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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The War against Cliché

Martin Amis

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To purchase The War against Cliché

Title: The War against Cliché
Author: Martin Amis
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2001)
Length: 490 pages
Availability: The War against Cliché - US
The War against Cliché - UK
The War against Cliché - Canada
Guerre au cliché - France
  • Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000

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Our Assessment:

A- : very enjoyable collection, by one of the masters of the craft

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 14/4/2001 Geoff Dyer
The Guardian A 9/3/2002 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 15/4/2001 Matt Thorne
London Rev. of Books A+ 10/5/2001 Frank Kermode
New Statesman . 23/4/2001 Robert Winder
The NY Observer A 26/11/2001 Adam Begley
The NY Times . 11/12/2001 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 23/12/2001 Jenny Turner
The Observer . 8/4/2001 Jason Cowley
The Spectator A 21/4/2002 Philip Hensher
Sunday Telegraph . 8/4/2001 Mark Sanderson
The Times . 11/4/2001 Douglas Kennedy
TLS A 27/4/2001 Phil Baker
The Village Voice . 26/10/2001 Joy Press
Wall St. Journal . 26/12/2001 Hilton Kramer

  Review Consensus:

  Largely only minor reservations, otherwise very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "You might think you've had enough Amis, but you soon want more. Whatever the book, there is no one whose review of it you'd rather read." - Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

  • "He is supremely qualified to write about writing; and this is a collection of what one would be tempted to say he does best, if this weren't to back-handedly insult his novels, which I have no intention of doing. (...) He is less funny, more clottedly reverential about his heroes, Bellow and Nabokov -- but then that is highly understandable. Those essays are still the antithesis of almost all academic prose: readable, alert, engaging. And if you ever want to be a book reviewer, go off and get this. This is how it's done." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "There is a marked difference between the essays and reviews written in the 1970s and early 1980s and those composed in the 1990s. The younger Amis approaches reviewing books as if preparing for a wrestling match. He sizes up the author's weaknesses, convinces himself he is the stronger talent, then steps into the ring. (...) On pop culture, however, Amis is brilliant. Freed from the pains of judging his own literary talent contest, he becomes playful and funny." - Matt Thorne, The Independent

  • "(W)e have here a literary critic of startling power, a post-literary-critical critic who, incorrigibly satirical, goes directly to work on the book. Often, being right and being funny are, in this book, aspects of the same sentence. Often, as one reads on, one finds oneself quietly giggling, or gigglingly quiet. The precision of the attack is astounding, and is matched by the bluntness of the condemnation." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

  • "Amis loves to act the cynic, but he is tough on people who don't care about books. This souvenir volume urges everyone to be as vigilant and inventive as he is." - Robert Winder, New Statesman

  • "The pieces in this collection, even the recent ones, are (as he says of Augie March) "extraordinarily written" -- and if you were reading them in a newspaper or a magazine, you’d be grateful. Sentence by sentence, Mr. Amis works hard for his reader’s pleasure." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer

  • "In this book, Amis proselytizes for talent -- his own, that of his mentors -- by listing it, by quoting it, by admiring it, merely, in the way the critic faced with talent must. And he proselytizes for talent by demonstrating it, by doing it, by believing in its necessity himself." - Jenny Turner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Amis destabilises his own best instincts: no one reading this book can doubt his immense verbal gifts, his wit and insight. (...) And yet he remains a resolutely more impressive essayist than novelist. Compared with, say, Philip Roth, who is embarked on a similar mission to recast the modern world in fiction, he is a mere baggage-handler of literature." - Jason Cowley, The Observer

  • "(T)he excellence and acuity of Martin Amis’s writings on literature would be worth our attention even if he had not taken the precaution of writing London Fields first. They are, of course, a novelist’s readings (.....) But they are unarguably criticism -- detailed, intricate criticism of the highest order, written not according to a prior plan, or a rigid concept of what literature should be, but guided by a strong and admirable sense of taste and decorum." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "Amis is an excellent critic. (...) The War Against Cliché is a rallying cry for all those who believe in "the talent elite"." - Mark Sanderson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Being such a supreme stylist, Amis certainly knows how to fire a critical Exocet. But, by and large, the essays and reviews in this hefty (490 pages) collection are not just shrewdly generous in tone, but suffused with that rarest of critical attributes: a genuine delight in the business of reading. Amis's tastes are intriguingly catholic and populist. (...) The War Against Cliché is that rare species: a challenging, ultra-smart collection of literary criticism which also happens to be compulsively readable." - Douglas Kennedy, The Times

  • "The War Against Cliché presents thirty-odd years of the stylist as critic, inflated into an all-comers' combat with the language of moral stupidity. (...) One of the strengths of this collection, taken whole, is the presentation of consistencies and stylistic tricks, and the opportunity to compare the early and mature Amis. He doesn't always look good in the early pieces, but his editorial comments show a sense of humour about the process of growing up in public: it is modest, generous and very sane of Amis to reprint his earliest criticism as straightforwardly as this. (...) It is uneven and it's not infallible, but for the most part it is very good indeed, in a distinctively exhilarating way. Style may be morality, but style is also pleasure." - Phil Baker, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Amis's short book reviews aren't the best showcase for deep thinking; many feel stunted and swollen with plot description. (...) (B)ut Amis's prose combines a liveliness and vulnerability that's rare in criticism. There are a handful of authors he reviews numerous times over the book's 29-year span, and watching his opinions fluctuate and coalesce over the years is fascinating -- like time-lapse criticism." - Joy Press, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The War against Cliché collects pieces from nearly thirty years -- from Martin Amis' entire writing life. Most are reviews, all are book- and author-centred.
       What is immediately -- and consistently -- striking is simply how well Amis writes. These pieces are a pleasure to read, nearly everyone of them, and Amis manages to convey most of what one wants conveyed in a book review. There's objectivity here, and yet also always that very personal touch and reaction. The pieces are book reviews, for the most part, so Amis has a limited space to work with -- but he fills it nicely and well.
       Striking, also, -- but only eventually -- is Amis' curious parochialism, his Anglo-American centered literary world. If there is a defect to this collection -- indeed, to Amis-as-reader generally -- it is this. Zamyatin and Cervantes is pretty much the extent of his foreign language literature reviewing -- with his Don Quixote-review one of Tobias Smollett's 18th-century (!) translation. (The other (sometime) foreign-language author covered -- extensively -- comes with a big asterisk: Vladimir Nabokov.) Amis explains his repugnance in a review of an Updike collection of reviews (heavy on translated literature):

Surely, one reads even the foreign classics in translation as a guilty duty, to get some blotched silhouette, as one might look at snapshots of inaccessible paintings.
       We're no fans of translation, but Amis' almost wholesale disregard of foreign literature disappoints us. Worse is that he belittles it, almost as if anything not written in English couldn't possibly be good (or at least, rendered into English, approachable only in some grossly inferior version), making fun in another review of Updike-reviews: "and still the supposed masterworks are heaping up on the mat, from Chile, from Paraguay, from Austria, from Albania."
       English is, of course, Amis' thing, and he shows here that he can be one of the best writers in the language. Indeed, one can find in the non-fiction parts as well-written as anything else he has done. Fair enough then, perhaps, that he focusses on English and American literature.
       It's an interesting collection of authors: heavy on J.G Ballard, Iris Murdoch, Anthony Burgess, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Updike, Don DeLillo, Nabokov, and William Burroughs (all represented by multiple reviews). Other figures that are covered in some depth: Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow, and the two Naipauls (Shiva and V.S.). Then there's some pop lit: Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton, Andy Warhol's diaries -- even the Guinness Book of Records. And there's serious literature as well -- a few classics, even -- as well as other odds and ends.
       Almost all of it is treated seriously: Amis values literature and takes it very seriously, and though he'll have his fun in discussing some of these works it always comes across that literature is what is truly important to him.
       His tastes are not impeccable -- the soft spot for American literature is almost ridiculous -- but even where he errs he is aware of the weaknesses and won't hesitate to point them out. So of Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings: "That's all the book is: 700 pages of ambition." He's not uncritical of America and what passes for writing there, hilariously describing Hillary Clinton's book and the efforts to reduce the manuscript "to a condition of pan-inoffensiveness" or acknowledging:
In a country so obsessed by the Holocaust that even a flapping, gobbling, squawking turkey like William Styron's Sophie's Choice (that thesaurus of florid commonplaces) enjoyed universal acclaim, The White Hotel had a lot going for it.
       And Amis owns up to his own mistakes, as in the TLS review he wrote, aged twenty-three, of a collection of Coleridge's verse, describing in two footnotes the events around that (leaving him feeling like "a starstruck clapperboy who has just been terminated by Arnold Schwarzenegger").
       The young Amis was perhaps a bit more adventurous in his criticism, but he never lost much of his touch (just some of the energy and audacity). (The reviews are not arranged chronologically, incidentally, but rather grouped together by authors, subjects, and the like.) And he always gets to the heart of things, as in a relatively recent piece, a tour de force on a biography of Malcolm Lowry:
To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.
       There's a tremendous amount here, and good variety too. Whether writing about Margaret Thatcher ("the only interesting thing about Mrs Thatcher is that she isn't a man") or books on chess Amis writes in a way that can hold the attention even of those not particularly passionate about these subjects. When he gets on ground he truly is interested in -- Ballard or Burgess, Nabokov, Bellow, Roth -- he really shines. The book is worth buying just for the Philip Larkin piece (originally published in The New Yorker in 1993). It's bookish stuff, all of it, and those not of a literary bent might not appreciate it -- but then they'll probably steer clear of it anyway. For readers -- especially for readers of these authors Amis is passionate about -- it's just great stuff.
       But that brings up another interesting note: practically none of Amis' contemporaries (or juniors) are included here. Not a mention of, say, Julian Barnes (all right, that's perhaps understandable) or Ian McEwan or almost anyone who arrived on the scene after ca. 1980. Amis' seems much more interested in his father's generation than his own -- or perhaps feels better equipped to deal with it. It gives an odd tilt to the collection.
       And as to cliché ..... It comes up a few times, as when he finds in a Fay Weldon novel: "Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does." Or when he writes about Joyce's Ulysses (weakly falling back onto the second person): "It occurs to you that Ulysses is about cliché:." Amis does battle it (and occasionally succumbs to it -- cliché is hard to avoid). More importantly: he always gives a sense of what literature can and should be. And he has a jolly good time convincing readers of it too.

       A very good collection, certainly recommended.

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The War against Cliché: Reviews: Martin Amis: Other books by Martin Amis under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Martin Amis was born August 25, 1949. He is the son of the late Sir Kingsley Amis, himself an occasionally noted author. Martin Amis attended Oxford and later worked for the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, and The Observer. His first novel, The Rachel Papers, won the 1974 Somerset Maugham Award. He has since established himself as one of England's foremost writers.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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