In the later decades of his 50-year-long career as a novelist, the late Martin Amis had a reputation as something of a controversialist. This made more sense in his native England than in the America to which he later relocated, and whose largely non-literary provocateurs tend to an aggressive plainspokenness bordering on — and more recently, driving well into the territory of — vulgarity. “Intellectual snobbery has been much neglected,” says Amis in the Big Think interview clip above. His plea is for “more care about how people express themselves and more reverence, not for people of high social standing, but for people of decent education and training.”
This against populism, which “relies on a sentimental and very old-fashioned view that the uneducated population knows better, in its instincts, than the over-refined elite, that leads to anti-intellectualism, which is self-destructive for everyone”: the lionization, in other words, of the kind of figure given to declarations like “I go with my gut.”
In every other land, as Amis sees it, “brain has won over gut, but in America it still splits the nation.” It would be one thing if the viscera-trusting rabble-rousers actually worked to further the interests of the common man, but in every real-world scenario it turns out to be quite another. “It’s an act, populism. It’s always an act.”
An admirer of American democracy, Amis acknowledged the right to free speech as a vital element of that system. “You’ve got it or you haven’t,” he says in the clip just above, “and every diminution of freedom of speech diminishes everyone, and lessens the currency of freedom of speech.” But he also lays down a caveat: “The controversial statement has to be earned. It can’t just be tossed off. You have to be able to back it up.” He even describes himself as “a fan of political correctness” — of not “the outer fringe P.C., but raising the standards about what can be said.” This process comes with its own challenges, and “you have to sort of work round it a bit.” But since greater restrictions demand, and reward, more skillful subtlety, an adept writer will always be of two minds about free speech. It will surely be a while before we see another writer quite as adept as Martin Amis.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.