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Finn McRedmond: What Martin Amis teaches us about our politics

The culture wars are not a diversion - they are the language, the style, of politics. One does not exist in a separate realm to the other

It is a common observation about the late Martin Amis – who died recently at 73 years old – that he sacrificed all else in his novels at the altar of style. Language was his guiding star, perfect sentences his foundational tool.

“If the prose isn’t there,” Amis said in The Paris Review, “then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form”.

Plenty has been said about Amis’s legacy in recent days – his acid tongue and humour; his chronicling of London; his reputation for decency; his provocations; his shallow female characters. Since his debut novel, The Rachel Papers, was published at just 24 years old, Amis has been a giant of literature. His father was Kingsley Amis. He counted Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan among his peers; Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow among his heroes.

As a novelist and critic, he looms especially large in the psyche of young male writers. But he was more than just a master with a pen. Amis’s forensic obsession with style and sentences can teach us about the political anxieties of the 21st century: the dangers of poorly chosen words, the limitations of identity, the power of the culture wars, the nature of politicians.


In fact, if we believe his mantra – that ‘style is morality’ – then perhaps there isn’t much that Amis can’t teach us. We have all heard the common insult: “He’s got style with no substance”. It is the favourite refrain of anyone trying to dismiss a politician, an academic, a writer, a dilettante in the pub, or a film by Wes Anderson. It’s a simple rhetorical trick, designed to prove that behind the average sophisticate there often lies a barren, ideologically bereft soul.

Take Rishi Sunak’s sharp suits. It certainly makes him seem the part. But perhaps it is just papier-mâché holding together an otherwise weak spiritual composition? An affectation devised to pull attention away from an absence of belief?

Maybe Wes Anderson’s cartoonish camera-panning and sickly colourways are just that: cartoonish, sickly, distracting from bad characters and flimsy plot. Can anyone even remember what The French Dispatch was about? All style, no substance ... it’s an easy line of attack. At once it intends to exposé the shallowness of the aesthete, and demonstrate the comparative seriousness of the critic.

It is as if to say: ‘I am not fooled by Rishi Sunak’s suits and Wes Anderson’s symmetries. The flourishes of language and frivolities of appearances haven’t tricked me, I can see beyond the superficial.’ But as an insult, it is as handy as it is naive. Amis would scoff.

Remembering the primacy of language, and the centrality of style to all we do? That’s a hard footprint to ignore

For him, style and substance were not distinct phenomena, no matter how fond we are of separating them. No, in fact they are so closely intertwined that Amis will remind us again that style is “intrinsic to perception,” it “is morality”.

It seems Amis understood something fundamental: who we are and how we present ourselves are not different things. There is no secret person hiding beneath the way we talk and act. Without style, we have no substance.

It is refreshing to consider that someone’s true nature is apparent: Donald Trump uses the language of a brute, we should not be surprised to learn that he is one. The quality of our language, then, is clearly not just a frivolous concern.

Amis reckons that bad style can also point to a deeper rancour – and at a level that infiltrates not just our novels and our poems, but politics and society writ large. Cliche, he famously cautions, must be avoided at all costs. And “not just cliches of the pen, but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart.” The problem, he suggests, is not just that cliche is lazy but that this kind of “second-hand thinking” begins to consume all that we are.

Why should this matter? Because “prejudices are cliches: they are second-hand hatreds,” Amis argues.

It seems we cannot elude the throes of poor language. If bad style can create the conditions for people to adopt flimsy prejudice, then it seems a rather serious prerogative to course-correct. And perhaps the inverse is true: focus on good language and the morality will flow from that. If what we say is who we are, then that does not seem so absurd a conclusion.

But this tendency to separate substance from style happens at all levels of politics. How often have we heard the idea that the culture wars distract from the real issues in politics? That our leaders should focus more on data and housing and less on questions of patriotism and identity? It is the same fallacy that Amis rails against in literature.

The culture wars are not a diversion – they are the language, the style, of politics. One does not exist in a separate realm to the other. Amis’s legacy will be manifold, and his true impact on the world is still hard to quantify. But remembering the primacy of language, and the centrality of style to all we do? That’s a hard footprint to ignore.