X Close

The war on Martin Amis His response to the attacks was a quixotic and disastrous battle against Islamism

Martin Amis: "Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is." Credit: Frederick M. Brown/Online USA/Getty

Martin Amis: "Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is." Credit: Frederick M. Brown/Online USA/Getty


September 11, 2021   6 mins

No he was not a racist — Martin Amis wanted everybody to know it. Why wasn’t Martin Amis, enfant terrible turned lordly paterfamilias of English letters, a racist? Well, he told Johann Hari in an interview at his Primrose Hill mansion 12 years ago, it all came down to… sex.

Martin Amis literally loved “multiracialism”. In the late Sixties, whatever race prejudice teenage Mart was lumbered with had been pantingly released. “At the time I had a Pakistani girlfriend, I had an Iranian girlfriend, I had a South African girlfriend, all of whom were Muslim… The Pakistani girl was just beginning to kind of Westernise. You would — I don’t know — just look at her and just feel eons between you.”

How had 1984’s best novelist pretzeled himself into this position? Forced to deal girlfriend receipts to a smarmy journalist, in order to prove he was not listing around the same weedy moral pond as a Klansman, or Nick Griffin?

Amis’s problem — like so many other problems — began at 9:03am on September 11 2001, when United Airlines Flight 175 was swallowed by the World Trade Center’s South Tower. As the dust, debris, and people rained eerily down on New York City that day, the outlines of this grand tragedy, and many more tragedies to come, for America, and for everyone else, could be discerned.

But it may have been an even bigger tragedy for our novelists. Or it seemed to feel that way to them. What were they supposed to do now? Write craftily about unhappy marriages when the world was curling at its edges?

In the days, weeks, and months after the attack, they filled the pages of newspapers and magazines, scrounging around for the right words. Salman Rushdie wrote of a “dreadful blow”, and the war to come: “We must send our shadow warriors against theirs.” John Updike wondered whether America could afford “the openness that lets future Kamikaze pilots, say, enrol in Florida flying schools”. (He reckoned America could.) A sage Jonathan Franzen suggested that this dreadful new world would have to rediscover “the ordinary, the trivial, and even the ridiculous”. Ian McEwan — somewhat strangely given the widespread sense of shock that day — accused the hijackers of a “failure of the imagination”. Zadie Smith felt sick: “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen.” David Foster Wallace wrote a melancholy (even for him) essay about flags. A weepy, angry, depressed Jay McInerney was probably the most honest. He admitted to being glad he didn’t have a book coming out that month. The collective tone was nervous, eschatological, distressed. Novelists sounded, just this once, like everyone else.

Apart from Martin Amis. He continued to sound like Martin Amis: flashy, forceful, in-your-face. 9/11 was the “apotheosis of the postmodern era.” The collapse of the towers was the “majestic abjection of that double surrender”; the second jet was “terror revealed — the terror doubled, or squared”. He even minted a neologism (a very old Amis tick): “worldflash”.

In retrospect, nobody writing for a living seemed more affected, more thwarted, more plainly knocked off his rocker that day than Amis. He took 9/11 very personally indeed. And spookily, like W.B. Yeats describing his youthful hatred of progress, in Amis’s September palpitations you can sense that he “felt a sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin”. He called it “the age of horrorism”. Then he called it “the age of vanished normalcy”. Which was it? He began to write for his entire profession: “After a couple of hours at their desks, on Sept. 12 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.”

It didn’t happen. Zadie Smith wrote her novels, so did Jonathan Franzen. John Updike wrote a terrible picaresque about terrorism (imaginatively called… Terrorist), then died shortly afterwards. Rushdie wrote creatively across genres. Ian McEwan would eventually seem far, far angrier about Brexit than he ever was about the attacks. There were few obvious changes in course; writers kept writing.

But Amis did change occupation, sort of. For an uneasy decade after 9/11, he transformed into a crusading polemicist, no longer a mere novelist. In lengthy essays for the Guardian and the Observer, eventually collected in The Second Plane (2008), Amis became the explainer-in-chief of “Islamism” to Britain’s liberal middle-classes. Given the trouble he would soon find himself in and the drubbings he would receive, it is difficult to work out why Amis thought this would be a good idea.

He was the best comic novelist in England, the hothouse of comic novelists. He accepted that his gift was for “banalities delivered with tremendous force”. Yet there was also a sense — one confirmed by the terrible reviews amassed by 2003’s Yellow Dog — that Amis was stuck with, and marooned in, his talent for macho-comedic wordplay. (Maybe this is why he had tried to change course once before in the Eighties, by writing plaintive non-fiction about nuclear weapons.) Shortly before 9/11, at Jonathan Cape’s launch party for Amis’s autobiography Experience (2000), his editor prophesied that this was “a book which would be read in 200 years time”. There is nothing wrong with hyperbole, and Experience is a good memoir, but even Amis might have suspected the difference between hype and truth here.

Political journalism about the fallout world that emerged after 9/11 would be different though. Here was a subject truly, finally big enough for his talent. Perhaps Amis saw a chance to write himself into History by writing about history — to write a book that really would be read in 200 years.

The Second Plane, which is full of howlers, sweeping statements (“All religions are violent”; “Islam is totalist”), and ramblings, may well be read in 200 years’ time, but not in a way that would please Amis. His cavalier embrace of polemic — his decision to go out to bat, unasked, for the West in the 2000s — was a minor, yet telling, sideshow during the War on Terror era. In Amis we see the clumsy analysis of Islamism (born entirely of sexual frustration apparently) and Iran (the population there he thought, was “strongly if ambivalently pro-American”) that passed for commentary in that period. And Amis embraced pat comparisons of al-Qaeda with the Nazis, Stalinism, and the Khmer Rouge, which now look as if they were written to satisfy emotional, not intellectual needs.

In one essay Amis describes an abandoned novella, The Unknown Known. It imagined the story of Ayed, a “diminutive Islamist terrorist” who has the bright idea of ransacking “all the prisons and madhouses for every compulsive rapist in the country”, and releasing them in a small town in Colorado. Ayed is a potential rapist too, sexually curdled, standing beneath elevated walkways so “he could rail against the airiness of the summer frocks worn by American women and the shameless brevity of their underpants”. As a pervert of short-standing, whose icky yearnings are described in great detail, Ayed could have tumbled out of London Fields or any other Amis novel. The only difference is that Ayed is an Arab who has never seen the inside of a pub. Amis knew he was reissuing his old insights and insecurities like this, and he believed they reverberated even more strongly: “Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is.” But was it helpful, as the battle lines were being drawn, to believe that the West’s new foes were so many Ayed’s — mentally deranged death cultists, whose lives turned on the problems they had with girls? These caricatures belonged in novels. They made sense in novels, but now they were being passed off as an accurate representation of of the world and the people in it — and these, looked at properly, would always be ambiguous.

Literary critics called Amis “chuckleheaded” and compared him with “a man who sounds increasingly like the embarrassing uncle screaming at the television”. But Amis was not really in literary mode at all. He was simply ventriloquizing, as his friend Christopher Hitchens did, the establishment consensus in Washington and London at the time — that this was a struggle between good and evil, between modern civilisation and medieval barbarism. It’s plain now that there is a direct line — a “worldflash” even — between these recklessly simple ideas and the disaster that unfolded in Kabul last month.

In the end though, it was not The Second Plane that forced Amis to detail his liaisons with Muslim girls in Sixties London. It was a grenade tossed in an interview in 2006, more explosive than anything he wrote elsewhere in this phase: “There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? — to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.” Even Michel Houellebecq never went this far.

For this Terry Eagleton compared him to a “British National Party thug”. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said Amis was “with the beasts” and “the Muslim baiters and haters”, making him a “threat to society”. Amis defended himself by discussing his sex life (“I was the first man she had ever kissed” etc.) and then retreated back to safer territory in the 2010s — another novel about the Holocaust, another novel about London. He would admit in 2012 that he “said something stupid” when he talked about collective punishment.

His pose changed. Amis seemed sadly self-aware. “I’m like Hugh Hefner” he told the Times in 2017. “When he started out, he was the hero of liberalism and then the culture changed. And he became the villain of liberalism.”

In his latest book, Inside Story, (a tricksy meander around the contours of his own life) his tone is gentle and generous and grandfatherly. It’s like he wants us to forget all the things he wrote and said after 9/11 — like George W Bush showing off the oil paintings he made of injured veterans on late night shows, with his please-forgive-me eyes.

Who would forgive Martin Amis? In his writing life he had always insisted that critics didn’t matter. “As you get older you realise that all these things — prizes, reviews, advances, readers — it’s all showbiz, and the real action starts with your obituary.” Only posterity counted, only 200 years hence as his editor put it, and Amis wanted to be remembered then. When the real action of remembering Amis begins, you almost hope for his sake, that his small and silly contribution to these 20 years of hubris will be forgotten.


Join the discussion


Rejoignez des lecteurs partageant les mêmes idées qui soutiennent notre journalisme en devenant abonnés payants.

Subscribe

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

35 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Let him say what he wants. I do not care for his father’s writing at all, and do not care for Martin – but he is someone very wrought about meaning, religion, and 9/11 – so he went a bit far, fine, why worry so much about it? I really hate the modern passion for tripping people up from something they said way in the past. The past is a very different land, and most of what was said, and went on there, is out of context in the here and now – and this obsession of then taking it in a modern context is just to trip some one up.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

As if there isn’t enough self censorship about Islam already , let’s make. Martin Amis islamophobe of the year for the years before the islamophobe of the year award was a thing..

What Will Lloyd calls ‘the hubris of the last 20 years’ was presumably the attempts to ‘nation build ‘ and impose western values on Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan .

But that attempt was itself a displacement activity by politicians like Blair who felt unable to tackle the Islamist threat at home .

Indeed he was allowing vast numbers of Somalis ,and other migrants from cultures without noticeably liberal values ,to move to the UK at the same time as he was trying to westernise Iraq and Afghanistan through war .

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

‘Offence archaeology’

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Though I did enjoy Trudeau and his blackface.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

Yes, but I enjoyed his Bollywood phase even more

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Kingsley Amis is a terrific writer and has nothing in common with his son Martin, either politically or stylistically. Why mention them in the same breath?

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago

Amis was at least honest in his views. Which is more than can be said for ‘when United Airlines Flight 175 was swallowed by the World Trade Center’s South Tower.’ Was swallowed by? No, chucklehead, it was deliberately flown into the tower in an act of mass murder in the name of a violent and totalist religion.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

Yes his locution is a bit of a give-away

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

“Some people did something”.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

I can’t despise cancel culture and book burning, then support an article inviting it. So what if Amis said something he regretted? People were angry.

We have to stop this Crucible style denunciation: I saw Goody Smith dancing with the devil! I saw an author criticising trans people!

We really have to grow up – and that means simply accepting that people make mistakes. (Or, if you like, that we’re all sinners and sinners who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.)

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Agreed. I would even say : “accepting that people make mistakes or do not agree with you all the time.”

Michael Hobson
Michael Hobson
2 years ago

I don’t see the point of this article. I gave up reading Amis years ago but can’t see why his trying to say something significant about 9/11, even if he does misspeak at times, should be dismissed as ‘hubris’. I know you’ve got a crust to earn but this is just opportunistic journalism made only vaguely interesting because of its quotations from Amis.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Hobson

I took hubris of the last 20 years to refer to Tony Blair’s attempt to nation build in Iraq and Afghanistan .
Perhaps he was referring just to Amis in which case your response is totally valid

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
Dr Anne Kelley
Dr Anne Kelley
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Hobson

I got the strong impression from the ‘literary’ writing style of this article that the journalist is trying to prove his credentials as a novelist. The style is annoying and the content is pretty trivial.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Dr Anne Kelley

You think this is a take down attempt fuelled by envy?

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

We live in a dishonest and stupid world, as this article reminds us. Somehow the mere suggestion of travel bans and profiling is beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse in countries that were, at that very moment, sending soldiers to invade and occupy Muslim countries. Which is worse? And which is the more rational course of action? 9/11 was, after all, an immigration failure. An immigration response is more logical than invading a foreign country. And, of course, the stupidity of the ubiquitous ‘islamophobia’. True phobias are irrational but this fear is entirely reasonable.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

You’re completely spot on but the liberal media can’t accept the truth that 9/11 was an immigration failure, because it would raise the question of whether large scale Muslim immigration to the west was a mistake. And that isn’t a discussion they wish to allow .

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
2 years ago

I can’t stand his books, but this is just spiteful drivel.

Dr Anne Kelley
Dr Anne Kelley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jake Prior

I can’t disagree with either of those thoughts

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago

I regard articles like this as watching an episode of Celebrity Big Brother with a commentary by Frankie Howerd. Interesting to a degree, mawkish and bathetic but ultimately disposable. Filed alongside National Geographic articles on Patagonians who speak Welsh. I gave up reading MA after Koba the Dread, his excursion into anthropophagy. He has little to say about the arching realities of modern times, the supreme irony of an interview with Johan Hari. That the sainted Ian McKewan cares more about the horror of Brexit than a stupendous act of terrorism says it all. Oh, and it was interesting to read that John Updike wrote something then died.

Deborah B
Deborah B
2 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

Perhaps if you read articles like this WHILE watching Celebrity Big Brother etc etc, life would take on a more meaningful trajectory. Just a thought …

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Deborah B

I’ll try anything once, or twice.

Christopher Hilton
Christopher Hilton
2 years ago

“How had 1984’s best novelist pretzeled himself into this position?”
He wasn’t 1984’s or any other year’s best novelist.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

As far as I am concerned NO-ONE should have to apologise for being critical about Islam and Islamism. Ever. Martin Amis was best friends with Christopher Hitchens who would never offer up a weasel apology for offending Islamic sensibilities. He and Amis were among the few who stuck up for Salman Rushdie when others capitulated to Islamist violence. Screw worrying about offending Islam, it deserves to be offended.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Rather unfortunate of him to back off. Collective punishment is necessary when there is collective if not universal guilt.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

But searching a ‘disproportionate’ number of Muslims isn’t even collective punishment .
It’s a perfectly normal rational response to where the threat comes from. Except in our neurotic , woke society we can’t admit that , which is why they’ve been bigging up the pretend terrorist threat from supposed right wing extremists .

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
Adam Wolstenholme
Adam Wolstenholme
2 years ago

I disagree, Will. As a young man struggling to assimilate the cataclysm at the time, I found sustenance and insight in Amis’s 9/11 stuff, and I think it has aged pretty well. Partly it was his gift for putting into words what I felt myself. From The Second Plane:
“That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”
Yes!
Also, it’s worth noting that Inside Story gives us a fascinating insight into his state of mind post-9/11. Apparently a vindictive ex-girlfriend, knowing he’d be deeply unsettled by the attacks, got in touch and claimed that his father was Philip Larkin. That would do it, right?

jagoirwin
jagoirwin
2 years ago

This is deeply unfair. Amis – unlike journalists who need a strong take clickbait profile – was trying to give his insight into an appalling event. I suspect his views were deeply felt, and came from a post war base of deep scepticism to all religions. 9/11 was a day when the idea of C20th progress died for all of us: I think he and C Hitchens nailed that, and we are still living through the detritus of those explosions.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

And exactly why should not Al Qaeda be compared with the Nazis et Al for their evil? I’m not at all sure where Will Lloyd is coming from here.

The fact that our bien pendant leftist ‘intelligentsia’ – laughable term – can get more het up about Amis and others condemning Islamist barbarity, but far less about the atrocities themselves, puts him in a rather favourable light compared to them. It’s always white, western people’s fault.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

On this day twenty years ago, the imagery of violence announced itself. Live, immediate, connected, in glorious technicolor of course, after a century of the moving image, the power of the televisual image to seriously hog the limelight, as it were, has thrown human beings into disarray.
We resent technology more than we know. It’s given the world major benefits, we know that. Pleasure has given way to sensationalism, however. It was easy to see how exactly twenty years ago, books, writers, even reading, might suddenly no longer matter. In the 1994 movie, set in the Fifties, ‘Quiz Show’, we see the intimations of that cultural chasm when the quiz show’s star’s distinguished academic father’s disdain for the new medium of television is based on his view that television is an usurper, a device that will replace all that is good and worthwhile with, ultimately, the tawdry, the sensational.
We worry now that the moving image, brought to the palm of a hand nearest you, does not so much relay events or stunts or activities or atrocities as encourage them. Had the 9/11 attacks occurred in 1981, it would have been highly unlikely for there to have been any cine recording or television broadcast of the impacts, let alone for that recording to have been beamed beyond a few countries. The copycat attack has depended on the Information Age. The power of the sensational, to our chagrin, has diminished in scale the pleasure of technology. The Sunday drive has given way to the 24/7 dash.
How different would society in the West have been had the arrival of the moving pictures coincided with the talking pictures? It’s amazing to think that the Wright Brothers had invented controlled flight more than twenty years before actors could talk on film. But what to do? For thirty years, in the Silent Era, comedy was the mainstay of the movie industry. It could not be otherwise, really. A breaking-in, if you like, that perhaps even the old-time professor from ‘Quiz Show’ once enjoyed and approved of as a young man. What harm, laughs? Was it fun? Certainly. The old comics railed against the new shiny things of their day, smashing them up.
A world war occurred during the Silent Era. But without the three decades of the Silent Era in film, I doubt that the Western world would have for so long held on to throughout the twentieth century the idea that what was on a screen ought to be cheerful. Did the Silent Era condition the West? I think so. Did it change the course of history? No. But a certain kind of hope has always been held on to. It’s just much harder to see now when we are told entertainment today is no longer as we know it. So how to spread a little cheer around the world now? Even in America? The home of the entertainment industry? Where it all began?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Maybe he should have stopped with London Fields and Money. I certainly did, if somewhat unconsciously. The memoir could be interesting though.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago

The real problem with these guys is that they defended the enlightenment from all religions, particularly going for a dying and relatively harmless Christianity (especially Catholicism), ignoring the threat from left field. It’s the left that denies biology now. Hitchens as a well read left winger should have known that the enlightenment was under attack from the left. In any case that was a waste of their time and energy.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

I say the “hubris of the last 20 years” was a natural outgrowth of the prideful belief (which became policy in 1965) that anyone could be an American or an Englishman.

Invite the world, invade the world; what difference does it make?

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

Not knowing much about Amis, the content of the article reminds me of Wilde’s saying “Everything is about sex”. And I find the delivery very sexy too. (Word choice like “please-forgive-me eyes” etc.)

tony morrin
tony morrin
2 years ago

Dear me, what a piece! Good luck with your A levels…

tony morrin
tony morrin
2 years ago

Dear me, what a piece! Good luck with your A levels…