War against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000

War against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000

by Martin Amis


View All Available Formats & Editions


In this collection of essays and reviews spanning twenty-five years of criticism, Martin Amis asserts the writer's obligation to battle "not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart." He marshals the forces of his infamous arsenal: his language, his wit, and his intolerance for suffering fools to review, consider, and in some cases, condemn. He takes to task the best and the brightest, including Cervantes and Milton, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and Norman Mailer and Elmore Leonard. From "Great Books" to "Some American Prose," from "Popularity Contest" to the "Ultramundane," Amis parses the classics and the unconventional with the subversive brilliance he brings to everything he touches.

He also skewers myths about masculinity, with great skepticism and more than a dash of nose-thumbing humor. Unflinchingly, he lambastes the "supercharged banality" of Elvis, the monumentally self-absorption of Andy Warhol, and American squeamishness about movie violence. Evaluating the present participle, casting a cold eye on the Guinness Book of Records, and the sacrosanct image of Abraham Lincoln, Amis astutely surveys our cultural landscape and fluctuates between celebration and castigation, with the precision of a hypodermic.

About the Author:
Martin Amis is the best-selling author of several books, including London Fields, Money, The Information, and, most recently, Experience. He lives in London.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786866748
Publisher: Miramax Books
Publication date: 11/21/2001
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 505
Product dimensions: 6.36(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Martin Amis is the author of nine novels, two collections of stories, four works of non-fiction and a memoir. He lives in London.


Oxford, England

Date of Birth:

August 25, 1949

Place of Birth:

Oxford, England


B.A., Exeter College, Oxford

Read an Excerpt

While complacently planning this volume in my mind I always thought I would include a nice little section called — let us say — 'Literature and Society', where I would assemble my pieces on literature and society (pieces on F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, and on lesser figures like Ian Robinson an Denis Donoghue). 'Literature and society' was, at one time, a phrase so much on everyone's lips that it earned itself an abbreviation: Lit & Soc. And Lit & Soc, I seemed to remember, had been for me a long-running enthusiasm. But when I leafed through the massed manuscripts I found only a handful of essays, all of them written, rather ominously, in the early Seventies (when I was in my early twenties). Having reread them, I toyed with the idea of calling my nice little section something like 'Literature and Society: The Vanished Debate'. Then I decided that my debate had better vanish too. The pieces themselves I considered earnest, overweening, and contentedly dull. More decisively, though, Lit & Soc, and indeed literary criticism, felt dead and gone.

That time now seems unrecognizably remote. I had a day job at the Times Literary Supplement. Even then I sensed discrepancy, as I joined an editorial conference (to help prepare, perhaps, a special number on Literature and Society), wearing shoulder-length hair, a flower shirt, and knee-high tricoloured boots (well-concealed, it is true, by the twin tepees of my flared trousers). My private life was middle-bohemian — hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time, in the tub, on the tube; I always had about memy Edmund Wilson — or my William Empson. I took it seriously. We all did. We hung around the place talking about literary criticism. We sat in pubs and coffee bars talking about W.K. Wimsatt and G. Wilson Knight, about Richard Hoggart and Northrop Frye, about Richard Poirier, Tony Tanner and George Steiner. It might have been in such a locale that my friend and colleague Clive James first formulated his view that, while literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to civilization. Everyone concurred. Literature, we felt, was the core discipline; criticism explored and popularized the significance of that centrality, creating a space around literature and thereby further exalting it. The early Seventies, I should add, saw the great controversy about the Two Cultures: Art v. Science (or F.R. Leavis v. C.P. Snow). Perhaps the most fantastic thing about this cultural moment was that Art seemed to be winning.

Literary historians know it as the Age of Criticism. It began, let us suggest, in 1948, with the publication of Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture and Leavis's The Great Tradition. What ended it? The brutalist answer would consist of a singe four-letter word: OPEC. In the Sixties you could live on ten shillings a week: you slept on people's floors and sponged off your friends and sang for your supper — about literary criticism. Then, abruptly, a bus fare cost ten shillings. The oil hike, and inflation, and then stagflation, revealed literary criticism as one of the many leisure-class fripperies we would have to get along without. Well, that's how it felt. But it now seems clear that literary criticism was inherently doomed. Explicitly or otherwise it had based itself on a structure of echelons and hierarchies; it was about the talent elite. And the structure atomized as soon as the forces of democratization gave their next concerted push.

Those forces — incomparably the most potent in our culture — have gone on pushing. And they are now running up against a natural barrier. Some citadels, true, have proved stormable. You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerdothon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.

Literary criticism, now almost entirely confined to the universities, thus moves against talent by moving against the canon. Academic preferment will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth's poetic; it will come from a challenging study of his politics — his attitude to the poor, say, or his unconscious 'valorization' of Napoleon; and it will come still faster if you ignore Wordsworth and elevate some (justly) neglected contemporary, by which process the canon may be quietly and steadily sapped. A brief consultation of the Internet will show that meanwhile, at the other end of the business, everyone has become a literary critic — or at least a book-reviewer. Democratization has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments. I think Gore Vidal said this first, and he said it, not quite with mockery, but with lively scepticism. He said that, nowadays, nobody's feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else's. This is the new credo, the new privilege. It is a privilege much exercised in the contemporary book-review, whether on the Web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. the right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Copyright 2001 by Martin Amis

Table of Contents

On Masculinity and Related Questions: Iron John. Movie Violence. Thatcher, Lincoln, Hillary Clinton. The End of Nature. Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol. Nuclear Weapons. Writing About Sex1
Some English Prose: V.S. Pritchett. Angus Wilson. Iris Murdoch. J.G. Ballard. Anthony Burgess. C.P. Snow, Brian Aldiss, Cyril Connolly, Fay Weldon, John Fowles. D.M. Thomas63
Philip Larkin147
From the Canon: Coleridge. Jane Austen. Milton. Dickens. Donne. Waugh and Wodehouse. Malcolm Lowry173
Popularity Contest: Robert B. Parker: Chandler Prolonged. Michael Crichton. Elmore Leonard. Tom Wolfe. Thomas Harris213
Vladimir Nabokov243
Some American Prose: Norman Mailer. Gore Vidal. Philip Roth. William Burroughs. Kurt Vonnegut. Truman Capote. Don DeLillo. Saul Bellow265
Obsessions and Curiosities: Chess. Football. Poker. World Records. Modern Humour329
John Updike367
Ultramundane: World Literature. Zamyatin. Kafka. Shiva Naipaul A Journey in Ladakh. V.S. Naipaul389
Great Books: Don Quixote. Pride and Prejudice. Ulysses. The Adventures of Augie March. Lolita425

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

War against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
jharlton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Amis's reactions are so fun to read, largely because of his brilliant humour. One thing he does better than anyone I have read is control his tone. People this smart tend to show off their intellectual abilities, especially when making fun, but Amis has tact and a good sense for subtlety. He never runs his mouth for no good reason, but when he does have reason what he writes can leave you feeling glad he is not criticising your work. His ability to write about everything, and people who think they can write about everything, makes this such an enjoyable collection. "War Against Cliche" is full of wonderful observations and I am constantly in awe of Amis's ability to cohere the fragments and come up with an argument where others, such as myself, would be left groping for something vague. This collection asks us not only what is literature? but what is literary criticism? and in doing so makes a defense of wit and talent.
Mikalina on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found the essay about the democratization of the art of literary criticism most interesting. Amis points out that since no objective standards of writing seems to hold water; criticism is reduced to subjective like & not- like; Anyone can join the choir on the same terms, whether they have learnt their score or not. Since he himself does not use the occasion to broadcast an (academic) opinion on this theme, I can only surmise that a) he has not solved the puzzlement of literary standard himself despite living off literary criticism as a professional or b) he has not the guts to go against the tide of what is political correct. Both alternatives leaves the literary criticism he presents in the book on different works slightly less interesting..... The most valuable about this book is that the folly of value relativism - or should I say - human vanity - is put to discussion. We need to know what is good from what is bad, to keep on being human.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Publishers snippets and reviewers praise will only illuminate you so far to this book's essential usefulness. It brings joy and it teaches. Compile a new list of books to read every ten pages or so. Write your own novel later.
Scobie More than 1 year ago
Caustic, humorous and eclectic. A good book to thumb through.