Feud! This week one of my favourite authors, Martin Amis, said in an interview (in the Evening Standard, 21 October 2020) that he had not read the latest Booker Prize winners because ‘You don’t feel a literary push behind it. It’s politics, it’s sociopolitical considerations rather than literary like the Nobel.’ He also said that ‘To read your contemporaries, let alone your juniors, is an uneconomical way of dividing your reading time.’ So how did Bernardine Evaristo, the Booker winner, react to this?
Just two days later, in the same British newspaper, Evaristo lashed out: ‘Amis seems to belong to the school of privileged male writers of a certain generation who have benefited from a white, patriarchal society for decades.’ One can hardly argue that Amis is privileged, as his father was Kingsley Amis, one of the foremost novelists of his generation, and his mother was Elizabeth Jane Howard, the biographer. All right. But she added that ‘such authors ‘do not like seeing people of colour, working class, female and LGBTQ+ writers publishing good books that do well.’ Is that justified? Not by anything Amis said in his interview, or indeed by anything he has ever said, as far as I know. In fact, doesn’t it seem like straightforward prejudice? Lump in Amis with all the other arrogant privileged male writers, and then assume that they are all bigoted. Surely that’s unfair? She went on to say ‘I wouldn’t want to consign any living writer to the history books, but I do think there is a massive schism between writers who believe in creating a literature landscape that is more inclusive… and those who think they are superior to any attempts at inclusivity.” Again, surely this is not justified by anything Amis has said? Just because he doesn’t want to read younger writers can’t give us the justification to assume that he is against inclusivity.
Her parting shot is this: ‘All fiction, including his own, is sociopolitical.’ That’s interesting. I doubt that Martin Amis would argue with her, in the sense that obviously all fiction is the product of a particular sociopolitical background, and must have some significance within that context. However, she’s twisting his words here. When he said that prizes like the Nobel were awarded for sociopolitical reasons, he added that each country must get its turn – which is only a way of criticising the prize for not rewarding literary quality. It’s certainly not a criticism of inclusivity, or of writing with a political bent (indeed, readers of Amis’ fiction will know that much of it, for instance Time’s Arrow, and House of Meetings, deal with overtly political themes, in these cases the Holocaust and the gulags).
I think it may be reasonable to infer from Amis’s work that while he approves of political fiction, provided it has literary quality – for instance, complex characters, original language, and a sense of humour – he just might not approve of journalism masquerading as fiction. And Evaristo’s prize-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other, seems to be precisely that. An excerpt I heard on the radio recently revealed writing of sophomoric quality – that’s putting it kindly – and great predictability. One could tell which characters were ‘good’ (i.e. admirable) at once by their identity. And everyone in sympathy with these characters was wonderful as well. I don’t usually like to criticise living writers, as God knows it’s a hard enough trade, and we owe each other solidarity. But when someone takes the swipes Evaristo took at Amis, I think it’s fair.
So who wins this feud? Only posterity can tell for certain, but my money is on Martin Amis. He’s a real writer. Evaristo is a pamphleteer.