r n When'Marty.n Aside from their tendency to write exciting, award-winning books, what exactly do MARTIN AMIS and ZADIE
SMITH have in common? Words: Allan Radcliffe
uring her recent appearance at the Edinburgh Book
Festival. up-and-coming young writer Zadie Smith
complained about the reams of newsprint devoted to forecasting the death of the English novel. Rightly or wrongly. the Sunday supplements are obsessed with the notion that British literary fiction is producing too few Zadie Smiths and continues to be dominated by middle-aged male writers (Amis. Barnes. Rushdie) who first made an impact in the 70s and 80s.
Clearly. the news that the English novel is dying is a frustrating thing for an English novelist to read. particularly when that Iinglish novelist is installed in a Scottish writer‘s retreat trying to produce her much-anticipated second novel. The Autograph .th.
Yet. if Smith‘s debut. the fat. funny lf'hite Teeth. is anything to go by. then the Iinglish novel is alive and enjoying impossibly rude health. Published last year to near hysterical acclaim. the book focuses on two North London families and their chequered ancestry. gently exploring race and cultural identity and the impact of history on future generations.
Having produced such a popular and audacious debut. Smith might be expected to feel pressured into bettering this achievement. Yet. she remains unperturbed. ‘I don‘t view II’hite 'Ieeth as an ambitious work at all.‘ she says. “r0 me it‘s exactly what it is; a comic novel about two families set in North London. I certainly don‘t feel the weight of expectation for The Autograph Mun. It's far from finished at the moment and I may never get it finished.‘
A much more intimidating prospect awaits Smith in the immediate future. as she is about to appear on stage at Edinburgh University in a question and answer session with one of her literary heroes. Martin Amis. Both writers have been awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Scotland’s oldest literary award; Smith in the fiction category. Amis in biography for Experience.
Chaired by Edinburgh Book Festival director Catherine Lockerbie. the event. which pairs one bright. young writer with one member of the perceived old guard. could almost be a direct response to those chattering pessirnists who complain that contemporary English literature is represented by a male clique
26 THE LIST ‘8 O<::»-t Nov 200‘.
of diminishing returns. Indeed. for many readers and critics. Amis‘ Experience is the author‘s best work in years. It’s ostensibly a memoir of his relationship with his late father Kingsley. but Amis has dispensed with the chronological narrative of conventional biographies to produce an imaginative. moving. novelistic work. Though his first foray into non-fiction. and despite the close—to—the-bone subject matter. Amis says that Experience was not a difficult book to write.
‘It was occasionally an emotionally exhausting process.‘ he says. ‘but the words came hard and fast. so it wasn’t arduous in that sense. Most of my novels have taken a few years to write. whereas this only took a year and a half. I always knew I'd have to write this book. because of the uniqueness of the relationship I had with my father. so I think I'd subconsciously taken a lot of the decisions about how I was going to approach it before I sat down to write it.’
Amis is not surprised by the critical interest in the book. whose publication coincided with the release of Kingsley"s letters. ‘I think that‘sjust the times we live in.‘ he says. ’Iiveryone’s obsessed with personality and gossip.‘
He is relishing the prospect of appearing with Yadie Smith. calling her 'an unmistakable talent of a high order“. 'Ihough. at first sight. these two sharp comic novelists who achieved instant success in their early twenties would appear to have much in common. Amis points out that the literary world was a very different thing in the mid-70s. ‘7.adie has already had so much written about her in the last year. When I first came out with The Rachel Papers. I did no interviews. no readings. I didn‘t even have a party. but the media was a tame little thing back then. Now. the reading circuit is very much a part of a writer's job.‘
Smith. who recently returned from a reading tour of the LS. agrees that the reading circuit is a necessary evil for which she has no particular enthusiasm. When asked about her forthcoming appearance with Amis. though. her response is unequivocal. ‘He‘s one of the best writers this country has ever produced.’ she says. ‘So yes. I‘m absolutely terrified.‘
Martin Amis and Zadie Smith appear at the James Tbit Black Memorial Prize Event, George Square “Theatre, Edinburgh, at 6pm on Wed 31 Oct. The List has 50 pairs of tickets to give away: send a stamped addressed SAE envelope to arrive by Wed 24 Oct to James hit Black Memorial Prize Event, 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE.
‘It’s far from finished at the moment and I may never get it finished’