Friday, February 23, 2007

britain's greatest living writer

The temptation to categorise and canonise writers is, frankly, a bit of a waste of time, but the Guardian's decision to describe Martin Amis as 'Britain's greatest living writer' last week caused a mild furore and inspired the paper to run a feature today titled Who is the greatest of them all?. No clear winner from their polling emerges but the names bandied about are interesting.

Amis is obviously a polarising figure and while everyone seems to agree that his technical skill is unrivalled, few claim that he is much more than the best novelist of the 1980s, which he surely was. He's obviously waned since then (although his latest book, 'The House Of Meetings', was certainly his best in over a decade) and his reputation has declined accordingly, but not as much as Salman Rushdie's, who, astonishingly, is barely mentioned in the critics' deliberations. Considering Rushdie wrote 'Midnight's Children', 'The Satanic Verses' and 'The Moor's Last Sigh', this is a pretty dramatic downturn in fortunes.

The writers who do garner most praise are Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and VS Naipaul, with Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan the more populist choices. It's hard to argue against any of those, except for the fact that I've only read one Lessing novel ('The Golden Notebook') and plenty of bad, as well as good, offerings from Ian McEwan (it just isn't possible that someone with the title 'Britain's Greatest Writer' could come up with anything as toe-curlingly bad as his 'Saturday').

What Martin Amis has achieved is the feat of seeming to be Britain's best living author, even if he isn't; every time he writes he does just enough to elevate himself above his peers in technical - and publicity - terms. But he badly needs to write a grown up book. It's perhaps worth mentioning that Philip Roth, who you get the feeling Amis aches to emulate, wrote 'Portnoy's Complaint' in his thirties, just as Amis produced 'Money' in the same decade, but didn't produce his true masterpieces until his sixties and seventies. So Amis has plenty of time.

But I'm not sure I can name anyone who is actually better. I think probably Tim Parks and Maggie Gee, two names I've not seen mentioned so far, are the best contemporary writers, along with Kazuo Ishiguro and perhaps Michael Frayn. Harold Pinter, widening the search beyond novelists, is clearly up there. Julian Barnes is a super writer, and the likes of Ali Smith and David Mitchell may yet write enough of worth to be considered. Stepping into genre fiction, I don't see why John Le Carre shouldn't merit a mention, although he's a very different kind of writer obviously.

In the end, I'm afraid that no-one writing today is comparable to the likes of the relatively recently departed Iris Murdoch or Muriel Spark - or indeed Martin's father, Kingsley Amis; much less Orwell or Greene. Who will be remembered as the finest writer of our time? I dunno - what do you think? Comments please.

3 comments:

Kate said...

JG Ballard, surely.

Anonymous said...

Anais Nin. Especially when you're feeling a little alone. I have Laura to thank for this love.

Paul said...

Saturday might have been a bit iffy but Ian McEwan is the most consistent writer of his generation.