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Martin Amis Makes the Case for Snobbery

The essays in “The Rub of Time” defend careful thought and use of language.

Frederick M. Brown / Online USA / Getty Images

For Martin Amis, the foremost adversary of freedom is cliché—all those stereotypes and ready-made notions whose appealing ease smothers original thought. “All writing is a campaign against cliché,” he wrote in the introduction to his last collection of essays and criticism, titled, of course, The War Against Cliché. “Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.” In pursuit of precision he challenges us to resist the influence of the stock response, the unexamined prejudice or second-hand conviction. The writer in Amis’s view must proceed, as Updike unimprovably put it, “by taking a deep breath, leaning out over the typewriter, and trying to dive a little deeper than the first words that come to mind.” It’s in these deep waters that one hopes to find a liberating truth.

Knopf, 416 pp., $28.95

The Rub of Time, Amis’s new anthology of essays and reportage, is not concerned expressly with cliché, at least compared to the previous compendium. But his opposition to unoriginality looms everywhere in this work. “When I dispraise,” Amis has said of his inclinations as a critic, “I am usually quoting cliché. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.” He judges literature by this criterion. In fact, across The Rub of Time he evaluates seemingly everything on the basis of whether it strikes his eyes and ears as fresh or dull—political speechifying, movie stars, hypermasculinity, Champions League football, even hardcore porn. “Now John was being obedient to the dictionary definition of bullshit,” he observes dryly amid an interview with John Stagliano, director of an adult video called Buttland. Wherever Amis ventures, whatever subject intrigues him, he remains attentive to dictionary definitions. As indispensable to his writing as his pen, one feels, is his faithful OED.

He brings his scrutiny to bear on contemporary masters of fiction, such as Don DeLillo and Philip Roth, as well as the “twin peaks” of his literary education, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow. His perspicacity in the field of genius-level prose makes Amis highly qualified to analyze the mechanics of his beloved forebears. Bellow in particular rouses him to draw some truly exquisite impressions: “Bellow is sui generis and Promethean, a thief of the gods’ fire: He is something like a supercharged plagiarist of Creation.” “To round out the panoply of the young Bellow’s attractions, he had about him the glamour and gravitas of turbulent exoticism.” “Compared to him, the rest of us are only fitfully sentient.” These are the pronouncements of a writer not simply enamored of another, but invigorated, galvanized by him: Clearly Bellow’s prose, cherished for its immaculateness, made Amis’s better.

This fastidious emphasis on language and how the world uses or misuses it involves Amis in some rather curious verdicts. In arguing that Bellow is the central figure in the landscape of American literature, for instance, Amis sees fit to mount a counterargument against the writer he perceives as Bellow’s only viable competitor, “the only American who gives Bellow any serious trouble” in the heavyweight title bout: Henry James. Here the focus on language seems perhaps too narrow. James’s “prose suffers from an acute behavioral flaw,” Amis feels—the habit of the “elegant variation”, in which proper nouns are later exchanged for florid descriptions. (“Breakfast” becomes “this repast,” and so on.) Amis believes this weakness symptomatic of “a lack of warmth” and, later in his career, a hostile “retreat from the reader.” But as proof of Bellow’s contrary supremacy the point is not exactly clinching. Elsewhere, Amis seems obliged to twist himself into curious rhetorical contortions in order to excuse the mistakes of writers he likes: Witness how, in an essay celebrating his friend Christopher Hitchens, “we accept Christopher’s errancies, his recklessness, because they are inseparable from his courage.”

The crucial point is that Amis’s apparent fixation on speech and prose is not superficial. In his view, malevolence and ignorance both derive from a deficient facility with words; evil, where it emerges, manifests in language. This is what Amis means by “clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart:” when we slump into “herd-words and herd-phrases,” those “rhymes, chimes, repetitions, obscurities, dishonesties, vaguenesses” that come so easily to mind, we abdicate our responsibility to the hard work of original thinking, and abandon our claim to original thought. Clichés are the path to prejudice and intolerance, to ignorance and indoctrination. The view will strike some as parochial: hatred and corruption, after all, are surely bred by more than a reliance on unoriginal phrases like “bitter cold” and “searing heat”.

If Amis sometimes fights the battle against cliché rather hard, it’s because he fears the war may not be won. It’s hardly surprising that Amis, who sees Trump as “emotionally primitive and intellectually barbaric,” has written about Trump’s rise in literary terms. In a review of Trump’s 2015 manifesto Crippled America and 1987 business memoir The Art of the Deal, Amis writes that “Readers will now have to adjust themselves to a peculiar experiment with the declarative English sentence,” he writes. “Trump’s written sentences are not like his spoken sentences, nearly all of which have eight or nine things wrong with them. His written or dictated sentences try something subtler: very often indeed, they lack the ingredient known as ‘content.’” He is impatient with the curlicues of nothing these books foist on readers over and over, and he is ruthless in his attack on the style: “Telling it like it is? Yes, but telling what like what is?”

By attacking Trump’s writing Amis is doing more than impugning his credentials as an author. He is intent on revealing the process responsible for such dismal thoughts. While Trump’s campaign promises, speeches, actions as president clearly demonstrate his outlook, “the written word,” Amis points out, provides the strongest “hard evidence” that “Trump, both cognitively and humanly, has undergone an atrocious decline.” “The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle,” Amis writes elsewhere in the book. “It takes place within the soul of every individual who cares about words.” We know from how he speaks and writes how little he cares about truth.

Clichés matter. The Rub of Time reminds us how much is at stake in the matter of language, and how much originality, in thought and expression, really means. In a terse letter included in this volume, a reader dares ask why Amis is “such a snob.” It is worth quoting his response at length:

“I think snobbery is due for a bit of a comeback. But not the old shite to do with ‘class.’... There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate. So let’s have a period of exaggerated respect for reason; and let’s look down on people who use language without respecting it. Liars and hypocrites and demagogues, of course, but also their fellow travellers in cynicism, inertia, and sloth... Seen it, done it, been there, go the t-shirt, had a banana. No-brainer. I don’t think so.”

Using language without respecting it: This, for Amis, is the cardinal sin. The point is to do better than platitudes and empty phrases.