The etiquette of good writing: Why Nabokov is wine, and Joyce is a feral brew

Author

Martin Amis has made a name for himself by being an unafraid writer, having published over a dozen novels over 40 years. Here, he provides a hilarious comparison between James Joyce Vladimir Nabokov, explaining why highly experimental writing rarely (if ever) works and that even writers with genius-level talent need to better understand their role in the storytelling process. After all, he says, "the writer is like a host and the reader is like a guest." Martin Amis' latest book is a collection of essays entitled The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Martin Amis: Decorum as a concept means “not offending”, “good taste”, and all that. 

And decorum in writing is a completely different concept. 

And all it means is that the content should suit—the style should suit the content. It has nothing to do with good taste. 

No writer worth anything is bothered by good taste. What is good taste? It’s a shallow consensus of a certain kind of right thinking individual or group of individuals. It’s measuring what you’re saying to how you’re saying it and tremendously foundational principle for writing. 

And the experimental writer will, of course, instinctively transgress against these rules. 

But you’ve got to realize that all your guide ropes are being jettisoned, and the goodwill of the reader is not infinite. 

It’s usually very high as you open a novel but if you mess around with the reader at your whim that goodwill is very quickly used up. 

Stream of consciousness—even Joyce has a very low success rate with it. 

You have to be a genius to write stream of consciousness, and even the supreme genius, Joyce, wrote his long novel —he spent 15 years on Finnegan’s Wake—which is flat out unreadable. 

And even Ulysses, only about 25 percent of Ulysses works.

And I’ve come more and more to the conclusion that if it’s social realism, your writing, and it obeys—it means the novel is a sociable form. 

And the writer is like a host and the reader is like a guest. 

And if you, when you visit a Nabokov novel it’s as if he has given you his best chair nearest the fire and given you his best wine and given you his full attention in the most tactful and sensitive way.

If you went around to Joyce’s house you’d find the address didn’t exist. And you would find some sort of outbuilding where Joyce lives, and that he wouldn’t be in, apparently. And then you would shout for him and eventually, a figure would appear, and he would talk to you in a language you’d never heard of before. 

And instead of giving you a delicious dinner, as Nabokov does, Joyce would give you two slabs of peat around a conger eel and some repulsive drink he’d made himself. 

To leave social realism—and I’ve done it, and most writers do it a couple of times in their career—is a great statement of arrogance and introversion, and there are huge risks involved in leaving the path of social realism. 

And writers will be tempted to do it every now and then, and sometimes you can bring it off. But you say goodbye to all those—all the etiquette of social intercourse which governs the novel, as it governs all our dealings.