THE MARTIN PAPERS
Martin Amis does autofiction
INSIDE STORY BY MARTIN AMIS. NEW YORK: KNOPF. 560 PAGES. $26.
“SENESCENCE” ISN’T QUITE THE RIGHT WORD for the stage the writers of the Baby Boom have reached. Sure, they may be collecting social security, the eldest of them in their mid-seventies, but the wonders of modern science may allow some another couple of decades of productivity. When the Reaper starts to come for the writer’s instrument, the first thing to go is flow, but that may not matter: fragments are in. In a decade or so, robbed of their transitions and reduced to accumulating prose shards, the octogenarian Boomers may find themselves newly trendy. A strange fate for a generation that entered the literary world at the height of its postmodern excesses: everyone still standing will turn into Lydia Davis.
Topical relevance is another matter. On these shores, the Dirty Realists have been the victims of their generational good fortune. The decades of affluence—and cushy teaching positions—that followed their breakout work have alienated them from the hardscrabble subject matter that made them so interesting in the first place. In Britain, the Boomers have been, since their arrival, the most celebrated literary cohort in history. Endless scandals, enormous book deals, a worldwide fatwa—one of them reviewing another without sufficient deference used to be the cause of international headlines. Arriving in a mature and thriving literary culture, many of them took up staff positions at venerable London papers—the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, the Sunday Times, The Observer—and published in the upstart journals: Ian Hamilton’s New Review, Bill Buford’s Granta, the fledgling London Review of Books under Mary-Kay Wilmers and Karl Miller. By the 1980s and 1990s, the culture had decided to make celebrities out of its authors. The agent Andrew Wylie expanded his operations from New York to London and began to extract astronomical advances from an increasingly corporate publishing industry. Tina Brown’s takeover of the New Yorker in 1992, with Buford installed as fiction editor, completed the transatlantic circuit of literary hype.
It was a bonanza. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan—these were the biggest stars, all of them present in Granta 7 of 1983, its inaugural collection of “Best of Young British Novelists.” While Barnes and McEwan marched into the new century issuing novels every few years with a reliable consistency—Barnes’s genteel bourgeois dramas; McEwan’s genre-hopping books with his signature twist endings—Amis and Rushdie achieved something like literary superstardom until a critical backlash. The reevaluation of Rushdie was led by Tim Parks (a British Boomer novelist whose fictions are neglected in his home country, where he is known as a travel writer, but are routinely adapted for the screen on the Continent) and seconded by the Gen X firebrand James Wood, who, though admiring in earlier reviews, pegged Rushdie as one of the neo-Dickensian godfathers of hysterical realism in 2000. Amis had always had his detractors, but after the century turned they began to outnumber his admirers. Meanwhile, domestic critical acclaim and prizes swarmed around the historical fictions of Hilary Mantel, a sign of the abiding fealty of Britain to the Crown and the costume drama. The Nobel went to the true visionary on the Granta 7 roster: Kazuo Ishiguro. The bounty of mainstream success allowed for distinguished and ongoing careers on the periphery by the likes of Pat Barker, Adam Mars-Jones, Christopher Priest, and Rose Tremain. There were casualties along the way. Two of the most dazzling British Boomer stylists died of cancer: journalist, critic, and memoirist Christopher Hitchens in 2011; novelist, memoirist, and critic Jenny Diski in 2016.
Did Amis and Rushdie deserve their critical downgrading? In a sense it was inevitable. Enormous fame comes at the cost of eventual backlash. Yet it can’t be discounted that the price a writer pays for notoriety is divorce from anonymity and everyday life. The shaggy postmodernism each pursued in their own ways fell out of fashion. Recent Rushdie efforts like The Golden House (2017) and Quichotte (2019) are recognizably the work of the author of Midnight’s Children (1981), but the delights of his magic-realist picaresques are shellacked in a coating of tedious trivia and a preoccupation with media celebrity more distracting than enlightening because ubiquitous and obvious. In the case of Amis, he began as the “stubby Jagger” of Fleet Street and a literary prince, son of Kingsley. His early novels were distinctly young man’s books: The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975), and Success (1978) took in the sexual revolution and its attendant chemical hedonism with a mix of wide-eyed gusto and mordant humor, a postwar individualist liberation amid transpiring imperial contraction and an awkward transformation of manners. His London trilogy (in fact, mid-Atlantic, given its multiple forays to New York)—Money (1984), London Fields (1989), The Information (1995)—coupled cross-class metafictional satire of life in the globalized capitals of media and finance glitz with stabs in the direction of the geopolitical. As with Rushdie, fame delivered the novelist a perceived duty to treat Big Themes.