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"Writers die twice," wrote Martin Amis, "once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies." In the case of Philip Larkin, it was decided that two deaths weren't enough. The dead bores attacked the poems as dead bores do: by trashing the dead man's reputation. When he went to the grave in 1985, Larkin was known by many people to be a great poet. Eight years later — after the publication of the first Collected Poems, the Selected Letters and the Life — Larkin was known by many more people to be a racist, a womaniser, a porn collector and a drunk. It was soon questioned whether Larkin wrote great poetry. Then it seemed irrelevant that he wrote poetry at all.

A few serious writers stood up for Larkin with sensible words. Martin Amis was one of those writers. Clive James was another. They said what mattered, and what still matters: that Larkin had talent, and that the man's private failures were a private affair, because the man chose to keep them that way. Amis was still defending Larkin in October. On Letters to Monica he wrote that "Larkin's life was a failure; his work was a triumph. That is all that matters. Because the work, unlike the life, lives on." In September, Faber will publish the Selected Poems of Philip Larkin. The poems are chosen by Martin Amis.

Many people who write about literature think that Martin Amis's talent is dead. That talent, apparently, fell terminally ill about the same time as Larkin's funeral: in the mid 1980s, after the publication of Money. One reviewer, writing in The Sunday Times in 2003, offered a neat summary of this popular opinion in the press. London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995) "threw into embarrassing relief the meagreness of his fictional repertoire". Einstein's Monsters (1987) and Heavy Water (1998) "showed that even the short story format couldn't curb his tendency to meander and repeat". "Two experimental novellas", Time's Arrow (1991) and Night Train (1997), "both proved ill-judged". In Koba the Dread (2002) Amis sounded "even more egotistical than he did in his autobiography, Experience [2000]". Yellow Dog (2003) "ends with a baby getting triumphantly up on to its feet. But the impression it leaves is of a talent on its last legs."

Clive James made an elegant point when he wrote that: "Literature says most things itself, when it is allowed to." Books, in liberal democracies, live or die over time on their own merits. The dead bores' criticisms simply don't matter to the literature. But they matter to how we talk about literature, which means —to borrow another elegant idea from Clive James — they matter to civilisation. There's something curious about a pack of dead bores trying to take down a living novelist. It's curious that they think nothing of doing it with dead boring prose. They should, because to write like a bore is to think like one.

True literary style is unique. It's a voice heard above the immense hum of printed words. For Nabokov, style was matter. For Amis, style is perception: "It's not the flashy twist, the abrupt climax, or the seamless sequence of events that characterises a writer and makes him unique. It's a tone, it's a way of looking at things." A unique voice on the page provokes a unique response. No two readers can react to a real prose style in the same way. Yet many literary journalists try to persuade us that that's exactly what happens when they read a new Martin Amis novel. The style they use to describe his work is almost always the same. There are, of course, occasional warm reviews. The Pregnant Widow, rereleased in March in a Vintage paperback edition, was briefly praised in the Guardian and The Independent recently. But it is true to say that there's a consensus on Amis's work that is wholly unrelated to the quality of his words. The tale of Amis's dead talent is so popular in the press nowadays that it's a cliché. The cliché is betrayed by the dead boring style adopted by many writers when they write about Amis.

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Protoplasmtango
May 3rd, 2011
12:05 PM
It became impossible to take M Amis seriously after the dead weight of Einstein's Monsters and London Fields. Largely because the words 'the weather's been strange lately' became a private joke between me and my partner. The Author as Amateur Meteorologist is a bit silly.

nerl l johnson
April 29th, 2011
3:04 AM
Yes you lose marks for the dead bores repetitions but a nice bit of work nevertheless; staunch support for good old Martin: a man who tells it like he thinks it is.

Adrian Michael Kelly
April 27th, 2011
4:04 PM
What crude and condescending thinking: Amis on the one hand, "dead bores" on the other. Come *on*. I am a longtime admirer and advocate of Amis's work, including Yellow Dog, The Information, and The Second Plane, but apart from its occasionally funny set pieces and sporadic brilliance-flashes, The Pregnant Widow was *shockingly*--and sadly--inept and unfunny. I hope I am wrong in seeing in that cobbled, motley assemblage the signs of talent-death that Amis saw in late Nabokov.

Anonymous
April 27th, 2011
4:04 PM
Who the hell is Katie Price?

M Gunnison
April 27th, 2011
12:04 AM
Welcome to America, Mr. Amis. We are very glad to have you.

Robert Speirs
April 26th, 2011
3:04 PM
It is "literature" like this that keeps me to my resolution of never reading any fiction written after the year 1900.

kristof
April 26th, 2011
2:04 PM
i see that good old english pomposity has disposed of another solid citizen. some of these posts reek of left wing bile. sad really and its why england no longer rates. even in australia.

Don Kenner
April 26th, 2011
12:04 PM
First Niall Ferguson and now Martin Amis? Good news for America! You can keep that irrelevant Marxist Nancy-boy Terry Eagleton and that talentless bore A. N. Wilson (which religion is Wilson this week? Muslim?). I just read that London is the hub of Al-Qaeda's global terror network. You know, the one that Eagleton and Wilson want you to ignore. Good luck with that.

Sean Matthews
April 26th, 2011
8:04 AM
Amis is an interesting case, but also, indisputably, a not very attractive human being. I remember reading Money and finding it very funny; later I read it again and thought it was clever but misanthropically nasty. I suspect that the later is probably more in line with posterity. A way a with words isn't quite enough. Larkin will have no problems with posterity. Amis will (as will Clive James and Paul Berman for that matter).

Nicholas Liu
April 26th, 2011
3:04 AM
An odd attitude to take. Sure, "only the literature matters"--when we're discussing the literature. When we discuss Amis the man, that privilege falls away. Literature, even (or especially) great literature, stands apart from the people who create it. It isn't a shield. Anyway, it was good of you to admit that "You can't describe real literary talent either", though it might have been more honest to say "I can't describe real literary talent". It's strange how a defense predicated entirely on the claim that Amis is simply too great a writer to be criticised fails entirely to make a case for his greatness. Calling his critics "dead bores" over and over and over again does not a case make, though it does serve as an instructive lesson in unintended irony. Perhaps you'll say that no such case can be made, that all one can do is point and say "Here stands a great writer"--but why, then, should this essay exist? If you really believe that an argument for a writer's literary merit can't be articulated, take Wittgenstein's advice and remain silent.

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