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Bring Out The Big Guns Essay, Research Paper

Bring out the big guns The War Against Cliché Martin Amis (Vintage) A combative title for a collection of what is considered – by non-practitioners – to be a genteel art: book-reviewing. Well, it’s not. And fighting against cliché is as good a stance as any to adopt. Here is Amis on Michael Crichton’s The Lost World (Malcolm and Rossiter, incidentally, are “characters” in the novel): “The characterization has been delegated to two or three thrashed and downtrodden adverbs.” (Amis here inserts a deadpan half-paragraph of select quotation, where everyone either says things “irritably” or “gloomily”.) “Malcolm seems to own ‘gloomily’; but then you irritably notice that Rossiter is behaving ‘gloomily’ too, and gloomily discover that Malcolm is behaving ‘irritably’. Forget about ‘tensely’ and ‘grimly’ for now. And don’t get me started on ‘thoughtfully’.” All right, everyone knows Crichton is junk awaiting a large-screen adaptation. Let’s see Amis on something all the other critics loved: Thomas Harris’s Hannibal. “I got through the thing in the end, with many a weary exhalation, with much dropping of the head and rolling of the eyes, and with considerable fanning of the armpits.” He goes on to explain precisely why such a reaction was provoked, but what was that from Amis’s introduction, when he describes the current unsatisfactory state of criticism? “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…” This looks rather close to armpit-fanning as critical technique. Yet his sentence ends: “without any reference to the thing behind.” Amis provides plenty of reference to the thing behind – which are in fact three big things: “talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature”. This isn’t elitism; it’s the expression of a strong desire to get writers to raise their game and stop treating us like idiots. We know, now, that Amis knows plenty about talent, the canon, and literature. He is supremely qualified to write about writing; and this is a collection of what one would be tempted to say he does best, if this weren’t to back-handedly insult his novels, which I have no intention of doing. I’m still reminded of the character in The Information of whom Amis remarks that when he reviews a book, it stays reviewed; and there is a very pleasing aura around each review that what Amis has to say about any given work is going to be the last word on the subject. This is what every reviewer hopes is the case, and is one of the reasons why I bought this in hardback with my own money. That should give some idea of how impatient I was to get hold of it, even though I’d read about half of the contents beforehand. His defence of Philip Larkin’s writing against the attacks of those who were scandalised by the details of his life is exemplary, and necessary. His analysis of political correctness is, well, the last word on the subject. (His pokes at Beckett, however, I impertinently choose to interpret as misguided homage to a possibly familial robust English common-sense.) He is less funny, more clottedly reverential about his heroes, Bellow and Nabokov – but then that is highly understandable. Those essays are still the antithesis of almost all academic prose: readable, alert, engaging. And if you ever want to be a book reviewer, go off and get this. This is how it’s done.

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