Without a Hitch: Renowned author Martin Amis talks about his political writing
By Lily Yengle '13
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 12:03
With characteristic British aplomb, author Martin Amis sat in a comfortable chair on Colton Chapel stage and discussed writing, politics and his late friend Christopher Hitchens.
“We are wickedly lucky to have Martin Amis with us,” said English professor Lee Upton, who introduced Amis to the large crowd on Tuesday night. Amis is, she said, “a man of reason in an age that sometimes seems allergic to reason.”
Amis, an Oxford graduate a and prolific writer, comes by it honestly. His father, Sir Kingsley Amis, was an English writer who produced more than 40 books, including poetry, fiction and literary and social criticism.
Both father and son were interviewed by The Paris Review: Kingsley in the winter of 1975, Martin in the spring of 1998. But Martin, who is known for his acerbic bluntness (a common trait among his literary peers—in particular, Christopher Hitchens), may have outdone his father.
Amis won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his memoir Experience and was listed for the Booker Prize for two separate works, Times Arrow and Yellow Dog. He has written a memoir, 13 novels and essays on nuclear weapons, ecological disasters, greed, masculinity and celebrity culture.
“I don’t think any novel works unless it works out morally,” Amis said during the Q&A session. “I don’t start a novel with a moral, but I can’t end a novel without one.”
The moral of the piece Amis read—his non-fiction essay “The Wrong War,” published by The Guardian in 2003—centers on the world’s response to the 9/11 attacks.
“Terrorism undermines morality,” he said. “It then too undermines reason,” he added, a remark followed with his suspicion that the US had not behaved rationally.
His content was a little outdated – several times he had to change the tense when referring to Saddam Hussein – but with continued US involvement in the Middle East and Amis’s caustic intelligence, the piece retains its relevance.
It served as a convenient segue into his conversation with President Daniel H. Weiss, which focused mostly on Amis’s relationship with the famous polemicist Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens, known familiarly as “Hitch,” was notorious for speaking freely and opinionatedly on topics ranging from Mother Teresa (“Mommie Dearest: The pope beatifies Mother Teresa, a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”), to humor (“Why Women Aren’t Funny”), to his resolute atheism (God is Not Great).
“He would be rude to the Pope, or to a king,” Amis said of Hitchens, “but he would also be rude to a waiter or a cab driver.” Hitchens had his own strong moral compass, and he treated every case on its merits. “He didn’t vow not to be rude to people because of their socioeconomic status,” Amis said.
Hitchens, who died in late 2011 of esophageal cancer, was as critical as he was self-absorbed. “What can they know, what can they believe, if they don’t recognize the Hitch?” Amis said Hitchens would say when an extended time passed without being recognized.
He was self-absorbed with good reason, though. Hitchens won the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction, the National Magazine Award for Columns (twice) and the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Besides his nonfiction books, Hitchens contributed to The Nation, Slate Magazine, Vanity Fair and several other publications and posthumously published Mortality, a book containing essays he wrote on dealing with his terminal illness.
“He challenged the world to have discussions,” Amis said, referring to the publication of Hitchens’ atheist manifesto God is Not Great.
Amis described Hitchens’s writing style, from his “very bad grammar” to his prodigious ability to write without needing to redraft. “He thought like a child…wrote like a distinguished man of letters, and talked like a genius,” said Amis, rephrasing Vladimir Nabokov’s self-description to fit Hitchens.
Hitchens wrote non-fiction, which Amis said could not be compared to his own fiction. “Writing non-fiction…you’ve got to know stuff,” Amis said. Whereas for his own process, he said “writing fiction is a tremendously mysterious experience.”
In his own writing, Amis creates grotesque characters he describes as being beneath contempt. “It is the bad people we like reading about,” he said, continuing that he struggles writing likeable characters who do not seem dull.
Equipped with incisive knowledge of language, Amis carves his sentences with care. He left his audience with a few pieces of his own writing advice: “Become an expert on words…don’t use common phrases…look up definitions,” and, most emphatically, “don’t do anything by accident.”