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Martin Amis and Will Self on sex and politics

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Tony Cross

Martin Amis and Will Self were in Paris this weekend for the Shakespeare and Company literary festival. Self said Amis was the most important writer in English since the 1960s and Amis returned the compliment, saying Self seemed to be the result of a romantic union between Jorge Luis Borges and J.G.Ballad. But they differed when it came to politics and sex.


Amis has become a hardline feminist. He acknowledged that the cause is in trouble – “feminism has got stuck on this idea that pole dancing is empowering” – but he is optimistic.

“I think it’s our great hope, but I think men have got to realise that they’re not giving away anything by ceding to women coming to power,” he told RFI. “Men have not done a very impressive job of running the planet and, looking forward a century or two, I have a utopian dream that these discredited values, the proximity to violence, will to some extent evaporate and feminine qualities will come to the fore.”

He said he sometimes looks back at his first two or three novels with new, feminist eyes.
“I sometimes think, oh that’s a bit rough, or a bit macho, or just unimaginative when it comes to women. But Money is a feminist book,” he said.

His vocal criticism of Islam over the years has sparked cries of protest, but he says he has narrowed his quarrel with the religion down to women’s rights.

He said he admired the French principle of laïcité, but didn’t like the idea of banning the burka. “I don’t want to tell people what to wear,” he said. “It’s none of my business what they wear.”

Masculinity has been a thread throughout Amis’s work, and he linked this to world events. He said he derives what he calls a narrative throb from geopolitical events, saying he finds countries like rather unpleasant men – aggressive and unappeasable.

“My interest is in what power does,” he told the audience. Will thinks countries are not like people. I think they are. I’ve known many a failed state, though only one regional superpower. Saul Bellow.”

Self is less interested in writing about politics.“I feel completely different to Martin and we often bicker about these things,” he said. “We do what we can and I’ve always been engagé politically, but there’s remarkably little we can do as individuals to sway the destiny of peoples and nations. What ideology thrives on is its ability to connect the individual to the historical narrative and I think it’s a kind of dangerous thing.”

He said he likes narratives with a broad sweep of history but doesn’t feel one gains leverage on it as a writer.

When it comes to sex, Amis says there are probably one or two sex scenes he now regrets having written, but now he is firm.

“You can only write about failed sex,” he said. “Successful sex is what you can’t write about.”Perhaps that’s why has just given up on an autobiographical history of the sexual revolution.

“Writing autobiographically about sex is disgusting,” says Amis. “Towards morning I took her again and she fainted for a second time… No writer’s ever got very far. D.H.Lawrence’s thrashing around with sex is completely fruitless.”

In his new book, The Pregnant Widow, there is one sex scene, which is pornographic, cynical and recreational. Good sex is deuniversalising. That’s the problem.

“If you find yourself watching pornography on the internet you find yourself saying, ‘no don’t do that, don’t take that off yet.”

Will Self entirely disagreed.“I think it was a wholly political point on Martin’s part. A political and a personal point and it reflects his new-found feminism and his attempt to distance himself from pornography,” he said. “I think it’s eminently possible to write about sex with feeling.”

He did agree that it is easier to write about joyless sex. “It then just becomes a technical description of the dispensation of parts,” he said.

Self’s favourite sex scene from his own oeuvre involves two heterosexual men, one of whom has grown a vagina behind his knee. “I think that’s a rather beautiful and poignant sex scene actually,” he said.