steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Death of Heroes?

Sebastian Faulks first caused irritation on my friends list when he told Mariella Frostrup the other day that the hero was dead in modern fiction – at least, in “mainstream books”. In “genre fiction", he admitted, it might be otherwise - but clearly that doesn't form part of the real story of literature.

This interview was preparatory to his new TV series on fiction, in the first of which he annoyed poliphilo by implying that only the two World Wars had been sufficient to make the rose-tinted contact lenses of hero-worship drop from the eyes of writers.

An inauspicious start, then. But Faulks is canny enough to know that one sure-fire way to make yourself look good is to put yourself in the same room as Martin Amis. Amis did not disappoint:

People ask me if I’ve ever thought of writing a children’s book, I say, if I had a serious brain injury, I might well write a children’s book, but otherwise…The idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to, is anathema to me, because in my view fiction is freelib[?], and any restraints on that are intolerable.

It would be idle to deny that Amis is being snotty about children’s books here – and this has duly irritated a number of my friends in the trade, as well it might. However, his main point is that he makes it a principle never to take the interests, tastes, knowledge, etc of his readership into account. By the same token, he would presumably deny that he has ever written a book for adults, either, or for any other group. The fact that all his books seem particularly suited to adult tastes (and, more specifically, to the tastes of adults like Martin Amis) simply reflects that he writes for himself – and, so far from regretting this as a limitation in his imaginative or empathetic range, he has made it into a point of artistic dogma. It is easy to recognize in this position a version of the New Critical doctrines so popular when Amis was a student some forty years ago - doctrines that are themselves an echo of the Romantic vision of the poet as one whose genius wells and swells in the foetid solitude of his garret, indifferent to the taste of the outside world (though large advances are always welcome, thank you). The chance to take a side-swipe at Haroun and the Sea of Stories was probably just a bonus.

At this point the camera cut to Sebastian Faulks for a reaction shot, and it’s not clear whether there’s an edit before Amis’s next speech, which is specifically about his novel Money and the fact that its boorish anti-hero, John Self, speaks with an eloquence that someone like him couldn’t realistically have mastered:

I was writing about subconscious thoughts. Nothing he could have written down himself. The odd thing about the book is that he’s an ignorant brute, and yet I did not and would never, never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write at.

The effect of splicing these two quotations is to make it sound as if Amis is describing children’s books as being in a “lower register” – and probably he thinks they are. But in fact he is again primarily discussing and justifying his own stylistic limitations, self-imposed or otherwise. For Amis to write in the register of an ignorant brute, as Dickens and Shakespeare have been known to do, would be to lower himself to their level. Instead, he solves the problem of Money’s lack of realism by the device of introducing himself as a character and revealing that John Self is but a textual figment. One may see this as a radical postmodern move, subverting the very nature of the mimetic contract, etc. etc.; or else as a face-saving, jury-rig solution to Amis’s technical inability to make Self both believable and interesting. Personally I’d plump for option two, but either way it says more about Martin Amis than about the possibilities of heroic fiction.
Tags: books
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