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He’s got no talent

Tradition and the individual chucklehead

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. ((This, on Bernhard, is rather good.)) Meanwhile, what is the import of Amis’s curious locution anyone who has ever been anywhere to mean — presumably — “anyone who is any good”? ((It might, alternatively, be a mistranscription of “anyone who has ever been anyone”.)) 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.

  1. 1  Alison P  February 2, 2010, 9:23 am 

    I thought he meant WG Sebald

  2. 2  organic cheeseboard  February 2, 2010, 9:38 am 

    ‘funny’ for amis just means ‘good, doesn’t it? I mean he claims that

    Tolstoy is funny by being just so wonderfully true and pure.

    ie, tolstoy is not actually funny at all; but because i like him i have to make him fit into the stupid scheme of mine.


    anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny

    But then goes on to say that Richardson is not funny. So he’s never been anywhere in fiction? the view makes absolutely no sense. I’m also unconvinced that Amis honestly considers Smollett or indeed George eliot ‘funny’. Why does he bother with that – why can’t he just say ‘good’? I mean, London Fields is a pretty good book but it’s not funny in the slightest; in fact whenever i re-read it I feel much more depressed than I do after reading a Coetzee novel.

    Of course in addition to this, Coetzee is actually pretty funny, a fair amount of the time, in exactly the ways that Amis considers himself funny (self-reflexivity, a near-obsession with his own style).

    The middlebrow here is of course the killer. MA knows full well that he will be remembered just like KA – a man of letters with an ‘outrageous’ personal life, and the author of one imperfect-but-fun novel (Lucky Jim, Money) and an awful lot of far-more-imperfect-and-not-much-fun-at-all dross which will be quickly forgotten.

  3. 3  Tawfiq Chahboune  February 2, 2010, 9:39 am 

    Having “read one” of Coetzee’s books, Martin “I am a serious” Amis considers himself in a strong position to judge Coetzee’s literary “talent”. Okey-dokey.

    Amis’s problem is that for far too long he has believed his own propaganda that he’s the greatest writer in the world. Now he’s reached sixty it’s suddenly dawned on him that he won’t be remembered as anything other than a second-rate novelist who ruminates a bit too much on people’s skin colour. Any one of Coetzee’s books is worth more than Amis’s life output. And Amis knows it. Poor bugger can’t get over the fact that he’s not a good novelist. Why the great Saul Bellow thought otherwise is a genuine mystery.

    Although some of his literary criticism is worth reading, I’ve given up on his novels. Apparently, Yellow Dog has the immortal line “the sky was the colour of a dog’s nose”. So, the sky was black, then? Night, perhaps?

    Until he enters a self-termination booth, I guess we can look forward to a few more decades of Amis ranting about the non-white hordes at the gates. All I can say is that I hope the new Chris Morris film will also satirise people like Amis.

  4. 4  des von bladet  February 2, 2010, 10:04 am 

    Pingo Amis has written one widely-neglected sequence of almost-tragic vignettes: the subcollection The War Against Cliché where he edges increasingly gingerly towards the realisation that Iris Murdoch’s novels aren’t going to last.

    It’s eventually a failure, of course, because he is too far up himself to draw the obvious Ozymandian parallel.

  5. 5  organic cheeseboard  February 2, 2010, 10:15 am 

    Just to add, the ‘like a hawk’ stuff he quotes from Barbarians – he really hasn’t tohught very hard about the novel, has he? Not only are these the thoughts of a fairly unimpaginative narrator, but they’re both in a passage which is explicitly about the animal-human divide. so ‘like a hawk’ seems pretty appropriate.

    What’s even more embarrassing is that Coetzee is doing exactly what Amis thinks he’s doing at the moment, in a much more nuanced and self-aware way – JMC has regularly poked fun at the idea that novelists can be ‘serious political commentators’, while Amis is demonstrating exactly why this is such a dangerous thing to do for a novelist; Coetzee is grappling in print with issues of ageing and humanity, in nuanced pieces of life writing; while amis is… rewriting his youth over and over again where he is always, always the hero.

    One of the chief failings in his pecking-order of funniness/quality, as well as in his boneheaded ‘reading’ of Coetzee, is the lack of any writers who aren’t from the standard western tradition. The nearest he gets is Sadie Smith ffs, who he only reads because she’s befriended him in one of her sickeningly toadyish gestures.

    Increasingly, despite his residence in south America for a few years, I wonder if he’s ever really thought about the world, in its entirety, at all.

    Oh and given how often he stops his interviewer for misquoting his dad, it’s odd that Amis would then misquote Coetzee – it’s waken the dead, not wake.

  6. 6  Dave Weeden  February 2, 2010, 11:08 am 

    @4 Oh, The War Against Cliche: fine irony… if only. Can’t see Orwell (whose idea that basically is) using ‘The War Against’ seriously. Eliot stole all his ideas too, but at least he did so elegantly. And where is Eliot funny?

  7. 7  David  February 2, 2010, 11:30 am 

    If Amis were funny–big if–then he would be proof that one can be funny and still produce crap.

  8. 8  Robert Hanks  February 2, 2010, 2:04 pm 

    Yes, he does go on a lot about “talent” – “Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies” is one of his. It’s tempting to riposte “One down, one to go, eh Martin?”

    And here’s from the preface to The War Against Cliche:

    “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, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature.”

    This is about contemporary book reviewers in general. As a book reviewer, I puzzled over it at the time: he seems to be saying that reviewers are far too interested in whether a book is any good, and whether reading it gives them pleasure or keeps them interested. The self-indulgent fuckers.

    Re: funny – what he’s doing is exactly what his dad did all the time, viz, starting out with a valid critical point, then turning it into a bit of bulldozing philistinism. He’s said before that serious writers are often very funny, and that being funny is a virtue too often disregarded by would-be serious critics, and on both points I think he’s correct. But now he’s turning it into a kind of mad tramp’s bellow of defiance at the world: GAAAARRHH.

    I still like nearly all his early novels, though (decline setting in circa London Fields), and thought patches of Experience were fantastic.

  9. 9  Tom Cruise  February 2, 2010, 2:11 pm 

    He’s right though, isn’t he? Coetzee is horrible and humourless. And he nails him with this:

    MA: I don’t think it has any say in the short term either. These are two quotes from Coetzee. How does it go. Oh, yes. A woman is watching him closely. “She watched me like a…”

    TC: “…hawk.”

    MA: Next sentence. He had said these words in a “voice loud enough to wake…”

    TC: “…the dead.”

    MA: Consecutive sentences.

    Surely nobody can rate a writer who comes out with stuff like that in a novel? Can they? I mean, English is the language Coetzee writes in, after all.

  10. 10  sw  February 2, 2010, 4:58 pm 

    the denial of the pleasure principle

    Amis seems unembarrassed about making massive, absolute judgements based on cursory readings of early texts – Coetzee explicitly, but also Freud who, after developing theories about the pleasure principle, spent quite a lot of energy wondering if maybe there wasn’t something beyond it, opposed to it, something that could even deny it.

    One can’t help but wonder if this allegiance to facile readings of the early text isn’t in some way related to Lucky Jim and The Rachel Papers.

  11. 11  Freedom Pete  February 2, 2010, 9:52 pm 

    What must it be like to live in Martin Amis’ head? I’ll bet Cotzee could write a terrific novel about it, rather in the style of The Life and Times of Michael K. And it would be a laff riot.

  12. 12  Freedom Pete  February 2, 2010, 9:53 pm 

    Oops. Coetzee, I meant.

  13. 13  aboulien  February 2, 2010, 11:53 pm 

    I know when I read ‘got no talent’ I thought, You fucking kidding? It’s so transparently to do with status & testes. Perhaps Amis is a fancier technician of the sentence. Perhaps. But -as a novelist-, no contest. On the basic matter of suspending my disbelief, Amis usually trips up. And if he hasn’t noticed how witty Coetzee is, I question his literacy.

  14. 14  aboulien  February 3, 2010, 12:16 am 

    Something about Coetzee I did like: Kunkel, ‘Diana Abbott: A Lesson’, n+1 #2.

  15. 15  organic cheeseboard  February 3, 2010, 9:05 am 

    In a way, Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello are nuanced and in-depth articulations of a lot of the stuff that Amis is wittering on about, on a very surface level, in interviews and indeed in his recent fiction.

  16. 16  Steven  February 3, 2010, 6:03 pm 


    One can’t help but wonder if this allegiance to facile readings of the early text isn’t in some way related to Lucky Jim and The Rachel Papers.

    Intriguing. But in what way?

  17. 17  sw  February 4, 2010, 9:57 pm 

    Somebody who tosses off Coetzee with a wrist-flicking “‘e’s got no talent” and, in the very same interview, pantingly commits himself to the pleasure principle, is not exactly setting up a Nabakovian subterfuge of resistance to broad psychological interpretations of motive. In that context, I could not help but notice a certain pattern in the interview, if you’ll allow that connecting two points consistutes a pattern – that of a reader who pays cursory but intensely personal attention to early texts, such as W4TB and mid-career Freud (which is early Freud for most of us, because the groundwork-laying material of his turn-of-the-century stuff has now mostly become “common sense” – I’m not arguing in its favour here, only that people tend to want to jump in at the good stuff and not go over the significance of dreams and parapraxes, etc.). And if that is a pattern, is it all plausible that those of us who settle for four-word dismissals of writers like Coetzee and cheerfully uninterrogated acceptance of a one-note, one-line synopses of human nature, might want to protect similarly glib assessments of early promise and fame-launching early works, like, say, Lucky Jim and The Rachel Papers? Hmmm?

  18. 18  Steven  February 4, 2010, 11:02 pm 

    Thank you for that image!

    But Lucky Jim is brilliant and The Rachel Papers isn’t?

  19. 19  sw  February 4, 2010, 11:22 pm 

    My point is not to assess the quality of Kingsley’s, Martin’s, Sigmund’s, or . . . or . . . John Maxwell’s writings – and certainly not to judge the pulsing wads of talent they’ve splattered across the global literary duvet.

    Rather, I’m suggesting that Amis displays a penchant not for the quiddity of literature but for the gestalt-setting literary entrance. And why? Because his father’s was so beloved and his own so consciously oedipal? Because his father’s will not be improved upon? At least by him? And does this behavioural tic result in such solecisms as saying Coetzee’s got no talent based on one of his first novels, or that the denial of the pleasure principle has a lot of followers but he’s committed to it, as if nothing of intelligence or interest has been written about the denial of the pleasure principle?

  20. 20  Steven  February 4, 2010, 11:31 pm 

    Yes! But, even if one has not appointed oneself to the position of Talent Judge, might we not admit that it is nonetheless possible to read an early book by an author and know that said author will never write (or has already never written) anything that one will consider good? In other words I would suggest that Amis’s solecism does not consist in judging Coetzee on the basis of (a misquotation from) WftB rather than on the basis of some other Coetzee novel or many of them; rather, Amis’s crime is the substantially more serious one of being too stupid to understand what he has read?

  21. 21  sw  February 5, 2010, 12:06 am 

    Actually, yes!

    I was offering a type of insanity defence – or at least it was an exercise in psychological mitigation. Because, really, you know, I’d rather say someone was vain and silly and preening than that stupid?

  22. 22  Steven  February 5, 2010, 2:10 am 

    That is commendably generous of you?

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