Friday 9 July 2010

Kingsley Amis and the Thrill of the Thriller

That post yesterday about William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms got me thinking about literary authors who try their hands at genre fiction, and how the results are viewed. Thing is, there's no getting round the fact that, in literary circles, genre fiction is generally considered an inferior beast to 'proper' novels, that is yer Booker Prize shortlist-type affairs. So whenever a literary writer stoops to reside a while in the rambling, well-worn, many-roomed mansion that is genre fiction, it's big news.

Sebastian Faulks waggled a toe in the genre pool (hey, the mansion has a pool!) with his James Bond effort Devil May Care, and Boyd has done so with his book. Both generated headlines and commentary aplenty. I haven't read either yet (although I have both to read), but while the critical reception of Ordinary Thunderstorms was generally positive (if often qualified), the response to Devil May Care suggested that even Faulks himself felt rather above the whole thing. There's certainly precedent for that, if it is the case: as Book Glutton points out in his thoughtful response to that Boyd post, Grahame Greene for a long time divided his own novels into two camps – serious literary efforts, and 'entertainments'.

I don't think thrillers, crime fiction and so on really need defending, either from critics or from authors themselves: if a writer writes well, understands plot, character, structure, pacing, it shouldn't – doesn't – matter if a book happens to tumble into a genre. Anyone with half a brain can see the pared back brilliance of Richard Stark's prose (and the likes of John Banville have said as much). But there are still plenty of literary types who see these kinds of books as anathema: witness the furore prompted by Stephen King being awarded the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award at the US National Book Awards (former CEO of Simon & Schuster Richard Snyder proclaimed King's work "non-literature").

All of which reminded me of an interview I read recently with Martin Amis, which dealt in part with a literary figure who practically wallowed in genre fiction: his father, Kingsley Amis. In that interview (which of course I can't bloody find now, but anyway), Amis mentioned that his father tended to read for pleasure. Which made me think, as opposed to what? Reading for displeasure? What Amis was getting at, I suppose, was the argument that fiction shouldn't be easy, that it should challenge, confront, perhaps change. And perhaps it should. But shouldn't it also, ultimately, be readable – that is, pleasurable?

Amis went on to say that Kingsley put more stock in the poetry he wrote (Amis Sr., that is), viewing the novel as an inferior form. Amis Jr. would be best placed to know that, I guess, but it strikes me as slightly disingenuous. For one, Amis Sr. wrote a lot of novels. If he thought so little of the form, isn't it odd that he spent so much time embracing it? For another, Amis took a great pleasure in the sort of fiction that Amis Jr. would sneer at: thrillers, spy fiction, science fiction. Kingsley loved Ian Fleming's Bond novels, the thrillers of Eric Ambler, Geoffrey Household and Gavin Lyall. He wrote reviews of and essays on SF and genre fiction; there's an entire book of his writings on SF – New Maps of Hell (1960) – and on the Bond novels – The James Bond Dossier (1965). He even wrote letters to the authors he admired; Peter O'Donnell's proudest moment of his career was a letter he received from Kingsley noting how much Amis liked O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise books. (You can read the letter here; note Amis admits this was the second time he'd read the books – all thirteen of them.)

Amis Sr. also wrote his own versions of these types of books: The Anti-Death League (1966), a military espionage novel (amongst other things); The Green Man (1969), a ghost story; The Riverside Villas Murder (1973), his take on an Agatha Christie whodunnit; The Alteration (1976) and Russian Hide and Seek (1980), both speculative fiction. And famously, or perhaps infamously from Martin's perspective, Kingsley wrote a Bond novel himself, 1968's Colonel Sun, under the nom de plume Robert Markham. All that novel-writing, all that reading, all those essays, all those fan letters: seems an awful lot of time, effort and energy expended on something that, according to Martin, Kingsley viewed as somehow inferior.

By saying Amis thought less of the novel than he did poetry, what I think Martin is actually doing is making excuses for his pater's predilection for 'low' fiction, for the genre novels that Kingsley enjoyed and occasionally tried his own hand at. You get the sense that Kingsley's appreciation of thrillers, SF and the like, offends Martin. I don't know if that's true or not, but Kingsley's passion for genre fiction and belief in its worth is plain to see in his own writings on the subject. Conversely, it is notable that, by the sounds of it, Kingsley tended to steer away from the sorts of novels his son writes. (Amis Jr. mentions in the interview that when Kingsley got to the part in Money where Martin himself appears as a character in the novel, he chucked the book across the room.)

In the end, I guess it all comes down to personal preference: whether you read to challenge or better yourself, or whether you read for enjoyment. Of course, there's no reason not to do both. But equally, the one shouldn't preclude the other. I've read Martin Amis and I've read Kingsley Amis. And I know which I prefer. *

(* Kingsley, obv.)

(For further thoughts on Kingsley Amis and genre works, head here for an essay by me and here for a guest post by critic Michael Barber.)


  1. faithful researcher11 April 2012 at 20:06

    How prophetic and ironic. You start a Bond-related post with mention of William Boyd who today becomes the latest author to pen a James Bond novel.

  2. I hadn't seen that news about Boyd and Bond. That's quite exciting, as I suspect that William Boyd "gets" Bond – as in the Ian Fleming literary version. He points to From Russia, with Love as his favourite Bond novel at any rate, which is a good sign to my mind.

  3. MA was a fan of SF in the 1970s, at least - his (positive) comments adorn copies of novels I have by Ian Watson, Robert Shaw etc.

    He also wrote the screenplay for 'Saturn 3'.

    'Dead Babies' is borderline SF I'd say.

  4. That's all very true, Busselle. And despite that final paragraph, I do like Amis M's novels – at least those I've read, which is the earlier ones. I just wish more people explored Kingsley's novels these days, at least beyond Lucky Jim, which seems to be where a lot of people start and stop with Kingsley.