The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000

The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000

by Martin Amis

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Is there anything that Martin Amis can’t write about? In this virtuosic, career-spanning collection he takes on James Joyce and Elvis Presley, Nabokov and English football, Jane Austen and Penthouse Forum, William Burroughs and Hillary Clinton. But above all, Amis is concerned with literature, and with the deadly cliches–not only of the

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Is there anything that Martin Amis can’t write about? In this virtuosic, career-spanning collection he takes on James Joyce and Elvis Presley, Nabokov and English football, Jane Austen and Penthouse Forum, William Burroughs and Hillary Clinton. But above all, Amis is concerned with literature, and with the deadly cliches–not only of the pen, but of the mind and the heart.

In The War Against Cliché, Amis serves up fresh assessments of the classics and plucks neglected masterpieces off their dusty shelves. He tilts with Cervantes, Dickens and Milton, celebrates Bellow, Updike and Elmore Leonard, and deflates some of the most bloated reputations of the past three decades. On every page Amis writes with jaw-dropping felicity, wit, and a subversive brilliance that sheds new light on everything he touches.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Irresistible. . . . The man's a genius with words. . . . Whatever Amis has to say about a book or a writer seems just right—and lip smackingly phrased." —The Washington Post

“Brilliant prose. . . .[Amis] proselytizes for talent by demonstrating it, by doing it. . . . He is a master.” –The New York Times Book Review

"Whatever the book, there is no one whose review of it you'd rather read than Amis's. His prose is always buzzing, so much so that he doesn't just review books, he rewrites them." —San Francisco Chronicle

"[Written] with intelligence and ardor and panache. . . . Speaks not just to a lifetime of reading but also to a fascination with individual writers mature." —The New York Times

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.
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.
San Jose Mercury News
A delicious book...Amis sets such a high standard.
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
Time Out New York
Illuminating....unfailingly funny, perceptive and guillotine-sharp.
San Francisco Chronicle
Whatever the book, there is no one whose review of it you'd rather read.
Village Voice
His arguments inject charm and energy...Amis's prose combines a liveliness and vulnerability that's rare in criticism.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Sharply written...striking assessment.
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.
New York Post
His writing makes this a rare book of criticism, its pages full of grinning wit, piercing insight and confident, modest erudition.
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
A man of enormous wit, blinding intelligence, and instructive passion.
Seattle Times Post Intelligencer
This fine collection performs an essential job of book criticism: It makes you want to go out and 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.
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.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 7.97(h) x 1.13(d)

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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 Edmund Wilson — 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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