With the death of Martin Amis on Friday (and Jeremy Clarke on Sunday), what it means to be a writer has changed in the course of a weekend. Not only does it now seem like a rather more sensible and frail profession, but the steady shift in the literary world from humorous cynicism to earnest sanctimony is all but complete. 

Amis died at his home in Florida of oesophageal cancer – the same strain that killed his best friend Christopher Hitchens in 2011. In the many obituaries, most of the attention has been paid to the novels; over 50 years, from his 1973 debut, The Rachel Papers, to 2020’s Inside Story, via Money and London Fields, Amis set the standard by which others were measured. 

Of course the obituaries are right to concentrate on the novels; they were his raison d’etre and it is his creative fiction he will mostly be remembered for – we will have to wait and see whether “Judge Time” renders them curiosities or classics.

But what doesn’t have to wait for canonical clearance is the sparkling, masterful collections of essays and reviews. They take up a fair chunk of space on the shelf and range from serious reviews of Coleridge volumes for the Times Literary Supplement (where he was an editorial trainee) to rib-tickling reportage on Malibu’s porn industry. In a riotous piece on Tim Henman for The New Yorker in 1997, Amis quipped: “He is the first human being called Tim to achieve anything at all.” The farce continues: “The Tims should all change their first names to Tom… And while we’re at it let’s change the name of ‘tennis,’ too. I demand a name that sounds more butch and up-to-date.”

The range and humour keep one turning the page as the sybaritic stylistic profusions of the novels morph into more utilitarian phrases. Something has to be said in shorter works; whereas he let the novels bob along in Amisland invoking plots as and when he was finished enjoying his artistic gifts. 

As well as a profound literary talent that came from a true appreciation of the pleasure of reading, Amis’s career was also characterised by courage and honesty. He addressed some of the most sensitive issues with an open creativity that others couldn’t. In Time’s Arrow, he explored the holocaust in reverse, with Koba the Dread he took on Stalin, and he tried to make some sense of the West’s war with Islamism in 2008’s The Second Plane.

The worst part of Amis’s death is, of course, the loss of a truly unique voice and a brilliant mind. But it is also a symbolic loss of the not-too-distant past. He was “shockingly clever” but also “shockingly cool”, and he reached a level of fame as a “rock star writer” that doesn’t exist anymore. His was one of the last generations of students to get a true education in literature without the complete tyranny of French postmodernist theory which has dwarfed everything else since the mid-70s. 

As long as Amis was alive, one felt that we hadn’t completely surrendered to literary blandness. Now blandness reigns in a stagnating literary world at the mercy of sensitivity readers and stultifying morality codes. But where there is a void, it must be filled. And it’s high time the next generation learned from a master and took up the mantle.

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