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Amis and the Americans

Why isn’t Kingsley Amis better known in the U.S.? Critic Michael Dirda asks that question in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education. After briefly outlining Amis’s career, and his strengths and peccadilloes as a writer, Dirda theorizes:

Amis’s life and public persona have got in the way. In his youth he behaved like a cad and bounder; in his later years he grew into a mean old sod, a woman-hater, and a reactionary bigot. Initially pegged as humor, his work grew darker and darker, savage indignation replacing Lucky Jim‘s relatively genial sparkle — which is what most readers wanted more of.

On the surface, several of the middle novels could be dismissed as genre pulp, and the later books as tendentious rants or tracts. Plus they sounded depressing, dealing with themes like impotence, old age, and schizophrenic children. Critics periodically laid into the books for their one-dimensional characters, far-fetched plots, and unlikely developments (in one novel, a young wife and a sexy mistress improbably become lesbian lovers), as well as a tendency to wind up the story with a deus ex machina. Moreover, a lot of people felt that the books were coldhearted, and certainly no one could deny that the male protagonists were often despicable, no matter how artfully portrayed. Not least, because Amis’s books eschewed formal innovation, they have never held much appeal to literary scholars or classroom teachers.

All of which makes sense. But make no mistake – Dirda himself isn’t down on Amis. He concludes by calling the author’s work “reliably amusing, usefully provocative … and never a waste of time. If you enjoy reading fiction, you can hardly ask for more than that.”

Thanks to Maud Newton (by way of Bookninja) for the link.