Martin Amis on Writing and Joy

Both Marting Amis and his father, Kingsley Amis, are writers who I have not yet read. Reading something of their work has been in the back of my mind for at least twenty years, and the piece in The Guardian today on the younger Amis, titled "Amis at 70" drives home how long I've put off the job. The profile of Amis touches a variety of subjects, but I found three moments particularly compelling because they were all about joy. 

The first moment was Amis talking about the obligation he feels to carry on the ineffable joy of living his friend Christopher Hitchens lived with.

It sounds sentimental, he supposes, but after his friend’s death, Amis felt he had to take on some of his qualities. “He had a greater love of life than me. He really enjoyed everything, so much. I quite like life, but I’m not as crazy about it as he was. It somehow formulated itself in me that, now he was dead, it was my job to love life as much as he did. It hasn’t gone away.”

Amis implies that his change in character on this front was not a conscious one, but it's a nice moment of self-awareness and reflection on the profound friendship he experienced with his friend. Not only does Amis raise the possibility that joy is a response to grief, but that nice moments of self-reflection are important. 


Martin Amis

So too, by extension, are friendships. The second moment in the piece that struck me as being about joy mentioned his political disagreements with friends, particularly with Hitchens' public endorsement of the US invasion of Iraq, and his stubborn insistence to not let them effect his relationships with people. Emma Brockes, who wrote the profile, notes Amis told her "He saw it happen to his father, who “lost a lot of friends over Vietnam. And great friends, like Al Alvarez and Karl Miller. You can’t afford that. As Hitch said, you can’t make old friends.”" Amis swims against the cultural tide in this moment of people unfriending one another for what they share on social media. Amis rejects the "boycott fever" gripping so many people, but it's not because he has a hot take on the issue. On the contrary, he has a pretty cold one: Amis has friends and he likes them and wants to keep them in his life. Amis chooses the personal over hyper-national.

The third and final moment in the piece, the one I was most buoyed by personally, were Amis comments at the end on writing. Let me let Brockes and Amis' own words send us out on this one.

Even here, Amis notices he has mellowed somewhat. He used to be a terrible purist about the terms on which readers should engage with his work. “Dryden said in the 17th century that the purpose of art is to delight and instruct, with the emphasis on delight. Because instruction is not always delightful, but delight is always instructive. And it has stood up very well.” He concedes it has taken him a while to get there. “I was snooty at some radio event where people read your novel – it was London Fields – and then you take questions from them, and a lady said, ‘I’m sorry, but I struggled with it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t care about the characters.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m afraid you should really not be thinking about that. You should be thinking about what the author’s trying to do.’ But I think she was dead right.” It is the truth before which all matters of style melt away. “You have to give a shit.”