It’s a hot and crowded afternoon in Manhattan. Martin Amis is in the New York Public Library, relaxing on a small purple sofa. He’s tired, but he takes the time to answer a few questions about his new novel Lionel Asbo about poetry, porn and modern Britain.
Spectator: You grew up in 1960s Britain with all that rebellious rock ’n’ roll culture, but your father, Kingsley Amis, was part of the establishment and knighted to boot. How did you reconcile those worlds?
Amis: I was never a rebel. I mean not in my life, in my writing a bit, perhaps. My father was a communist when he was young. And by the time I was a teenager, he was an anti-communist. So there was no question of being very left-wing. I had very left-wing friends, who were revolutionaries and were busy in Paris in 1968 turning cars upside down and throwing Molotov cocktails. But I used to think of myself as completely apolitical. I think I’m more political now than I used to be. I was just interested in literature, not in politics.
Well, let’s talk about literature, then. At what point do you realise that you have a novel springing to life?
It’s a fascinating question. It’s all decided in a moment, I think. You get a funny feeling, you see something or read something and almost at once you get a kind of throb, which goes through you — a shiver. And you think: this is a novel I can write. You don’t know much about it, but you know how you’re going to begin, perhaps. It’s a situation, it’s a setting, but it’s deeply mysterious. The whole process is deeply mysterious.
Why do you get so much media attention?
Well, I naively think it’s all to do with my father, because he was a well-known writer… I’m like Prince Charles! Everyone thinks there’s no reason why he’s there, he just inherited it. He didn’t earn it. But I work hard, so it’s a silly supposition that people have. I’d like to think it’s also because my writing stirs people up, and they don’t agree about it. Some people think I’m great and other people think I’m shit. That’s why I never win any prizes.
Even the Booker Prize?
I stopped thinking about it long ago. There’s nothing inevitable about winning it. I’d like to win any prize, let alone the Booker Prize! The last time I won a prize for fiction was 40 years ago. It’s because prizes are given by committees, and they’re not the same committee every year, and every time there’s a committee there’s at least — out of five — two or three people who think I’m shit. So they can’t agree on it. That’s all right.
Has moving to America changed your Britishness or added some flavour to it?
I haven’t been here long enough for it to — but I lived here when I was a child for a year. I’ve always felt very connected to America. I lived from the age of nine to ten in America. If I’d lived in, say, Germany, I would be able to speak German, or France, French. But I can speak American. I can write American. And when I read other English writers, when they try to do American, they can’t. It’s because the rhythms are strange to them, and I don’t think they are to me. I learnt American when I was young. It’s easy to learn a language when you’re young.
You are a big admirer of Saul Bellow. Do you ever think about doing something similar to his Ravelstein and memorialising your friend Christopher Hitchens?
There’s quite a lot about him in three of my books: Experience, the memoir; Koba the Dread, the book about Stalin; and the novel The Pregnant Widow — he’s the main character’s brother. When I say ‘is’, I mean changing what I had to change. So I feel I’ve already done him a bit, but maybe, maybe I’ll write a book called Hitchens.
The title character of Lionel Asbo is a fan of internet porn. How do you think pornography has affected our culture?
No one knows, but I would say that it’s an attack on love and on significance in relationships, significance in sex. Years and years ago, someone defined pornography as hatred of significance in sex. That’s what pornography does. There’s no more talk about love in pornography than there is about having babies, is there? It doesn’t come up. It’s as if you made babies by some other way, like sneezing at each other or something, but certainly not with sex; that has nothing to do with it at all. And I think that’s a big disconnection for human beings. It wouldn’t have occurred to anyone 30 years ago that sex wasn’t connected with reproduction. But now, the chasm between the two is huge. I think it will be tremendously significant if and when women assent to pornography. And more and more are. This is what feminist literature is saying: Ariel Levy, Natasha Walter. It’s still only partial, but once most women like pornography, it’s all over. Even the most educated young women who are at Cambridge or Oxford say they don’t want emotion in their relationships with boys. They don’t read poetry, either.
History has speeded up in the last generation, and that is antithetical to poetry. What a poem does, what a lyric poem does, is stop the clock and say we’re going to examine this moment. Shh! Stop the clock. And people are too hyper for that now. They don’t like to stop the clock. The clock is running too fast for them. And also, a huge part of poetry is self-communion. When you read a poem, you’re communing with yourself in a deep way. People don’t like that. Why do you think they’re on their phones all the time? They don’t like being alone. They’re like children; they get all frantic if they’re alone, they feel lost. So people go around mumbling to their associates. They have that wire. You see them mumbling. And it’s not an introspective culture. They talk about dumbing down, but there’s also such a thing as numbing down. They don’t want to be sensitive.
But surely writers are still sensitive — still writing emotional books?
Literature is always full of emotion. But that doesn’t mean that everyday life is, and it’s only the literary people who feel things any more. The rest — they’ve given up.