May 21, 2023 - 1:15pm

“If the voice doesn’t work,” Martin Amis told the Paris Review in 1998, “you’re screwed.” It’s just as well for the novelist, who has died at the age of 73, that his literary voice did work, so much so that plot, characterisation and moral instruction were all subsumed by the irony and wordplay which guided the reader through his novels.

The obituaries so far have focused on his status as the flagbearer of a dying breed of literary personality. He was an enfant terrible; he was a literary rock star; he was the book world’s answer to Mick Jagger. And so on. Yet the disproportionate fascination with Amis’s love life and famous friendships obscures his satirical gift: he was the Evelyn Waugh of his own consumerist age, and his brand of literary cynicism is at risk of dying with him.  

In his fiction Amis dealt in grotesques, not real life. London Fields isn’t really London, and the New York of Money is a twisty simulacrum rather than the actual Big Apple, a universe all his own which serves as a backdrop to the more important business of presenting its narrator, John Self, in as irresistibly ugly a way as possible. In London Fields, Nicola Six and Keith Talent aren’t believable or recognisable, but it doesn’t matter: they live in Amisland, and they do things differently there. Where contemporary fiction writers are frequently at pains to humanise the people, no matter how awful, who populate their stories, Amis was content to illustrate the more abhorrent crevices and possibilities of his time.

He was happy to exhibit his own nastiness, too, a rare quality in a vain profession. Amis was unafraid of diving headfirst into the pungent abscesses of modern life, and gave off some pretty bad smells himself. He was at his most sincere when he waded (often ill-advisedly) into current affairs, notably on Islamism in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror. Though he went on to retract some of his more controversial statements about the religion as a whole, Amis’s Islamic interlude damaged his reputation, not just because of the responses that compared him to a “BNP thug”, but because it undermined his cool detachment from the tumult of everyday political debate.

That said, his non-fiction frequently matched and surpassed his novels. In collections such as The War Against Cliche and The Rub of Time, essays on Bellow and Nabokov (Amis’s two great heroes) jostle with meditations on pornography and a dispatch from the 1999 Champions League final. In many ways, he was Britain’s answer to Norman Mailer (with whom he conducted a fascinating interview for the BBC in 1991) — another badly behaved alpha male who burst onto the literary scene in his early twenties and who received as much attention for his personal life as for his craft. In both cases, their later work was often panned by critics.

Unlike the notoriously humourless Mailer, however, Amis was perhaps the foremost comedic writer of his generation. His Dickensian nomenclature and gift for a catchy neologism yielded some of the most vivid characters in postwar fiction, even if they were closer to caricature than a familiar reality. Today, New Sincerity is the dominant strain of contemporary novel-writing, in which a certain variety of self-awareness — a kind of digital-age interiority — has taken over, consigning cynics like Amis to history. The “relatability” of Sally Rooney‘s characters and their neuroses, for instance, has replaced the delirious darkness of Amis and his ilk.

Yet he was self-aware, and his memoir, Experience, and fictionalised memoir, Inside Story (fittingly, his last book), demonstrate his candour and good humour about a personal history which was filled with trauma and tragedy. Conscious of his beginnings as a hereditary novelist, Amis arguably surpassed his father, Kingsley, as a stylist, even if he couldn’t repeat the old man’s Booker win. His promotion of a “high style to describe low things” influenced everything from the Modern Review to 21st-century TV criticism. If fiction has lost its Amisian wit, journalism is still indebted to a writer who maintained that “posterity is no bloody use to me”.

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.