JULY 21, 2013
On Negative Reviews
LET ME START with a few riders.
I am not in the habit of writing negative reviews. In fact, I’ve never written a predominantly negative review of a book. I just politely decline. But this really awful biography of Martin Amis got under my skin, and its warm reception by about half its reviewers caused that infection to erupt in the form of this review.
A long time ago I published a critical biography (of Christopher Isherwood) when he was close to the end of his life. So I understand the problems of combining biography and criticism of a living writer and his work.
I also published (in 2008) a book-length study of Martin Amis. This was the sixth book of criticism devoted to Amis’s writing. Yet Bradford’s critical biography shows no awareness of this body of work, none even referred to in his notes (there is no bibliography of secondary sources).
That said, here goes.
One reviewer wrote of Amis’s 2003 novel, Yellow Dog: “It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad.” The same can be said of Richard Bradford’s new biography. Even its use of “The” in the subtitle is presumptuous and misleading. The book is pompous, posturing, and prurient. It comes closer to hagiography than modern biography, which since Lytton Strachey has seen its principle task as that of dethroning its subject and revealing his or her feet of clay.
So why bother to discuss it at all?
For a start, it is the only biography of Martin Amis we have in print.
Secondly, it has received some surprising praise from reputable reviewers who appear to have temporarily lost their critical acumen. For instance D. J. Taylor, novelist, biographer, critic, and reviewer, who received the Whitbread Award for his 2003 life of George Orwell, wrote in The Independent that Bradford’s book “becomes very good indeed,” especially for his “provocative readings of the novels.” No. Bradford calls one Amis novel — and treats all the others — as “blindingly autobiographical,” and his readings consist of little but plot summaries, identifications of supposed real-life models for the characters, and absurdly exaggerated claims for the stature and originality of Amis’s novels (he is “the most important writer” of his generation; he’s “been instrumental in changing the face of British fiction;” and so on).
Taylor is not alone. For example The Telegraph’s reviewer claims, “Bradford is at his best when he focuses on Amis’s work.” The Sunday Times’ reviewer, Lynn Barber wrote, “Bradford has done the proper job of the literary biographer in using the life to illuminate the work.” (This opinion is reprinted on the fly cover of Bradford’s book.)
Identifying the model for every major character in Amis’s work adds nothing to a reader’s appreciation or understanding of his novels, nor does showering them with unsupported praise. But not just the critical sections of Bradford’s book are terrible. The biographical content is inadequately researched, the organization of the material is slipshod, and Bradford consistently misuses the English language to describe an outstanding stylist who considers language a matter of morality. In fact, the biography adds little of significance to what we already know about Amis from his memoir, Experience, and numerous interviews and other such sources, even if Bradford appears unaware of too many of these.
Thirdly, I believe the publication of a book this bad reflects on the values of the contemporary corporate publishing world, and as such, is worth talking about. The calculation appears to be that any biography, however poorly executed, of a writer as famous (and notorious) as Martin Amis will make a guaranteed profit on both sides of the Atlantic. So to hell with fact- checking and copyediting (typos and misspellings proliferate); the only thing to watch out for are the lawyers.
An Ominous Inception
Interestingly the lawyers, or at least Amis’s New York literary agency, made Bradford agree to allow them to vet the entire manuscript. Amis had already imposed conditions: he would grant Bradford five long interviews, but Bradford could not have any contact with Amis’s first wife, his mother, his brother, or his two sons, and Amis and his agent were to be allowed to correct all factual errors.
When Amis got to read the first draft he was appalled. Apart from the errors of fact and the reading of each of his novels as a roman á clef, Amis objected to the way he was made to sound like Bradford. As he told Robert Birnbaum, Bradford “made up all those quotes, and gave me the sort of genteel grammatical habits that he has. ‘He said to myself,’ that sort of thing. ‘As regards myself’ — I don’t talk like that.”
Amis should have known better. Before agreeing to cooperate, he had read Bradford’s equally sloppy 2001 biography of Kinsley Amis, Martin’s father, the title of which — Lucky Him — employs the same bathetic punning as his 2008 biography of Alan Sillitoe — The Life of a Long Distance Writer. (“Vanity got me into that,” Amis subsequently told interviewers.)
After Amis’s agent complained to the book’s initial small independent publisher, Peter Owen, that this was not, as Bradford claimed, an “authorized” biography, Owen withdrew the book. Bradford took it to Constable & Robinson, a larger independent publisher that was awarded the title of IPG Trade Publisher of the Year in 2013. For it Bradford added a final chapter that claims for Amis a stature exceeding that of, James Joyce, Salman Rushdie . . . the list goes on. Amis called it “a regrettable episode,” but didn’t fight it due to his “terror of litigation” and “of spending time with lawyers.”
When Pegasus published the American edition of Bradford’s book in December 2012 he added a preface in which he blatantly appeals to his transatlantic readers by asserting that Amis had always used America in his work to distance himself from an England for which he had little affection. This, despite the fact that Amis told The New Republic last year that his move to Brooklyn had “nothing to do with any supposed dissatisfaction with England or the English people.” It is even more ironical that, according to the London Evening Standard’s “man on the street” (i. e., not-to-be-trusted rumor monger) in May 2013, Amis now “views the Brooklyn hipster scene as populated by conventional posers.”
Amis’s So-Called Autofiction
Enough of the gutter press. Let us return to Lynn Barber’s questionable definition of literary biography — “using the life to illuminate the work.” Any worthwhile work of art has to stand independently from its creator. No fiction writer expects his readers to identify the models on whom he remotely based his invented characters and events. To do so is not going to deepen their esthetic experience. Yet this is the assumption on which this biography is based and which several reviewers found the most satisfying of its features.
You can call it what it is — an appeal to the same prurient voyeurism that made Amis’s dealings with his New York dental surgeon and his change of literary agents the substance of London gossip columns. Or you can be pretentious and call it, as Bradford does, “autofiction,” which still means fiction of the self, a made-up narrative about the self and its dealings with other individuals (equally fictionalized).
Let me offer you a few examples of how Bradford reduces the complexities of Amis’s fiction. Dead Babies, Amis’s second novel (a savage satire on the 1960s hippy generation) is actually, according to Bradford, a covert description of the breakup of Kingsley Amis’s first marriage to Elizabeth Jane Howard. The connection? The premonition of disaster felt equally by the book’s characters and Martin Amis as a child. This doesn’t inhibit Bradford from calling the large cast of characters in the novel “hybridized versions of their actual counterparts.” He blithely goes on: “It would indeed be an insult to Martin’s sleight of hand to expect otherwise.” The insult is to ignore what, by his own report, Amis says about his conjectures: “You have to remember that it takes a long time, a very long time for a [fictional] character to mature. They might pick up things from one, two people but once they reach the novel they have a life of their own.”
Amis might have saved his breath. Bradford goes on to highlight the “striking similarities” between the foster brothers who are the protagonists of Amis’s next novel, Success, and their fathers, and Amis, his brother, Phillip, and their father, Kingsley. Why, even both real and fictional brothers have sisters seven years younger, just as Amis’s sister was! What a difference that makes to our understanding of a novel that is about the twin trajectories of two foster brothers, one born upper class who spins downwards, the other working class who becomes a success in sexual, social, and financial terms! Never mind that Amis and his brother come from the same social background.
By the time Bradford reaches Amis’s fifth most acclaimed novel, Money, there are not even any qualifications to assertions that the character Martina Twain is Amis’s first wife, Antonia Phillips (he refers to “Martina/Antonia”), and that by the time the protagonist John Self has reached Hollywood in the book, “the real Martin Amis, his dubious reputation and John Self seemed to coalesce.” Bradford appears to have forgotten that in his first chapter he had claimed that Joe, an illiterate steel-rigger who with his wife looked after Amis as a child when his parents were absent, bears “a close resemblance to the assembly of mostly working-class grotesques who populate much of his fiction” — including obviously John Self, the best known of these characters. The more Bradford can deprive the fiction of any trace of invention and reveal it as a chunk of raw life, the more pleased with himself he is.
And so it goes on. Mary Furness, one of Amis’s girlfriends is “resurrected” (though still alive) as Nicola in London Fields. The Information is “a story about Martin Amis” who projects different aspects of himself onto the two protagonists, both writers, one highbrow the other popular. The Pregnant Widow offers “a gratuitous display of autobiographical links.” In a review of this novel for The Spectator written before the publication of the biography, Bradford, after identifying the models for eight of the characters, wrote, “I could go on, but this is a review, not a prurient footnote.” In his book he does go on endlessly. One can only conclude that the biography is just that: a long prurient footnote to Amis’s work.
Back in 1973, Amis wrote a review for the New Statesman of a critical biography of Coleridge. In it he dismisses the very idea that one can use a writer’s life to explicate his work: “[T]he biographer will reckon to plant his feet so firmly in the facts of the poet’s life that he’ll be able to lever up his oeuvre on a biographical crowbar: this poem ‘reflects’ these events, that poem ‘lays bare’ those tensions — and the work has become a stupefied outpouring of the life.” As is often the case it is hard to better Amis. This is exactly what Bradford’s book amounts to, “a stupefied outpouring of the life.”
It is not surprising then to find that Bradford’s critical evaluations of Amis’s novels, when he is not revealing them as disguised works of autobiography, involve frequent misunderstandings of how they work as fiction. For instance, he writes that Money causes the reader to feel a “complicit involvement with Self and his world.” Self is the first person narrator of the novel who, Amis has said in interview, is being buggered about by the author for the reader’s amusement. Amis specifically quotes Nabokov as saying: “Never identify with a character, identify with the author.” Bradford appears not to have read John Haffenden’s important interview of Amis in which Amis makes clear the extent to which the reader shares the author’s sadistic manipulation of John Self. But then he appears not to have read most of the interviews Amis has given over the years.
Bradford’s principal critical thesis is that Amis was the first British novelist to employ “a previously inconceivable hybrid involving the purest strain of modernism, the kind of writing that revels in its own strangeness,” and “writing that is accessible and vividly evocative — the keystones of traditionalism.” You might ask what happened to postmodernism? Bradford hypocritically dismisses postmodernism as a bundle of “pretensions” and “related formulae cultivated by academia.” Hypocritically because Bradford is himself a professor of English and Senior Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of Ulster, who edited a book titled Teaching Theory in 2010. As for Amis being the novelist who first introduced a “hybridization of experimental and conventional fiction” in the 1980s, what about Lolita (1955)? The Golden Notebook (1962)? Lost in the Funhouse (1968)? The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)? Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)? The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972)?
The passage I quoted above came from a paragraph in which Bradford was denying that the appearance of the character “Martin Amis” in Money had anything to do with postmodern play. For Bradford, the character is nothing but “a saturnine witness to his [Amis’s] own pursuit of the woman who would soon be his wife,” Antonia. Amis disagrees; as he said to Haffenden while discussing Money: “I have enough of the postmodernist in me [. . .] to want to remind the reader that it is no use getting het-up about a character, since the character is only there to serve the fiction.” Bradford, after further jibes at postmodernism and “post-colonial repentance,” has the gall to suggest in the final chapter that Amis is the originator of “conservative postmodernism.” The fact that there has been an ongoing discussion of how Amis reconciles realism with postmodernism since James Diedrick first raised the matter in his 1994 study, Understanding Martin Amis, and that an entire collection of critical essays titled W[h]ither Postmodernism: Late Amis was published in 2006 escapes Bradford altogether.
When Bradford comes to Amis’s innovative memoir, Experience, he faults Amis for describing his father Kingsley as “scuttling” out of the house and out of his first marriage. Amis writes of his father: “Such legs are made for scuttling. He was en route from one reality to another.” Bradford comments, “Can we believe that a thirteen-year-old could intuit all this?” But the contrast between the earlier experience and the interpretation of it by the older writer (using the present tense) is the essence of autobiography. Guess what? In 2010, Bradford edited a collection of essays titled Life Writing: Essays on Autobiography, Biography and Literature. This doesn’t make me want to look it up.
When he comes to discuss Amis’s novel The Information Bradford declares, “the ‘information’ of the title is something never properly disclosed.” It is only the subject of the entire book. In another interview with Eleanor Wachtel that failed to catch Bradford’s attention, Amis explained that the title, apart from referring to “the knowledge that you’re going to die,” “refers to about half a dozen things: the information on someone, the dirt on someone; the information revolution; one character informing another, like a succubus.” Even if Bradford failed to notice that the world is portrayed in the novel as “a dying star,” that Richard (the main protagonist) tells us that “the information is telling me to stop saying ‘hi’ and to start saying ‘bye’,” and that the novel’s last sentence reads, “And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night,” it seems inconceivable that he read a novel in which “the information” crops up dozens of times and in which Richard spends much of his time coming to terms with the fact that he is destined to disappear from the earth and leave no trace behind and still maintain that the title word remains a mystery.
To be fair to them, many of the reviewers commented on the disproportionate evaluations lavished on most of Amis’s work. Here are a few samples: “Martin [he consistently refers to him by his first name] outranks Joyce.” The Information “is a Miltonic dialogue, shot through with precedents set by Freud, Proust, and Joyce.” Experience “reads rather like Proust without the boredom.” House of Meetings “is the closest that anyone has come to a fictional version of Browning’s dramatic monologues.” Even Yellow Dog, widely crucified by the reviewers, is called “a monument to the avant-garde,” “ambitious and original.” As for Amis’s contemporaries, his opinion of Rushdie is typical: his oeuvre is dismissed as “Magic Realism by rote,” “endlessly predictable.”
Errors of Substance and Style
There is really nothing about Bradford’s book that one can single out as a redeeming feature. Hold on! There are some great quotes from Amis and Hitchens. But Bradford? Nada. He clumsily contradicts himself: “Despite my abiding contempt for all brands of psychoanalysis I suspect that his father’s resolute refusal to fear for the future of humanity is in part the motive for Martin’s zealotry.” Or more directly: Kingsley did and didn’t like children. Or consider this sentence: London Fields is not “even a remotely accurate index to the state of London [. . .] in the late 1980s” or “a challenging engagement with its era.”
His organization of his material, especially the interviews, is nothing but the haphazard outcome of carelessly performed cut-and-paste. It is difficult illustrating the resulting non-sequiturs without being boring. Here are two brief examples: Bradford tells us that one of Amis’s girlfriends Lucretia kept a diary of her affairs with the famous that she saw as her pension. Bradford juxtaposes this with an extract from London Fields in which the female protagonist Nicola writes the final entry in her diaries, diaries she then proceeds to throw away. The biographical impulse is too powerful for Bradford to resist, even when the mismatch is this glaring. One more non sequitur: Bradford writes that while Amis was in Uruguay he was still able to find partners with whom to play tennis. He continues, “The lack of regular poker games also caused some withdrawal symptoms” (my emphasis). He repeats himself. He describes characters such as Mary Furness, another girlfriend, a second time, clearly forgetting that he had already done this 20 pages earlier. Three times he asserts that in Dead Babies the characters’ premonition of disaster reflects the events leading up to the breakup of Kingsley’s first marriage.
The same sloppiness is responsible for a wide range of errors — “you should have seen the first version,” Amis remarked to one interviewer. In Other People, Bradford writes, “Mary is a credible embodiment of the Martian poems.” Wrong. Amis has said that he started this novel a year before Craig Raine published the first, “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” Discussing Time’s Arrow, Bradford totally misrepresents Robert Jay Lifton’s explanation for the Nazi doctors’ reversal of the Hippocratic oath. According to Bradford they had “consciously, enthusiastically committed evil acts,” whereas Lifton invokes the act of doubling — “the repudiation by the original self of anything done by the Auschwitz self,” as Lifton puts it. While discussing Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, he confuses the two protagonists Gibreel with Saladin whom he mistakenly says dreams about Mahound. Saul Bellow morphs into Joseph Heller. I could go on.
Finally, having chosen to write about an author who everyone agrees is an inventive stylist, who insists that “style is morality,” Bradford employs a style that combines pretension with incompetence. He gratingly mixes metaphors: the “denizens” of a snooker hall are “harvested” in London Fields. He commits undergraduate errors of grammar: a book “was comprised of stories.” He cannot spell: “pray upon leftovers,” “Carribean,” “Perpignon.” He is tautologous: “Popular culture had arrived in all its popular . . .” He misplaces his epithets: “tragically undisguised portrait of Sally.” He yokes words together in very strange ways: “ruthlessly inarticulate.” “mordant readability,” “rapturously specified grim habits.” He constantly uses indirection: “It would of course be absurd to claim . . .”; “There is no particular psychological condition which demands . . .”; “It goes without saying that . . .” He misuses words: an essay by Amis “deposes the belief that . . .”
Bradford relies heavily on quoting from interviews with Amis and Hitchens in particular. As one more prescient reviewer wrote, “The core of this book is straight from the horses’ mouths. It doesn’t preclude quite a lot of what comes from the other equine end.” Every time he quotes from Amis or Hitchens or Will Self one is confronted with a stark contrast between language used creatively and language jaded by overuse. Take Bradford’s description of Joe, “a solidly built hard-drinking steel-rigger,” and compare it to Amis’s: “a cuboid, semi-literate grafter who seemed actually taller sitting down than standing up.”
I think I’ll close with that sentence from Amis. Reading Bradford leaves me feeling mildly nauseous. And depressed. Writing about book reviewing, Amis warns, “Enjoying being insulting is a [. . .] corruption of power.” But I haven’t enjoyed it at all. A thousand curses on those reviewers and publishers who left it to me to perform this distasteful task! I swear, I’ll never write another negative review again.