For those writers around my age who were born, as the critic Parul Sehgal once put it, “under the sign of Amis,” the news that the British novelist and critic Martin Amis died on Friday seems impossible to believe. Never mind the fact that his novels brooded over, ruminated on death long before his own passing was a glimmer in fate’s eye. Never mind the stories of the man lighting each cigarette off the last, stories retold so often it seemed he’d somehow kept a smoke going continually for decades, like the Olympic flame.
It’s difficult to believe he’s gone because for many writers who came of age in the 1990s, Amis was the standard. Not only for the quality of his writing … or one might say not even for the quality of his writing, which was electrifying, funny, and obviously—ludicrously—flawed. I wouldn’t even claim his work was uneven, that easy dismissal: Through the ‘80s and ‘90s each book delivered consistent fireworks (the commitment to style, the incredible gags, the memorable lines on each and every page) and consistent flaws (the jadedness, the paper-thin women, the plots that went nowhere). At times even the fireworks became a flaw. You know how fireworks displays are like an hour long now, an hour of incredible, brilliant conflagration, and at some point you just want the explosions to stop? You just want to go home and look at nothing for a while.
No, for me and so many other aspiring writers, Amis was the standard for authorhood. He was not only an author—he was the author. When I thought of what a serious literary career looked like, I thought of Martin Amis. He wrote big, era-defining novels that mattered. He wrote about nuclear war, about the Holocaust, but also about sex and tabloids and movies and lowlifes. He wrote criticism that wasn’t afraid to take down those who deserved it (and some others along the way). He brooded glamorously in author photos, and delivered quote after impeccable quote in interviews. He feuded. He also did the work. He was the avatar of a worldview that took literature, the making of it and the arguing about it, seriously.
This impression was born in me, I’m sure, in the winter of 1994-1995, when a Martin Amis scandal briefly took over even the kinds of magazines I could find in my college’s bookstore. That was the winter of The Information. I recently revisited this era while preparing for the relevant episode of the Martin Amis podcast I co-host, and I was struck anew by the hold this tangled story had on the literary world that winter. The tale had everything: money, betrayal, secrets, jealousy, and, of course, teeth.
By 1994 Amis, two decades into his literary career, was famous in England for his big, ambitious London novels—Money and London Fields had come before—as well as for his literary pedigree, his friendships with Hitchens and Barnes and Rushdie and McEwan. (He’d also recently gotten divorced and taken up with an American, whom he would later marry.) In September of that year an anonymous story in London’s Evening Standard claimed that Amis had recently returned from the United States, after having spent $20,000 having all his molars replaced. It was a curious piece, implying, basically, that Amis was vain and also suddenly willing to blow a lot of cash on his vanity.
Later that year the real story broke: Martin Amis had a new novel, another big one, and he was demanding big money for it. He had instructed his longtime agent, Pat Kavanagh, to ask for 500,000 pounds, nearly $800,000, for the book, described as a novel about two authors, friends, driven apart by literary jealousy. Amis’ publisher, Jonathan Cape, did not want to pay that much for a book by a literary author, one they felt was unlikely to earn out.
Around the turn of the year the story became more tangled, more delectable. Amis, it was reported, had dumped Kavanagh in favor of the American Andrew Wylie, nicknamed “the Jackal” by the British press. Amis chose Wylie, according to Christopher Hitchens, not out of greed but because he admired how Wylie had supported Salman Rushdie in the furor following The Satanic Verses, even fighting to get the book released in paperback when “publishers were running scared.” (Hitchens discussed the situation with Richard Bradford, author of a biography of Amis which, it should be noted, Amis disliked.) Wylie put the novel up at auction and eventually sold it to HarperCollins UK, along with a future collection of stories, for a reported £505,000.
There was more. Kavanagh, the jilted agent, was the wife of Amis’ friend, the novelist Julian Barnes. Amis hoped, he’d later write, that Barnes would acknowledge “the difference between church and state.” Instead, in January, Barnes wrote Amis a breakup letter that ended “Fuck off.”
The Evening Standard interviewed the novelist A.S. Byatt about the affair—Byatt, who, Amis later wrote, was “justly famous for her novels, her short stories, and her inability to get off the telephone.” “I always earn out my advances,” Byatt groused, “and I don’t see why I should subsidize his greed, just because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone.” In fact Amis was indeed having extensive dental work done, later described in gruesome detail in his memoir Experience, a fact of little surprise to anyone who’d paid attention to the important role apocalyptic dental trauma had played in his novels since The Rachel Papers.
For American readers, it was astonishing to see this British literary imbroglio play out in Entertainment Weekly, in the Washington Post, in the New York Times. I distinctly remember reading about it in People magazine! The absolute highlight was a delectable story in Tina Brown’s New Yorker, ten full pages written by Amis’ friend Jonathan Wilson and published in February. Wilson got a cavalcade of England’s best writers to comment on the situation. Even now I cannot resist quoting at length.
“The question of the teeth is really out of order,” said Rushdie. “Byatt makes him sound like his rich American girlfriend told him in some Hollywood way to have his teeth fixed so he’d look better in photos. Whereas it’s a very serious medical problem.”
“She really bloody well should know better,” said Will Self of Byatt. “Somebody should put her on their knee and smack her bottom.”
Byatt herself weighed in again. “I am told that my own sales are considerably larger than his,” she told Wilson. “I am not wandering around saying, ‘May I please have 500,000 pounds.’”
“In England there’s this idea that writers should be underpaid,” Amis told Wilson. “If you’re interested in rich people you’d do better to go and visit a few publishers. They’re the ones with the big houses, but no one seems to get that.”
Contra the usual molasses-slow book-publication process, Harper released The Information in March—just two months after making the deal, and just four months after that first catty story about Amis’ dental work. The publisher told Amis that it was important to capitalize on the publicity. “But hang on, I thought,” he wrote in his memoir. “All the publicity was bad publicity. Shouldn’t we rather be waiting for it to wear off?”
In some ways the novel never had a chance. It never had a chance to be edited (he barely had time to deal with all the commas the proofreaders tried to put into the American edition). It certainly never had a chance to escape all the information readers already knew about it. When readers opened the book, they saw a story of literary jealousy that uncannily, distractingly, mirrored aspects of the metastory surrounding the book’s sale. Amis later wrote that The Information arrived on the scene “noisily and as it were triumphantly, creating a cognitive dissonance about itself. Because the book was about losing, not winning, about failure—my failure.”
Yet I also saw a novel that in writing about failure wrestled with the big questions—the biggest ones, if you were a 20-year-old arriving at the belief that literature mattered more than anything else. Why do we write? What is the purpose of art? Why is it so impossible? Why is another writer’s success so intolerable, in its way, to those of us who were even less successful than Amis’ miserable antihero, Richard Tull? The Information was a story about how much literature can mean, and the turns an author’s career can take. Densely packed, impenetrable at times, as sad and gorgeous and maddening a novel as Amis had ever written, the book felt incomparable. It was like nothing else. It felt, to me, like the exact sort of novel worth this kind of brouhaha, the public pillorying, even the loss of a friend. That’s all very alluring to a 20-year-old. It’s alluring even now, even as I push against that kind of art-glorifying egotism in myself.
As I mulled, this evening, the death of the author—the death of the author—I recalled a line in The Information. It still sings, and it still stings. Even as I believe less and less in the author as a figure of envy, of fury, of magisterial invention, I’ll never quite shake it off. “Writers should hate each other,” Richard Tull, Amis’ alter ego, one of Amis’ many alter egos in that book, in all his books, says. “If they mean business. They are competing for something there is only one of: the universal. They should want to go to the mat.”