The real Amis?

X.Trapnel on the book world’s latest guessing game

Literary Review

Martin amis once observed that he enjoyed little more than curling up with a few volumes of himself for an evening’s entertainment, so perhaps it was inevitable that the boundaries between life and fiction would eventually collapse altogether.

News of his forthcoming novel, Inside Story — which focuses on the life and death of Christopher Hitchens and the author’s relationships with the likes of Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and his stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard — has excited the literary world as only Amis can. Much of the thrill comes from dusting off the old stories of his famous dad, rude books and dental crisis and speculating on how much people won’t like his new effort as much as they did Money in 1984.

Inside Story comes with the added bonus of being able to declare that his best work is his memoir, Experience, and the frisson of weeding out the fictional from the real (who, for example, is the “alluringly amoral” Phoebe Phelps?). September can’t come soon enough.

Amis’s inclusion on Granta’s list of the Best of Young British Novelists of 1983 set him in the company of William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain. Also on the list was Adam Mars-Jones, who was yet to publish a novel, and didn’t do so for another ten years, by which time he’d been included in the second Granta tranche of dazzling debutantes.

Decades later, Mars-Jones produced two immense novels, Pilcrow and Cedilla, with a third in the sequence in the pipeline. That full-stop to the trilogy has yet to appear, but this month Mars-Jones publishes the much more compact Box Hill, which can be described in brief as a gay biker love story. Perhaps it is time to reissue Venus Envy, his 1990 “counterblast” against the phenomenon of “New Man” authors, as typified by Ian McEwan and … Martin Amis.

Twitter is no place to settle disputes, and neither is it the place for calm discussion of matters of grammar

No new men at the recently inaugurated Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a new award for an industry that can barely raise its head from the pillow unless there’s the sound of champagne corks popping and an envelope opening. Named in honour of the Canadian novelist and short story writer, who died in 2003,
its committee boasts such heavyweights as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Erica Jong. Does it seem a bit mean, though, to limit it to Canadian and American women and non-binary writers when Shields herself scooped up the UK-based Orange Prize in its very earliest years?

With $150,000 prize money at stake — and British writers already having to compete with their American counterparts for the Booker — the opportunities for standing on the podium and pocketing the cheque seem slimmer by the minute for the poor old Brits.

To the Southbank Centre, to hear novelist Eimear McBride talk about her new book, Strange Hotel, which features an unnamed narrator’s overnighters in a series of interchangeable hotel rooms in which, from time to time, she has casual sex with men she has no desire ever to see again. When the audience’s turn to ask questions came, a gentleman asked if she had found it easy to objectify men. Yes, she replied, and added a detail about striking a blow against the stereotype of women as romance-seekers who, unlike men, would never be satisfied with pure carnality.

The questioner persisted, telling McBride she hadn’t answered him. She had, she said: it was easy. “You haven’t answered it to my satisfaction,” came the disgruntled riposte, to which the author responded: “And that will worry me not a bit.” A few minutes later, there was a mass walkout; not as it turned out, a local group of men’s rights activists, but a school party, who either had to catch the last train home or whose teacher felt the need to guard their delicate sensibilities.

As is daily and regrettably apparent, Twitter is no place to settle disputes, and neither is it the place for calm discussion of matters of grammar and punctuation. Nonetheless, spare a thought for Sam Leith, literary editor of the Spectator and author of many an august tome on the use of language, who mildly pointed out an assault on correct usage in a tweet by Sebastian Gorka, late of the Trump administration . “Roe v. Wade,” declared Gorka, “trammeled on the rights of millions of fathers.” You can’t trammel on something, pointed out Leith; trammel doesn’t take a direct object. Maybe he meant trample?

But if we have learned anything from the last few years, it is that men such as Gorka know that nothing is achieved by backing down. “Put a sock in it,” he retorted, adding a helpful snowflake emoji. You didn’t even know what the word meant and had to look it up.” Rushing to Leith’s defence got Hugo Rifkind blocked but, Gorka said, Leith wasn’t even worth that distinction.

“Dear Reddit,” Leith wrote sadly, “All my friends find it easy to trigger pretend Dr Gorka by mocking his intellectual shortcomings, and get blocked. But it just doesn’t work for me. AITA?”

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