Amis wages against cliché and the American literati

Joyce Carol Oates stands before a packed hall at Princeton University and says: ”It hardly seems worthwhile to write if you can’t offend someone.” This November afternoon, she’s paraphrasing the novelist Kingsley Amis as a way of introducing his son. She goes on to call Martin Amis ”the most American of British writers.” She might also say that, at 50, he’s perhaps the best prose stylist alive. That he is eminently worthwhile is a given.

Amis reads from The War Against Cliché (Talk/Miramax, $35), a new collection of reviews comprising wise hallelujahs and merciless disses. At question time, offering a take on the American literary scene, he observes, ”They’re up your ass, these writers. They’re out to charm you and to cute you.” Never mind that his knowledge of their work comes second-hand (”I don’t read my contemporaries, and I certainly don’t read my youngers,” he says later), he still holds strong opinions: ”These writers don’t want to be sharp. Some readers don’t like to think what would happen to them if they wandered into the pages of a sharp writer.”

The night leads to what, in Princeton, N.J., passes for a dive bar, where Amis downs several Scotches, rolls many cigarettes, and goes on seductively in a Brit baritone. He talks about his forthcoming book on communism: ”My thesis is that utopians are not more hopeful than non-utopians. They’re in despair before they start—a raaaage of despair.” He talks about pornography; his next novel finds a post-modern royal family mixed up in skin flicks: ”The King of England is Henry the Ninth.” He talks endlessly about the war on terrorism: ”I feel for America, but I fear that American mental health is not exactly cloudless, either.” And he’s pleased to announce that the decline of literary values is only a phase. ”Unless we all become zombies, it won’t stand.” He adds a Texan flatness to his voice and repeats, ”It will not stand.”