To say that Martin Amis exemplifies the elevation of style over substance is like saying that Donald Trump is a bit vulgar. An author who makes his name by elevating style over substance so dramatically, I suggest, cannot come back from it. It is a one-way act, like losing your virginity. In recent years, Amis has tried to balance style and substance, to offer wintry-wise reflection amid the verbal fireworks. Reviews of his latest book, Inside Story, suggest that the effort continues. But it doesn’t work. It’s like trying to unsell your soul to the devil.
I derived much pleasure from him as a teenager. What a thrill, to find a form of literature so streetwise! Like many other bookish lads, I idolised, for a brief phase, this fearless punkish aesthete with his hyperactive hyperbolic gift. In my twenties, I was still quite impressed, though Nabokov began to seem the real deal when it came to style-over-substance-elevation.
But soon my feelings were mixed: his prose was still sometimes exciting and fresh, but it was now obvious that this was not enough. And there was something sort of sad about his insistence that it was, that style was all.
Aestheticism is for painters, composers, dancers. Writers who attempt it are dubious fellows. For the writer must engage, directly or indirectly, with ideas, values. For decades, Amis proclaimed one core idea: literary talent is the highest good in the world, and it is spiritually sovereign, and must not be besmirched by moral or political (or, God help us, religious) agendas.
In recent years, he has quietly noticed that this is not a serious point of view, and so he has imported a sort of nervy liberal toughness, and has implied that this was always part of his worldview. He has also – and especially now in his latest book – held up his friend Christopher Hitchens as a great moral force. These feel like flimsy rearguard attempts at serious engagement in the world of morality and ideas.
Maybe the same analysis can be applied to another great stylist of our day, whose medium was the newspaper column rather than the novel – though I think he did write one comic novel about a Muslim terrorist plot. This is really the big psycho-political question of our day: can Boris’ youthful elevation of style over substance be reversed in maturity? He is clearly having a go. In his address to the nation this week, he talked of the nation’s ‘spiritual’ attachment to liberty – a phrase he probably would not have risked a year ago. But the youth is the father of the man. Is it likely that a writer, or politician, can learn the habit of serious boring moral thought when he has received adulation in his youth for his punkish stylistic extravagance?
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