In the introduction to his new collection of journalism and essays, The Rub of Time, Martin Amis notes, “only the reviewer, the proofreader, and of course the author will ever be obliged to read the whole thing straight through.” Casual readers, however, may find themselves ensnared. Amis’s dispatches summon up the best of the not-so-distant golden era of literary journalism—before death-spiralling freelance budgets and baleful pivots to video—when well-known authors would frequently be sent abroad to write long-form articles. Whether he’s reporting from a Champions League final in Barcelona, a poolside porno shoot in L.A., the bedside of a paralyzed hitman in Colombia, or an “inexpressibly tedious” Donald Trump rally in Youngstown, Ohio, Amis compels us with his densely packed observations and sly wit.
He also writes about writers—especially his favourites, such as John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov—whom he’s unafraid to skewer for their latter-day slackness of prose. At 68, Amis is aware that in the years to come, he, too, may face the same reckoning. On the phone from the downtown Brooklyn highrise where he lives with his wife, writer Isabel Fonseca, the writer of Money and Time’s Arrow is more accommodating, and warmer, than his reputation would suggest. He told Maclean’s why he likes political correctness, distrusts the humourless and feels women should run the world.
Q: How did it feel to be going back to this body of work, with a view to republishing it?
A: Well, to be frank, it seemed strangely convincing. Writing essays is not as enjoyable as writing fiction—it always feels like the most difficult thing I do. So, I feel quite chuffed when I go back over those things, that I actually got them done up to a certain standard. You feel terrified at first, and then you realize that it is plausible stuff, and then you feel smug.
Q: I’d like to ask you about a few observations you made years ago that are reprinted here, and whether you might still feel the same way now. In 2007, you wrote, “Britain needs to become what America has always been—an immigrant society. That in any case is our future.” You call the U.K. “an extraordinarily successful multiracial society.” Are you still confident that this is the case?
A: I think the big difference between Brexit and Trump is that Britain had no idea what Brexit would be like. If Britain had known that Brexit had orange skin and yellow hair and was incapable of completing a declarative sentence, then they might not have embraced it. But Americans knew exactly what they were getting. They’d had a year and a half of nothing but Trump, and instead of wanting less, they wanted more.
The terrifying threat to democracy is a frivolous, “burn your boats” electorate who take absurd risks and knowingly vote against their own interests. America is the graver mistake because they saw him coming, and they knew what he was like. What did they expect? You don’t vote for someone thinking they’ll be ennobled by the office. I really can’t understand why women voted for him in such numbers, and now they’re at the vanguard for disaffection for Trump—perhaps because their conscience isn’t clear, that they made this terrible error and they’ve suffered demonstrably already from his rule. But it’s mystifying, unless you believe in a radically diminished IQ among the ordinary voices of this country. And there’s some reason for thinking that. I don’t think the Internet has made people cleverer.
Q: To be fair, in Britain, you did have Nigel Farage proselytizing for Brexit with his posters that recalled Nazi propaganda. At least from the point of view of immigration, didn’t people know what to expect?
A: Yeah, but they weren’t voting Farage into office, and in fact, he’s a much more marginal figure now. I still think there’s a distinction between the American vote and the British, although perhaps another factor is the political culture of lying, which was already far advanced in 2012—if you look at that piece on the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, I was told repeatedly by Republican strategists that there was no downside to lying. It’s proven to be the case that if you say a lie five times in a loud voice, then the little voice that says, “Actually, that isn’t true” gets drowned out, pointing to the stupefaction of the electorate.
Q: Following up on how women are leading the charge against Trump, in the book you write, “I’m not only a feminist—I’m a gynocrat.” Margaret Thatcher opened doors for women politicians, but given the legacy of her politics, is rule by women always necessarily better than rule by men?
A: It’s a utopian goal, rule by women. The great success is Angela Merkel. Most women, when they come to power, have to sound tougher than a man. Hillary Clinton was certainly doing a bit of that—in her run [for office], she was saying she would blow Iran off the map. If you could imagine in 50 years’ time a generation of women who didn’t pretend to be men, who relied on their own qualities, then that seems to be something devoutly to be wished. You can’t say that the history of the world is very encouraging about male leadership, and as an imaginative alternative, I still would very much like to see women in power.
Q: In 2001, you wrote, “The species has made a great evolutionary advance and clawed its way clear of the most obvious firebreak: arsenal-clearing thermonuclear exchange.” In the era of North Korea, Donald Trump and trading insults, do you still feel that that’s the case?
A: Well, even a nuclear war with North Korea wouldn’t threaten the species, unlike what used to be called Central Thermonuclear Exchange, which dates back to the 1980s and a bit before, when two arsenal-clearing operations are imagined, and various catastrophes are triggered, like nuclear winter. That kind of post-apocalyptic possibility is still reasonably distant, wouldn’t you say? Although once these things begin… It was quite novel, didn’t you think, to suddenly be worrying about that again?
Q: Back in the late 1980s, your books Einstein’s Monsters and London Fields articulated these worries.
A: I remember saying to my son in 1990, “I’m so pleased you won’t grow up in the shadow the way I have.” Then there was that strange 10-year holiday from world events, and then September 11th, and then suddenly there was another big enemy that had taken the place of Russia or Communism—jihadism, which was never a civilization-threatening development. It’s still true that there is no enemy that can destroy us. There are enemies that can hurt us but not end everything.
Q: In the collection’s most recent essay, “President Trump Orates in Ohio,” you mention political correctness, and you view it as less negative than it used to be: “Every day we are being reminded how much we owe to that modest and no longer particularly erratic or repressive ideology.” Has political correctness become a good thing?
A: I would say yes, without question. We all resented it here and there, and it did feel oppressive and extreme and in its way violent, because all ideologies are violent. [Now] we see what would happen if the carpet of political correctness were suddenly yanked out from under us in the person of Donald Trump, where coarseness and vulgarity of speech and thought and feeling is suddenly once again unchallenged. It would be almost Hobbesian to take [political correctness] away now—it would be nasty, brutish and short, with everyone opposed to everyone else.
Q: Does living in a politically correct era affect your work—especially as a comic writer?
A: There’s all sorts of new pressures you feel that weren’t there before. I don’t actually feel stifled, but I do feel I have to work my way around it quite a lot. Simple things like not really feeling at ease using “he” as the universal pronoun have to be taken into account. I’ve been saying for a long time that fiction is freedom, and freedom is indivisible, but there are certain little limitations placed on you by this.
You don’t want to be an exception when an ideology is taking hold, but weighing the deficits and positives, I still think it’s been a force for good. I wouldn’t want to go back to how I was before. There’s some very sexist stuff in my early novels that I’m not proud of, and the courteous inhibitions that have been drummed into me over the last 20 years—I wouldn’t want to give them up.
Q: You write about Donald Trump, “Whatever ‘sense of humour’ he might once have laid claim to has long since evaporated.” And about Jeremy Corbyn, “The humourless man is a joke—and a joke he will never get.” It seems there’s the humourlessness of giving offence, and that of taking offence.
A: When [Trump] says, “What’s the matter with these people—haven’t they got a sense of humour?” the real point of that is that he hasn’t got a sense of humour. And not having a sense of humour is a really grave disqualification. I quote Clive James saying, “A sense of humour is just common sense dancing”—those who haven’t got a sense of humour have no common sense either. It really is something as serious as moral dyslexia.
Q: You observe about Vladimir Nabokov, “Writers die twice: once when the body dies and once when the language dies.” Do you worry about experiencing the “death” of your language?
A: Oh yes, but there’s no real sign of it yet, although I notice certain things like energy level and stamina. I can’t work for as many hours in a day as I used to, but the thing to look out for is when you lose your passion and relish for it. I think writers confuse a sort of low-level depression with the withdrawal of their talent or knack, but then they recover from that, and again, it’s cyclical. But there’s no doubt that I will not escape the fate of all writers when they get very far beyond 70. They usually begin to be diluted. They lose their originality. It’s all the diminutions of age, but nothing dramatic yet, and if I did feel that it had happened, I think I would do a Philip Roth and just stop.
Q: Do you see this as an important time for you as a writer, to get certain things down on the page?
A: I’m finishing a long novel that’s been bothering me for close to 20 years, and when you take on a long novel, it’s utterly different: it scours you. You need longer to recover. It’s autobiographical, but mostly about three other writers: an essayist, Christopher Hitchens; a poet, Philip Larkin; and a novelist, Saul Bellow. The autobiographical thread is what I find difficult, and this new-ish genre called “life writing.” It began with D.H. Lawrence, I suppose, where instead of offering a constructed story, you bring in your own concerns and your own experience.
Philip Roth said, “When a writer is born into a family, that’s the end of that family.” And I always resisted that and thought, “Well, it hasn’t been the end of mine.” But when you start writing about your own life and real people, then you are treading on toes and walking on eggshells, and you need to be fairly robust to do that. I’m not sure that I have that kind of robustness. Also, I feel the absence of the constant contribution from the subconscious.
Q: Do you have one eye on posterity, even when you’re writing journalism?
A: I think all writers do subconsciously, a bit. My father always used to disclaim any interest in posterity, and I said to him, “Come on. You must.” And he’d say, “Posterity’s no f–king use to me.” But it is—there’s a great urge to live on after you’re dead. That’s why we have children, partly, because we don’t want the story to end with a whimpering full stop. And that’s why I’m always very pleased to see, in the signing queue or in an audience, young people, because they’re going to last longer than my contemporaries.