My teachable moment with Martin Amis

OK, so, let’s get this one out of the way: I’m packing privilege. Privilege up the wazoo, right here. I know this. I work as hard as I can at unpacking it, and sometimes – probably far more often than I think – I fail. This is one of those times. If there is a fault here, it’s mine.

Perhaps this is one of Those Posts where Privileged White Western Male whines in a privileged way about how he can’t see this whole privilege thing that he’s supposed to see, and someone should really show him, BECAUSE IT’S HARD BEING AN ALLY OMG AND SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE X Y Z.

I don’t want it to be That Post. Part of that is surely me trying to cling to my self-image as Privileged White Western Male Trying To Get Better, but part of it is the fact that in this instance I really struggled see why the teachable moment is supposed to be a teachable moment; indeed, it was the level of struggle that made it obvious this needed to be looked at more closely. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me trying to debate it out, but if there’s one thing we can probably all agree on, it’s that complex ethical debate and the 140 character limit don’t mix; hence this post to get my thoughts out in one coherent lump.

As the title doubtless made clear, I refer of course to the Martin Amis quotes about writing children’s books, as featured in the Faulks On Fiction program on BBC2 last week or so. These ones:

“People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book, I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”

“I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write,” he added.

Now, to be abundantly clear here: I can easily see the general distastefulness of the statement, and there are hundred other ways it could have been phrased which were less so. I also know that Amis is notorious for incendiary statements – to the point where he blatantly grandstands for effect, knowing it’ll get in the papers – and is not, at least as far as his public persona goes, a very nice chap.

Furthermore, I can see that his statements are offensive, because I can see other people’s offence – there’s your litmus test, right there. What I’m trying to do here is understand what it is that I can’t see, and why I can’t see it.

First of all, the implied slur on authors who write for children. It’s clear to me that Amis considers writing for children in some way beneath him, something he has an active disinterest in doing, even something quite repellent to him. This is certainly an elitist thing to say, and a classic case of genre snobbery. Snobbery and elitism aren’t nice things, but nor are they necessarily hate speech. With the boot on the other foot, similar disparagement would pass unmarked – if not lauded – on any number of genre fansites. Slagging off other genres isn’t big or clever, but it’s endemic, and it strikes me as a very minor issue here.

Does that mean I think children’s authors who feel attacked by Amis are taking him too seriously? To be honest, yes. The difference between Amis’ dismissal of an entire genre, and the countless similar dismissals that occur on what must be an hourly basis, online and off, is that Amis has more than twenty-five people listening to him at a time. Does a big soapbox bring greater responsibility? I think it should, but that’s hard to enforce. We can’t realistically legislate or mutually police a commandment to be nice, and not being nice is Amis’ only crime with respect specifically to children’s authors in this incident. Last time I looked at the bestseller lists, children’s authors as a group don’t have much of a claim to being an oppressed minority; certainly no more of one than any other literature marketing bracket. I can see the arguments to the contrary, and would be happy to debate them further, but that’s not the bit that I got hung up on.

Which brings us to the slur against people who have suffered brain damage or mental illness. Further to the above, I feel that any assertion that Amis is equating the writing of children’s literature with brain damage in a general or universal sense is unsustainable; he’s very clearly not saying “you’d have to be brain damaged to write for kids”, but that “I’d have to be brain damaged to write for kids”. I read it as an expression of exaggerated personal horror, very much in the same mould as “you’d have to tie rats to my face to make me write Petrarchian sonnets”, or similar.

To reiterate: it’s not a tasteful way of putting it; crass overstatement seems like an eminently fair charge to make. But is it a deliberate slur on the mentally disabled?

I never thought I’d find myself playing devil’s advocate on behalf of Martin Amis, but I really can’t see that he meant it that way. Perhaps he did, but for the purpose of my own personal quest here, I’m going to assume he didn’t, because it gets me to the real question, which is:

Why am I struggling to see that it’s a slur at all, even if it wasn’t an intended slur?

The answer, of course, is my privilege. I’m not mentally disabled. I have not walked in those shoes.

“Oh, well done, PWWM. Film at eleven, yeah?”

Well, yes. But why didn’t I spot it sooner? I’m far from perfect, and I catch myself rockin’ the privilege a lot – pretty much every day – but I try hard to analyse and neutralise it. I like to think I’m getting better at it, too. It’s my burden to carry, and I’m not begging for a 101 here, nor a pat on the head for being a good fellow traveller. This is me trying to learn out loud over one of the hardest cases of personal privilege blindness I’ve encountered in a long time.

And the only conclusion I can come to is that I’m trying to over-rationalise an emotional response in others. (It would be consistent with, well, pretty much my entire life to this point.) I keep coming up with thoughts along the lines of “but Amis is just using it as an avatar of some massively transformative event!” or “it’s a metaphor for being a completely different person to the one he already is!”, or even “but it’s not directed at any specific person or illness or affliction!”. These thoughts are persistent, largely because I honestly believe them to be true assessments of what Amis was thinking as he spoke. (Yes, I could be wrong; I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, which is another privilege substructure – the risk levels of me trusting in people’s general good nature are lower than they are for others. That’s another dragon, to be fought another day.)

But now we can locate my blindspot, inferring its position by looking at the spaces around it. It’s the same one Amis himself has. And it’s a very fundamental blindspot, not to mention one that – if you’d have asked me – I’d have confidently claimed I don’t have.

I couldn’t see that what Amis meant doesn’t matter as much as what people felt he meant.

Like all simple answers, obvious in retrospect, it presents an entirely new array of deeply troubling questions about the way I look at the world, and the other people in it. I still have a lot to learn.

But if this self-indulgent handwringing soul-search has demonstrated one thing, it’s that I can sometimes write my way to an answer that I can’t talk my way to. That is, I hope, a tool I can use.

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