Wednesday, 16 February 2011

What's amiss with Amis

'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 freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."

Now then. I know that everyone’s had their say on Martin Amis’s comment above, and I know it’s a big insult and he’s an idiot to have said it.
 I know someone with a serious brain injury. My brother’s brain was starved of oxygen at birth and he was left with cerebal palsy. He has physical disabilities, which have made his life much harder than it should have been.  It is not something that anyone would wish for.
Cerebal palsy has not affected his intelligence one little bit. In fact he is one of the cleverest people I know, and he has the qualifications to prove it. He has a First from Cambridge University and a PhD from Oxford University in English Literature. He has two Masters degrees, one in IT, the other in Philosophy. He won a scholarship to study at Harvard. He has a successful career and a demanding job.
  So maybe…just maybe…when Martin Amis said ‘If I had a serious brain injury’, he had someone like my brother in mind. Maybe he actually meant ‘If I were clever and determined, hard-working and bloody-minded enough, if I were able to rise above the trials that life has sent me and tackle any challenge going, then I might well write a children’s book. Unfortunately I don’t possess enough of these attributes to take on that challenge.’
 This charitable view of Martin Amis’s statement seems to be backed by his next statement. “…the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”
If a writer ignores all  restrictions or awareness of potential readers, if he allows himself complete freedom in content, in vocabulary, in style, length or any other way, then he is making life much easier for himself. (I say 'he' and 'him' for reasons of my own which may well be construed as sexist, but which illustrate the joy of complete freedom of expression.)
Working within restrictions  may be irksome, it may be difficult, but it does not necessarily produce work of lower quality. In fact, quite the opposite. The writer who takes on the challenge of writing for younger readers may not succeed in creating anything special -  but when she does, it is perhaps even more remarkable than the work of an untrammelled artist  such as Martin Amis, especially when he has admitted that he could not do such a thing.
So perhaps what he meant to say was: ‘I am incapable of imagining the effect my work will have on a particular reader, nor am I selfless enough to want to try. My writing skills are limited and I cannot cope with any restrictions at all.'
 I think if he’d said it like that he might have had a more sympathetic hearing. But it’s difficult, isn’t it, admitting one’s  shortcomings on television, especially in the context of a programme about heroes.
 I have to admit that I used to share the view that Mr Amis may or may not hold, that the shorter and simpler the book, the easier it will be to write. Once I started thinking about actually writing a short, simple book for young children, I soon changed my mind. I started my course of evening classes in Writing for Children intending to write short books for 6 to 8 year olds. I ended up writing an 83,000 word book for teenagers. Quite frankly, I did it that way because it was an easier prospect.
 It’s a long time since I’ve read a book by Martin Amis. His recent remarks haven’t put me off, on the contrary, I’m interested to see the effect of writing with complete  unrestricted freedom, and whether it produces something as dull as it promises.In his hands, I doubt it. I remember him as a mischievous writer who delights in tricks and wordplay. In fact, he is exactly the sort of person who might one day be able to take on the biggest challenge of all -  yes, a picture book text.
When he’s ready.

(Thanks to Fiona Dunbar for her help with this post.)


  1. That's a very charitable view, Keren.

    Watching the programme again, Amis's 'brain damage' comment seemed to come out of nowhere, which only served to highlight it the more. If Faulk's asked a direct question to merit such a answer, it didn't make it through the editing process. It may well be that Amis meant something more profound than a sideswipe at children's writing, but it didn't come across that way to me.

    Anyway, yours is an interesting take on it though.

  2. You're a clever woman, Keren.

  3. BRILLIANT! And your brother sounds like an absolutely amazing person.

  4. An excellent and thoughtful post as usual.

  5. I love the range of debate this issue has thrown up! And this is a great dissenting view, well-argued as ever.

    Here's my take on it all (though more focused on the subject of limitations)

  6. Great post! I'm wondering what Martin Amis is thinking about all this?

  7. Well one would like to think he's completely mortified, slapping his head and saying 'Duh! I didn't mean to be offensive! Oh, why can't I learn to express myself properly?'
    But somehow I doubt it.

  8. I love your opinion on all of this! You really are a very strong *debater* (in a good way!)

  9. Your brother sounds like an amazing person and I LOVE your take on what he 'actually meant' :)

    I don't think 'restrictions' are necessarily a bad thing at all. Does it stop musicians writing wonderful songs because they need to be 3/4 minutes long? Or film-makers great movies because they usually come in at under 2 hours? No.

    In fact, quite the opposite. Insanely long books/films/songs are often (though not always, of course) pure self-indulgence, and could do with the artist having had their audience in mind a little more before they got carried away with their own brilliance.

  10. Terrific piece, Keren - thank you. I started writing novels because picture books for under threes were so damned hard. Someday I still hope to crack the genre.

  11. This is fantastic, Keren--and a really good addition to the debate. What Thomas says is one of my main objections to the Amis remark (which I've said elsewhere). It did come out of nowhere--and it was that which made me want to reply as much as anything else. Random bile, someone called it.

  12. I found this post a delight, Keren. By the way, as aprt of my Creative Writing MA, we deliberately pursue restrictions in order to stimulate our creativity.
    Poor Mr Amis - missing out on all this fun.

  13. Excellent post Keren! And I admore your restraint.

  14. I LOVE YOU Keren - brilliant post, of COURSE that must be what he meant - silly us - only hope he gets to read this post....

  15. That will be the answer, of course. The poor man has realised his limited ability.
    And he won't have a blog! He doesn't have the necessary skills.

  16. As someone else with cerebral palsy (and a doctorate) and having known another person in the same position (now sadly no longer with us) all I can say is that Martin Amis does not understand the brain at all. Perhaps we should band together and present him with a copy of Nicola Morgan's excellent book on the topic?
    If I had the chance I would choose to meet your brother over Mr Amis any day - am curious as to how anyone manages both IT and Philosophy as well as English!