One of the biggest misunderstandings in the literary world is the supposed nose-turned-up attitudes of certain writers towards escapism.
The word paraliterature is just as lamentable as literary – don’t get me wrong; the former synonymous with low-brow trash and the latter an adjective for the Booker-worthy. As long as people keep using these terms as categories, we’ll continue to have two types of reader – both wary to try something from the other camp. Last year Ursula Le Guin kicked off at Kazuo Ishiguro after he expressed concern that people would dismiss his Arthurian novel The Buried Giant as “fantasy”. I can see exactly where she’s coming from, and I agree with her. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels are certainly what you’d call “high fantasy”, yet they’re better written, and deal with the human condition more interestingly, than a good few “literary” novels I could name.
That being said – the concept of escapism still exists. It has more to do with the reader than the text itself – are you reading a novel to engage with language, to see the world in a new way, to observe life through the eyes of the writer? Or have you had a long day at the office, and just want to escape? The text is irrelevant – you can critically analyse a Mills & Boon, and escape into Finnegan’s Wake – it all depends on the reader’s intent.
There is a passage in Martin Amis’ 1995 novel The Information that examines the escapist state of mind – the connection between “junk novels” and airports:
Clearly there was a spiritual bond – a covenant, a solemn sympathy – between airports and junk novels. Or so it seemed to him…
Junk novels have been around for at least as long as non-junk novels, and airports haven’t been around for very long at all. But they both really took off at the same time. Readers of junk novels and people in airports wanted the same thing: escape, and quick transfer from one junk novel to another junk novel and from one airport to another airport.
Ignoring the slightly groan-worthy “take-off” pun, this more-than-clearly presents us with the concept of literature as a means to escape real life – rather than to engage with it. An airport, for pleasure rather than business, is used to get away from the norm. Not to say a holiday is only for those with dissatisfactory lives – but the purpose of one is to have a break. And so, too, are what I’ll call our “comfort novels” – which, I’ll stress again, aren’t necessarily Amis’ junk novels or those without literary merit.
Why this concept resonates so much in The Information is mostly due to biographical and contextual facts. It is a novel about a struggling novelist, his rivalry with his successful novelist friend, and the struggles of the literary world: agents, publishers, critics, audience. In 1995, for this novel, Martin Amis ditched his agent of 22 years, Pat Kavanagh – wife of his fellow writer Julian Barnes – to try his luck with American agent Andrew Wylie for an advance of £500,000. A public fall-out with Barnes ensued. So regardless of the reader, this novel is no escape for the writer – Amis is clearly analysing his world, the ego of the writer, rifts between those in the industry.
The novel is little more than this – funny little insights into our writer’s life: envy of other writers, high self-regard, struggling marriage. Some of the scenes in which the protagonist, Richard Tull, spends with his children are surprisingly moving. Amis has said that both writers in the story are based on him – the dark and bitter side contrasting with the brighter area. Amis knows more than few others what it’s like to have critically loved novels alongside widely roasted ones.
While Richard Tull is on a book tour in America, a television interviewer asks him, of his novel:
“What is your novel trying to say?”…
…“It’s not trying to say anything. It’s saying it.”
“But what is it saying?”
“It’s saying itself. For a hundred and fifty thousand words. I couldn’t put it any other way.
“Richard Tull? Thank you very much.”
It’s easy to assume that this is the answer Amis has wanted to give many times in the past, to pretentious interviewers looking for a “message” in his novels. Phillip Pullman once said he was sick of people asking him about messages in his books “I’m not in the message business… I’m not the post office. I’m a storyteller.” There’s no profoundly political thesis in The Information – not that he isn’t capable of this; his distaste for capitalism and money-culture is evident in Money and Lionel Asbo. This novel contains little more than cynical observations of the state of fiction in 1995; and this isn’t a bad thing.
There are plenty of passages and dialogues about the state of fiction – hinting at purpose of what you’re holding in your hands. For example, on the subject of protagonists throughout history: “First, gods. Then demigods. Then epic became tragedy: failed kings, failed heroes. Then the gentry. Then the middle class and its mercantile dreams… now what? Literature, for a while, can be about us… about writers.” Contemporary fiction hasn’t strayed away from literary protagonists, which feature in a couple of Amis’s friend Ian McEwan’s novels – Atonement and Sweet Tooth.
As is common with Amis, the novel contains metafictional elements – referring to itself on most pages. For example:
“’Literature,’ Richard said (and it would be nice to write something like ‘wiping the foam from his sleeve as the company fell silent’. But he was drinking cheap red wine and eating pork scratchings and Gina and Gilda were talking about something else)”.
This could easily go wrong, but his command and knowledge of such phrasing makes it utterly hilarious. He blends together the ego of the writer on the page, and the ego of the writer showing off in company – both of which fail in this situation. The failure of the protagonist to drink foamy ale and gather the attention of his company results in the failure of the narrative voice to produce something “nice to write”.
Amis has frequently voiced his dislike for clichés; so much so that his 2001 essay collection was called “The War Against Cliché”. This is often toyed with in The Information; for example, cliché sentence segments are bundled together, non-sequentially and nonsensically, purely to show us what could be used. For example; “Although his work conjured up an idealised vision of humankind, he himself remained. Robustly individual, he went about things on his own. No one could accuse. He always…” The use of the full stop to cut the sentences mid-stream gives us the feeling of the writer’s trial and error process – the stressful head-shaking and starting again.
There’s a quote from Saul Bellow on the sleeve of my edition: “Martin Amis certainly uses a charged language. Anyone with that much feeling for words is bound to be accused of putting words first…” If you’re looking for a bit of escapism, The Information won’t give it to you. Few novels constantly remind you of the fact that you’re reading a novel like this one does – but this is its charm, and partly its point. As Bellow said, Amis puts words first – the plot is only a vehicle for his language (that said; the plot is funny and interesting). If you like darkly funny observations, cynical views, and brilliantly ironic use of language – it’s well worth giving this a read.