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The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 Paperback – July 16, 2002
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Is there anything that Martin Amis canât write about? In this virtuosic, career-spanning collection he takes on James Joyce and Elvis Presley, Nabokov and English football, Jane Austen and Penthouse Forum, William Burroughs and Hillary Clinton. But above all, Amis is concerned with literature, and with the deadly clichesânot only of the pen, but of the mind and the heart.
In The War Against ClichÃ©, Amis serves up fresh assessments of the classics and plucks neglected masterpieces off their dusty shelves. He tilts with Cervantes, Dickens and Milton, celebrates Bellow, Updike and Elmore Leonard, and deflates some of the most bloated reputations of the past three decades. On every page Amis writes with jaw-dropping felicity, wit, and a subversive brilliance that sheds new light on everything he touches.
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Martin Amis is very transparent in his regard for Nabokov and his analysis of Lolita, the final essay in the book, is very insightful in regard to the construction of a novel. The title of the book, The War Against Cliché, becomes most evident in his reviews of James Joyce's Ulysses and Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice. It was no accident that these two essays were placed side by side. Martin Amis' meaning here is that the writer must challenge stereotypical thinking and inherited societal prejudices and trends.
His reviews peaked my interests in western writer Elmore Leonard. There are several essays on the works of John Updike and V.S. Naipaul, where Amis surgically separates the flaws from the perfection in these two outstanding writers. His analysis of the works of Iris Murdoch reveals many concerns yet he doesn't strike to the heart of the matter as he does with Updike and Naipaul. I found that Amis' concern with style, structure, syntax, was very informative yet I wished for more in-depth penetration of the works he reviews. I longed for a autopsy where all the organs were exposed and yet only in the final essay on Lolita did I feel he reached this level of analysis. Of course, with word limitations in periodicals, such a goal would be more akin to a dissertation than an essay, but much of the work was too quickly conveyed with his brilliant summative style.
Like many young intellectuals, Amis as a young critic is more in love with his own cleverness than with the author or celebrity he examines. As he gets older, he is more temperate, more interested in the work itself, and more interesting as a result. His wit and bite are often present. Part One of the collection is titled "On Masculinity and Related Questions," and yet includes Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and Andy Warhol.
He questions the validity of masterpieces classification. One striking example is James Joyce's Ulysses. The question that arises after reading Amis' essay on the subject is: Should a piece that is obscure and oblivious of readership qualify as a great book because of its relative un-readability? Amis responds and closes the essay with these biting sentences: "Joyce could have been the most popular boy in the school, the cleverest, the kindest. He ended up with a more ambiguous distinction. He became the teacher's pet."
Amis is much more indulgent with Nabokov -obviously his own literary pet. There is no doubt he is a good, witty writer. And a talented critic who knows what he likes and what he doesn't. I hadn't read this British author before, but because of the title of the book, I expected to see more diversity. More women, more Black, Asian, Latin and other world authors. Amis does have a section called "Ultramundane" that alludes to some of these. But I would have wished for more. The great majority of the culture he examines is male and white Anglo-American. And because of that, The War Against Cliche might be too big of a title.