Why We Need Criticism

By Kurt Wenzel
Martin Amis Michael Lionstar

“The Rub of Time”
Martin Amis
Knopf, $28.95

Reading Martin Amis’s new nonfiction collection, “The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017,” you almost wish the author wasn’t so proficient a fiction writer — and a world-class one at that. His 2001 collection, “The War Against Cliché,” for example, contained dozens of book reviews — insightful, funny, scabrous — while this book offers only a handful. Success has thinned Mr. Amis’s need for the grunt work. The shame is that publishing is in desperate need of good book critics — to create excitement, to punish the wicked — and Mr. Amis is one of the best practitioners.

You have to love the honesty of a critic who has fessed up to finding “Don Quixote” torturously long, and who admires only a handful of chapters in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (right in both cases, I’d say). In “The Rub of Time,” he takes to task no less than his hero, Vladimir Nabokov. In the essay “Vladimir Nabokov and the Problem From Hell,” Mr. Amis includes a thorough disembowelment of Nabokov’s novel “Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.” “But this is dead,” he says after trying to pick up the book again up after numerous tries. “The novel is what homicide detectives call ‘a burster,’ ” he continues. “It is a waterlogged corpse at the stage of maximal bloat.” Ouch. 

He goes on to identify a disturbing motif in Nabokov’s work, or the “problem from hell,” as Mr. Amis calls it: that no less than six of Nabokov’s fictions concern themselves “with the sexual despoliation of very young girls.” Mr. Amis ultimately forgives his hero for this (exclusively literary) predilection. “For no human being in the history of the world has done more to vivify the cruelty, the violence, and the dismal squalor of this particular crime.” But he is the first critic to signify the breadth of the pattern, and the uncomfortableness lingers.

Mr. Amis keenly regards John Updike’s posthumous story collection “My Father’s Tears” as “the least distinguished” of his books, though Updike is, the author estimates, “the greatest virtuoso stylist since Nabokov.” This is chalked up to old age, since, as Mr. Amis suggests, “Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” It is this sort of epigraphic writing that separates his criticism from the rest of us.

Of the sanctimony visited on the poet Philip Larkin upon the publication of his controversial letters, Mr. Amis writes, “Here we see, up close, the fierce joys of self-righteousness.”

And this is a critic who can prune the entire trajectory of 20th-century fiction into a short paragraph, commenting on how it looked in the 1970s.

“Russian fiction, as dementedly robust as ever in the early years of the century . . . had been wiped off the face of the earth; French fiction seemed to have strayed into philosophical and essayistic peripheries; and English fiction . . . felt, well, hopelessly English — hopelessly inert and inbred. Meanwhile, as if in obedience to the political reality, American fiction was assuming its manifest destiny.”

Not everything Mr. Amis touches, however, is literary gold. His political writings from the G.O.P.’s Iowa caucuses ahead of the 2012 election and the early stages of Donald Trump’s candidacy are mostly a collection of insults. Ron Paul is “thin-lipped under a silvery comb-over”; Newt Gingrich is an “abysmal vulgarian”; Mitt Romney “looks as though he went to the dentist one afternoon, and came out with his head capped.” Trump himself is “hammily scowling out from under an omelette of makeup and tanning cream (and from under the little woodland creature that sleeps on his head).”

While readers might glean a momentary snicker from this, it isn’t particularly insightful. Nor is it becoming to watch a major writer scanning the room to see who’s having a bad hair day.

Worse, in this 2016 essay, his dismissal of Trump and lack of interest in understanding him or the G.O.P.’s nationwide appeal directly parallel the Democratic Party and its shocking upset that November. Turns out Mr. Amis is no more prescient than the rest of us.

As if this failure nagged at him, later in the book he revisits Trump as POTUS, following him to an Ohio political rally. Here, the author gives his subject the full treatment, moving among the crowd, observing Trump in his domain, and trying to understand rather than merely ridicule. Now the bile is served with something like genuine perception.

“There’s nothing there. No shame, no honor, no conscience, no knowledge, no curiosity, no decorum, no imagination, no wit, no grip, and no nous. Into this spotlessly empty vessel, certain Americans contrive to pour their anger, their resentments, their ambitions, and their hopes.”

There are other treats in “The Rub of Time,” including a profile of John Travolta circa “Pulp Fiction,” a frank excursion into the dreary world of hard-core pornography, and a comedy on the disorientations of the author’s “multicity book tour.” Those early political writings aside, there is not a single piece in the collection that does not offer some startling phrase or biting nugget of humor.

The rub here is that with Martin Amis’s continued trajectory to literary icon, there will be less and less need for this sort of work. In the meantime, this volume, coupled with “The War Against Cliché,” is there for the taking. They represent the literary essay at its wittiest and most lucid.

Kurt Wenzel is a novelist who lives in Springs.

Martin Amis is a summertime visitor to East Hampton, where his wife, Isabel Fonseca, and her family have had a house for many years.