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Martin Amis: success, other people and the state of literature

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Phil Rickman Phil Rickman | 10:30 UK time, Friday, 29 June 2012

Sometimes you could get the idea that Martin Amis is not the most popular man to have come out of Swansea.

In the past few days, I've mentioned him to a writer, a publisher and a literary agent. In each case, you'd have thought we were discussing a particularly inventive serial killer.

Martin Amis in 2006

Martin Amis in 2006

But wait... you didn't know Martin Amis was Welsh? Here's the history.

The distinguished novelist son of the distinguished novelist Kingsley Amis was born while his father was working in south Wales and went to Swansea Grammar School.

Later, when Kingsley's career was soaring, Martin wound up at the public school Charterhouse, attended around the same time by the future rock star Peter Gabriel and the future crime writer Peter James who, in a recent newspaper interview, recalled:

"I was at Charterhouse School with Martin Amis, many years ago. I didn't see him again until an awards ceremony in 2010. I went up and said, 'You might not remember me, but we were at school together.' He said, 'No, I don't remember you - and you only remember me because I'm famous.'"

OK, there was probably some truth in that, but Peter James doesn't take a lofty put-down lightly. His next novel, featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, contained the following passage:

Amis Smallbone was, in Grace's opinion, the nastiest and most malevolent piece of vermin he had ever dealt with. Five foot one inch tall,* with his hair greasily coiffed, dressed summer and winter in natty suits too tight for him, Smallbone exuded arrogance.

See? How many other novelists can claim to attract that level of venom?

Not that Martin Amis had the best of starts. Becoming literary editor of the New Statesman at the age of 27, a couple of years after the publication of his first novel, was never going to endear him to fellow novelists who had to endure 53 publishers' rejections while working for the local council.

Nor, in later years, did his half million pound publisher's advance, secured by the agent known as The Jackal. Or the fact that he spent a substantial chunk of it having his teeth tarted up.

And now - can you believe it? - the oldest upstart in the book business has emigrated to New York and published a novel apparently sneering at Britain's decent, honest yob-culture.

Lionel Asbo is a fairly broad satire about a violent Londoner who looks a bit like Wayne Rooney before the hair-transplant and comes into nearly as much money as Wayne thanks to the Lotto.

I think it's the best Amis in years, demonstrating his talent for profanely-funny dialogue and unexpected descriptions... without those constant reminders that this is a man who's determined to make the English language gratify his every peculiar desire.

Looking back, you can see the problem. Amis Snr wrote literary novels, comic novels, crime novels, science fiction, a ghost story and a James Bond. The only way Amis Jnr could follow that was to try and extend the frontiers of literature.

So, after three amusing outings, Martin took to producing books in which the actual writing - and therefore the writer - emerged as vastly more significant than the subject or even the theme.

Sometimes it even worked. Often, it didn't. He came off the rails most disastrously, I thought, with Night Train, a hard-boiled American cop novel which pretended to be more important than the books it borrowed from and was actually kind of embarrassing.

His last one, The Pregnant Widow just... went on and on about the kind of upper class people you hoped you'd never have to meet.

You wouldn't actually want to meet Lionel either, but you'd enjoy listening to him in the pub, preferably from a table near the door. This is a novel with a good story, a lot of laughs and an unexpectedly suspenseful ending.

Prior to interviewing Martin Amis for this Sunday's Phil the Shelf, I wondered if he was going to accuse me, with a dismissive sneer, of only saying that because he was famous.

In fact, as you can hear in the programme, he was OK. And I came away thinking he'd become just like the rest of us: worrying about getting it right and giving the readers a good time... and not entirely sure that he was going to crack it this time.

*Martin Amis - as I now know by being able to look him more or less directly in the eye - is actually about five foot six... but you get the idea.

Listen to Phil the Shelf on BBC Radio Wales on Sunday from 5.30pm.

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