MA Week Three - Martin Amis, dudes!

Okay, I'm pretty much Amis'd out at the moment.  But that's a temporary condition; by the end of the week, I'm sure I'll be getting excited about the next seminar, which is in two weeks time, on Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man.  Also, apologies for not posting this sooner; I've been trying to get work done for my upcoming workshop, so the blog has taken second place so far this week.  And double apologies - this is a long post.  Grab a cuppa now, while you still can.

So, like I said, we've got two separate seminar groups for our sessions with Martin Amis, and I'm in the Tuesday one.  However, I'm extraordinarily impatient, pretty greedy, very conscious of how much this course is costing me, and I can be goddamn pushy when I get going - so I blagged my way into Monday's seminar as well.  Just as a one-off, not for good - I don't think my powers of persuasion are that fancy, and not even MARTIN AMIS can make a whole extra reading list that appealing.  This week, though, they were doing Northanger Abbey, and I love that book, and since I was hanging around to see the Amis/Self talk afterwards, I thought, what the hell.

So we all sat around in a u-shape in the classroom, with one of our tutors and Prof Amis side-by-side up at the top.  Then Martin (listen to me - Martin!) talked.  Amongst anecdotes about Kingsley and Larkin and a boozy lunch with Anthony Burgess, he spoke about what it means to be a writer.  The phrase he used was 'lords and ladies of infinite space.'.  I love that.  If the blog didn't already have a name, that's what I'd call it.  (Note to self: business cards?)  He said that to be a writer, you have to be a master of words; to recognise and eradicate sloppy and erroneous usage, to avoid cliche at all costs, in speech as well as in text; to be, at all times, an original user of words. The reader must trust the writer, he said - there can be no inadvertencies, no toe-stub moments in the prose.  It was quite amazing to sit in a room with somebody of his skill and calibre, and to have him address you as if you sit somewhere on the same professional bench as him. 

Then he talked about a distinction that Burgess made between two sorts of writers; the first is all about plot and character, and the second is all about language.  Burgess said that a poet would be of the second type, and that's where he placed huimself, too.  Amis thought all good prose ought to combine the two.  I'm not so sure about that precise division, but as a simplification, it's workable - the 'airport novel', as Amis put it, would be entirely of the first type, with the Joyce of Finnegan's Wake typifying the extreme end of the second.  He then went around the room and asked us where we thought we each fell on that continuum.  Mostly the people on the fiction strand of the MA claimed to sit on the first side with pretensions to the second, while the poets said they struggled with narrative and characterisation.  Because this was a part of the seminar that was repeated during the Tuesday session, which I also attended, I had to answer this twice, and I can't quite remember what I said either time - I think it's pretty darn good that I didn't just mutter 'I love you, man', wave a copy of London Fields at him, and drool.  However, my answer right now, safely at home, would be along these lines: what gets me going, as a writer, tends to be a character in a situation, and the fallout from that situation, which would sit comfortably in the first side of Burgess's continuum; but, significantly, I think that you'll never bring that character zinging up off the page and into the reader's imagination (or that of the writer) if the language isn't powerful and exactly right.  So, I'm on the fence.  I do recall saying that though I'll start with a character and a rudimentary plot, I'll rewrite obessively becase I can't get to the next point unless it sounds right.  I do think that the language is the thing - not that it has to be Joycean and crazy, but that it has to be, at all times, right and appropriate, and that has to do with tone, and voice, and on a practical level, a bloody good grasp of basic grammar and language structure.   

Anyway; that's a whole other never-ending debate.  Mr. Amis went on, on Monday, to discuss Northanger Abbey, and Jane Austen's status as a feminist or proto-feminist; on Tuesday, we looked at White Noise, DeLillo's powerful grasp of the apocalyptic, the commercialisation of culture, his portrayal of characters, and particularly the child characters in White Noise.  Next week I'm not sure what the Monday group are up to, but we're looking at The History Men, so I'll have to get through that again soon.

The Centre for New Writing, here in the University of Manchester, runs a number of Live Literature events during the year, and this first one was the 'Sex in Literature' talk between Martin Amis and Will Self on Monday night.  An American art historian also joined the panel at the last minute, and I can't for the life of me recall her name, only that she teaches in Manchester and she talked about The Story of O and fairy tales.  I'm afraid my attention was squarely on the celebrity guests.  I have a sneaking suspicion (suggested by a classmate after the talk) that she was plonked in there at the last minute to give the thing a token female presence, seeing as she wasn't on the official billing; if that is the case, I think it was a ridiculous decision - tokenism never solved anything, and the existing panel was great, and what we all paid for.  It was a sell-out show. Anyway, Martin Amis talked mostly about Nabokov, and Will Self talked about a multitude of things, including homosexuality, his recent novel, Dorian, and Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong, after which I think I'll never be able to look at poor Mr. Faulks in the same light.  They were both insanely well-read and knowledable, and Will Self in particular was very, very funny, with a dry wit thad had me giggling for hours afterwards.  (I'd have loved to take him home and get him to talk to people as my spokesperson.  People might think I was suddenly much more masculine, but what I'd lose in femininity, I'd gain in perceived wit and height).

After they said their bits, the facilitator threw it open to the floor for questions, and though I know there were some really good topics raised and points made, I've forgotten almost all of them because the last question was so unfortunately memorable: a lady sitting not far from me in the audience wanted to know if, given the 'current climate', with all the 'terrorists and paedophiles about', did the panel think that some areas just ought to be out of bounds altogether, for writers and everyone else?  My second sneaking suspicion of the evening was that this woman was a little unclear whom she was addressing:  Martin 'I Love Nabokov' Amis and Will 'My Idea Of Fun' Self?  Well, oddly enough, they really weren't in favour of this proposed censorship.  Amis went into a long speech about freedom as the writer's privilege, and Self said that as fas as he was concerned, the issue isn't 'what can you talk about?' but, rather, 'how can you make yourself heard?'

So that was more or less that; seminar-talk-pub-sleep-seminar, and of course Monday's usual pair of classes - but that can wait for another post.  Don't go away, now, y'all hear?


Claudia said...

Good stuff, ValO! Will Self was at The Small Wonder Festival and I was equally blown away by his urbane wit and surprising good humour. Sounds like your MA's pretty inspiring (-:

kim mcgowan said...

oh oh oh, Valerie! 'lords and ladies of infinite space.' (that was you he was describing).

What I'd have had to avoid saying is, 'I know you haven't got your own teeth, Mart, but i still would...'

The word verification word below is 'gynconti' That sounds nastily intimate and messy doesn't it?


Valerie O'Riordan said...

It's shaping up well so far, Claudia - though they haven't seen my work yet, he he he... Gulp.

Kim, I'll reserve that one for the last seminar. On his way out the door. I'll grab his sleeve, and whisper to him. How could he resist? I'll have him gynconti'd by Christmas!

(Oh man, I feel all wrong...!)