He’s got no talent
Tradition and the individual chucklehead
February 2, 2010
Martin Amis is interviewed for Prospect:
MA: People assume that it’s the gloomy buggers that are the serious ones — but in fact, anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny. Yet there are whole reputations built on not being funny. Who’s that German writer doesn’t even have paragraph breaks?
TC: I don’t know him, I don’t tend to read that kind of German writer.
I believe Amis might have been thinking of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who in my opinion is extremely funny.1 Meanwhile, what is the import of Amis’s curious locution anyone who has ever been anywhere to mean — presumably — “anyone who is any good”?2 Where do you go when you’re good? Does Martin Amis have holiday snaps to prove it?
Leaving us pondering that question, Amis motors on:
MA: Coetzee, for instance — his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure.
TC: Do you admire his books at all?
MA: No. I read one and I thought, he’s got no talent. The denial of the pleasure principle has a lot of followers. But I am completely committed to it, to pleasure.
Whether one takes pleasure in Coetzee’s style or not is, I suppose, a matter of taste. But the claim that Coetzee has got no talent convicts Amis as irredeemably second-rate in the matter of literary judgment.
Firstly, to couch his opinion in terms of the man Coetzee himself and whether he has “talent”, rather than in terms of the merit of the books themselves, is of a piece with Amis’s longstanding, schoolboyish preoccupation with the ranking of literary figures (M. Amis himself not seldom considered among them), and is really to express personal envy passed off as aesthetic evaluation. Secondly, the choice of “talent” itself as the criterion for the good writer, though it perhaps once began as a more-or-less-serious borrowing from Eliot, has long been in Amis’s conversation and writing an obsession at once cartoonishly egotistical (he has never been shy of referring to his own “talent”) and depressingly middlebrow. In combination, Amis’s puerile infatuation with “talent” and his laboriously hedonistic avowal of loyalty to “the pleasure principle” show that what he values above all in fiction is a kind of chucklesome facility, of the sort he once was able to practise himself.
That J.M. Coetzee’s astringent genius does not register on Martin Amis’s talentometer is, I conclude, certainly to the discredit of one of them.