in the tub, on the tube; I always had about me my EdmundWilson — or my William Empson. I took it seriously. We all did. We hung around the place talking about literary criticism. We sat in pubs and coffee bars talking about W.K. Wimsatt and G. Wilson Knight, about Richard Hoggart and Northrop Frye, about Richard Poirier, Tony Tanner and George Steiner. It might have been in such a locale that my friend and colleague Clive James first formulated his view that, while literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to civilization. Everyone concurred. Literature, we felt, was the core discipline; criticism explored and popularized the significance of that centrality, creating a space around literature and thereby further exalting it. The early Seventies, I should add, saw the great controversy about the Two Cultures: Art v. Science (or F.R. Leavis v. C.P. Snow). Perhaps the most fantastic thing about this cultural moment was that Art seemed to be winning.

Literary historians know it as the Age of Criticism. It began, let us suggest, in 1948, with the publication of Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture and Leavis's The Great Tradition. What ended it? The brutalist answer would consist of a singe four-letter word: OPEC. In the Sixties you could live on ten shillings a week: you slept on people's floors and sponged off your friends and sang for your supper — about literary criticism. Then, abruptly, a bus fare cost ten shillings. The oil hike, and inflation, and then stagflation, revealed literary criticism as one of the many leisure-class fripperies we would have to get along without. Well, that's how it felt. But it now seems clear that literary criticism was inherently doomed. Explicitly or otherwise it had based itself on a structure of echelons and hierarchies; it was about the talent elite. And the structure atomized as soon as the forces of democratization gave their next concerted push.

Those forces — incomparably the most potent in our culture — have gone on pushing. And they are now running up against a natural barrier. Some citadels, true, have proved stormable. You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerdothon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.

Literary criticism, now almost entirely confined to the universities, thus moves against talent by moving against the canon. Academic preferment will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth's poetic; it will come from a challenging study of his politics — his attitude to the poor, say, or his unconscious 'valorization' of Napoleon; and it will come still faster if you ignore Wordsworth and elevate some (justly) neglected contemporary, by which process the canon may be quietly and steadily sapped. A brief consultation of the Internet will show that meanwhile, at the other end of the business, everyone has become a literary critic — or at least a book-reviewer. Democratization has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments. I think Gore Vidal said this first, and he said it, not quite with mockery, but with lively scepticism. He said that, nowadays, nobody's feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else's. This is the new credo, the new privilege. It is a privilege much exercised in the contemporary book-review, whether on the Web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. the right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature.
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  • Posted March 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The War Against Cliche

    Caustic, humorous and eclectic. A good book to thumb through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2003

    Towards Better Writing

    Publishers snippets and reviewers praise will only illuminate you so far to this book's essential usefulness. It brings joy and it teaches. Compile a new list of books to read every ten pages or so. Write your own novel later.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2010

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