Downhill Racing

Martin Amis
Martin Amis; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Novelists, as a class, abhor reading criticism of their work, and with good reason—the only adequate account of a novel, at least for its author, is the one that lies between its covers. The experience of reading dissections of one’s work can be traumatizing, like watching a medical student hack awkwardly at a body. As a coping mechanism some novelists forswear writing criticism altogether; others confine themselves within the padded walls of blurb-writing and brainless Twitter cheerleading.

Many of the novelists who do write criticism distance themselves from the task rhetorically, assuming a sober formality that would be out of place in their fiction. Virginia Woolf was as reverential of canonical literary tradition in her critical essays as she was subversive in her novels; Vladimir Nabokov, poet of the ineffable, is stoutly pedagogical in his criticism, to a near-Kinbotean level; J.M. Coetzee’s essays hew to a ceremonial formula of exposition, background, and analysis, even as his fiction makes a mockery of narrative convention. John Updike, the most prodigious novelist-critic of all, was not merely courteous, respectful, and patient toward his subjects, but unimpeachably egalitarian, extending his generosity to debut authors and centuries-dead masters, rivals and idols, Senagalese novels, Norwegian novellas, ancient Sicilian folktales, and histories of the Ming Dynasty.

Martin Amis describes this attitude as being “on duty”—the sense that, when writing as critics, novelists “have to wear their Sunday best, and can never come as they are.” In the opposing camp—novelists who come as they are—Amis places Saul Bellow, D.H. Lawrence, and V.S. Pritchett, whose criticism and fiction belong to a single, comprehensive literary project:

“Let the academics weigh up, be exhaustive or build their superstructures,” Pritchett writes: “The artist lives as much by his pride in his own emphases as by what he ignores; humility is a disgrace.”

In his own criticism, Amis himself is resolutely off-duty. In fact there is no living novelist whose criticism and fiction are so unified in sensibility, ambition, and prose style. Amis’s description of Bellow’s oeuvre can be applied to his own: “whatever the genre,” Amis’s “sensorium, it turns out, is whole and indivisible.”

Amis is not quite as formally dexterous as Anthony Burgess, whose obscene prolificacy was the subject of one of his earlier essays; he has not written film scores, verse dramas, or translations into Persian. He has only tried his hand at memoir (Experience), politics (The Second Plane), history (Koba the Dread), and video game strategy, represented by the long-out-of-print Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines, published in 1982, after his fourth novel and with an introduction by Steven Spielberg—a book that has become the holy grail for Amisians, retailing for $175 online.

Since the beginning of his professional life, on staff at the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, Amis has sustained three full, parallel careers: as novelist,…

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