Disgrace: or, Keep Talking Marty

Though there have been calls for Martin Amis to please shut up, I think I might actually like to hear him keep speaking, even if that means he’ll go on about euthanasia booths and Coetzee being a talentless hack and who knows what next.

News reports like this one and this one in the Telegraph have isolated on the following few (poorly excerpted) lines from an interview Amis recently conducted with Prospect Magazine:

“It’s the gloomy ——- that are the serious ones”, he said. “Coetzee, for instance – his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure. I read one [of his novels] and I thought, he’s got no talent. But the denial of the pleasure principle has got a lot of followers.”

I’m not in a position to pass judgment on Coetzee’s talents. Though I’ve been encouraged to hunt down Life and Times of Michael K, I’ve read just one of Coetzee’s novels, Disgrace. My classmates at UC Davis loved it, but I found it so bare and lifeless that I joked it’d take little more than a switch to twelve point Courier font to make it into a screenplay. Disgrace is no Ishiguro novel, confusing us with the line between past and present or the external and internal worlds; Coetzee rarely penetrates the outer shell of any of his characters. What internalization can be found in Disgrace is largely expressed in the emphatic (“What nonsense!” “What nosiness!”) or the interrogative (“Does this plain little creature think him incapable of shocking her? Or is being shocked another of the duties she takes on — like a nun who lies down to be violated so that the quota of violation in the world will be reduced?”).

I’m not saying Coetzee’s David Lurie stumbles through the entire book like a man who’s lost his keys (Where are they?) or just stubbed his toe (Damn it!); his ramble on the nun is actually quite nice. But what power this slender novel could have produced in me was dulled by its thickets of dialogue interrupted by little more than limp stage directions (“He is astonished, astonished enough to turn on his daughter”) and simple declaratives: “He is silent.” I suspect the declaratives, like the one just mentioned, are supposed to represent deep, untapped reservoirs of meaning, but to me they just seem like so many dots on a map that Coetzee raced by, believing our shared history of television watching and film would allow us to do the work of the author and supply the missing lines ourselves. But if that’s the case, and you can’t make us forget about similar moments in books and films, can’t make us feel as if we’re experiencing a moment for the first time, you should just get out of the game and watch another repeat of Sportscenter.

Amis bases some of his criticism of Coetzee on his use of cliche, noting that in Waiting for the Barbarians you’ll find, in successive sentences: one character watching another character “like a hawk,” and then someone using a voice “loud enough to waken the dead.” It seems petty to cherry-pick two lines from an author’s entire career and attempt to say anything meaningful on the strength of that alone, but I won’t deny Amis the right to challenge the work of Coetzee, something others apparently find so offensive.

After pointing out that Amis called for the use of euthanasia booths (in the run-up to the publication of his new novel, The Pregnant Widow), The Complete Review writes that he “has moved on to criticizing fellow authors,” as if this were no less disagreeable than rounding up all the Silver Haired Ones and saying, “You’ve got time for one last pint of bitter.” The Complete Review isn’t alone in this. I recently read an interview with an author whose work I like very much, in which the writer said a critic should limit his thoughts to whether or not an author set out to do what he intended to do (which assumes a critic can know what the author set out to do: what was Melville’s purpose with Moby Dick? Why did Pynchon write Gravity’s Rainbow? What was Coetzee’s intention with Disgrace?) and that if the criticism strayed into the negative, it probably had more to do with the failures of the critic than the work at hand. You know, as if the critic were really expressing thwarted ambitions, professional jealousy, what have you.

Maybe it’s just one more sign that we’re a split nation, interested only in knowing we’re right, because if we’re not watching Fox or MSNBC and being told exactly why the other side is wrong, we’re suspicious of anyone suspicious of the group hug. What was the dynamic in your writing workshop? A generation ago, many students left workshop in tears, and Barry Hannah, now tenured, pulled out a pistol in class (the bio on his Myspace page reads: it wasn’t loaded). But today? Though I’ve heard scattered reports of tears, even a manuscript being tossed across the room at UNLV, the overall sentiment expressed around round tables from coast to coast is probably closer to: Oh, this was really great. This may serve a young writer’s confidence well in the short run (unless he stops to question if every piece of writing, written by both himself and others, can really be great) but it does nothing to foster a dynamic, regenerating body of literature.

I’m not saying we should return to the past, or speak of a peer as “a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth-rate in Europe” (Faulkner on Twain), at least not if that’s the sum of your entire offensive. I’ve watched enough Oprah to understand the problem with saying, “You suck, and so does your writing” — or ignoring the work entirely, as Woolf once did in describing Maugham: “a grim figure; rat-eyed, dead-man cheeked, unshaven; a criminal I would have said had I met him on a bus.” But there is value in calling attention to something the writer didn’t do, even if this ignores his intent, and there’s even value in this if it moves into the territory of a writer-on-writer attack.

I said above that Amis was poorly quoted, so let’s return to what he said, only with more of the words on either side of the original excerpt:

MA: The comic novel is dying, because comedy is anti-democratic. Comedy is a smear.

TC: Inviting you to laugh at.

MA: Yes. But that may be turning around a bit. 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 … 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.

He’s calling out Coetzee here, yes, but not because he’s trying to improve his reputation at the expense of another’s; more than anything, he wants to bring attention to the fact that he is humorless. His remarks are bigger than Martin Amis or J.M. Coetzee (a humorless name, you have to admit). He wants more authors to turn their backs on what he calls “the gloomy buggers,” who don’t put any humor into their writing. The Complete Review sees it slightly differently, saying that Amis tries to make the case that “all the good novels are funny ones.” But I really think that’s getting it wrong. I think Amis is only saying, “all the good novels are not entirely humorless, or not entirely pleasureless, and yet whole reputations right now, as is seen with the case of Coetzee, are built on such a dark and single-minded worldview.”

Why is what he said so alarming? I would venture to bet that anyone willing to take the hand of a gloomy novel and walk with it through 250-plus pages of humorless despair would show no such patience in their personal life. If your friend were the same way, you’d find something lacking in his personality. You’d wonder why he can’t see the absurdity, the ironic, the witty, the grotesque, the comic. What’s wrong with you?! you’d say. Snap out of it! And yet J.M. Coetzee wins accolades and has people running to his defense.

Amis is certainly not the most popular writer these days, and for good reason, many would claim, so maybe he needs someone to come to his defense, and at least here I can do that.

If the best criticism is supposed to help the writer improve his next work, the literary attack, even if mouth-breathing and thuggish, can be no less important, because it aims to serve as a corrective to something greater than a single author’s work; it aims to recuperate an entire writing community. One great example of this can be found with Knut Hamsun, who toured Norway attacking Ibsen. Yes, there was a level of self-promotion to Hamsun’s lectures, but only because he wanted to see a new literature come about, one that he thought he himself exemplified. And if he hadn’t attacked Ibsen — and drawn attention to himself — the 20th century might not have paid as much attention to the writer who went on to inspire Hemingway, Salinger, and countless others.

The Amis interview is now available online and can be found here.

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