The passing of Martin Amis last week is, among other things, a reminder that good sentences matter. For critic Ryan Ruby, Amis “was committed to prose style as the essential feature of literary artistry in a way that feels increasingly rare and antiquated”. He wrote with flair, precision, and phrases marinated in irony and wit.
Nowadays, well-written sentences often take a backseat. In a Paris Review interview from 1998, Amis said that in mainstream fiction, plot was just a hook. “If the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form”.
Pick up an Amis novel for the plot, then, and you could be disappointed. As Irish author Kevin Power recently wrote: “He couldn’t plot to save his life; the endings of his novels were often a mess. But you didn’t read him for his plots. You read him for his turns of phrase…What is literature made of if not turns of phrase? Nobody did it better.”
Amis’s style made an impression from the start. In Circus of Dreams, a memoir of the British literary scene in the '80s, John Walsh spoke for many devotees when he exclaimed: “Nobody’s writing was more eagerly awaited, and more voraciously devoured, than by me. I was in the throes of hero worship and I didn’t care.”
Both of Amis’s self-confessed literary heroes were from countries other than his own. Of Saul Bellow, Amis wrote that his “burning, streaming prose” can make you feel that “all the phrases, all the words, are exclusively his”. And in Vladimir Nabokov’s style, Amis found “a miraculously fertile instability”. Words detach themselves from the everyday without warning “and streak off like flares in a night sky, illuminating hidden versts of longing and terror”. (Note the use of the word “verst”: it is a Russian measure of length, and it is perfect for this context.)
In contrast, Amid felt that most contemporary writing contained “a depressed use of language” and “vow-of-poverty prose”. Far better to write “freely and passionately” with all the resources that language provides. This needs application and polish. As novelist E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer says: “I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again.”
Somewhat uncharitably, Amis added that he couldn’t detect the “deeper rhythm” in modern prose praised for its terseness. Writers were being terse not out of choice, he added, but “because it’s the only way they can write”.
Yet, a notable style doesn’t have to be embellished or laden. Take Lydia Davis, whose sentences are decidedly un-Amisian. Through her buffed prose and micro-fiction, she captures mundane moments and unexpected epiphanies.
Ali Smith once called Davis’s writing “excitingly intelligent” and a reminder of “what words such as economy, precision and originality really mean”. Smith’s own style is equally distinctive. The inventiveness and wordplay set her apart from those who are more dour about societal concerns.
Where does a memorable style come from? A prime source is innocence, said Amis. “As the planet gets progressively less innocent, you need a more innocent eye to see it.” There should be a freshness of perception akin to a Martian sending a postcard home, in Craig Raine’s striking poem. Saul Bellow is more forthright: “Everything is to be viewed as though for the first time.”
A comic sensibility also plays a role. For Amis, “the humourless have no idea what is going on and can't make sense of anything at all”. The sentences of many celebrated writers today – be it Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill, Zadie Smith or others - reveal a way of looking at the world aslant, a wry appreciation of life’s unacknowledged absurdities.
There is a deeper reason to craft and read such sentences. “All writing is a campaign against cliché,” Amis wrote. “Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.” Dependence on old ways of seeing leads to dullness of thought. Prejudices, those “second-hand hatreds”, are clichés too.
In this view, style and content aren’t separable because they come from the same source. “And style is morality. Style judges.” This, then, was Amis’s guiding light. It is why he asks us to disdain those who use language without respecting it: “The liars and hypocrites and demagogues, of course, but also their fellow travellers in verbal cynicism, inertia, and sloth.”