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

Writers need to understand their role in the storytelling process, says bestselling author Martin Amis.

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.

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.

Psychopath-ish: How “healthy” brains can look and function like those of psychopaths

A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.

Mind & Brain
  • The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
  • The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
  • The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
Keep reading Show less

Fighting online misinformation: We're doing it wrong

Counterintuitively, directly combating misinformation online can spread it further. A different approach is needed.

Credit: China Photos via Getty Images
Coronavirus
  • Like the coronavirus, engaging with misinformation can inadvertently cause it to spread.
  • Social media has a business model based on getting users to spend increasing amounts of time on their platforms, which is why they are hesitant to remove engaging content.
  • The best way to fight online misinformation is to drown it out with the truth.
Keep reading Show less

A historian identifies the worst year in human history

A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.

Credit: Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (Museo del Prado).
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
  • The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
  • 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
Keep reading Show less

Self-awareness is what makes us human

Because of our ability to think about thinking, "the gap between ape and man is immeasurably greater than the one between amoeba and ape."

Credit: ATTILA KISBENEDEK via Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Self-awareness — namely, our capacity to think about our thoughts — is central to how we perceive the world.
  • Without self-awareness, education, literature, and other human endeavors would not be possible.
  • Striving toward greater self-awareness is the spiritual goal of many religions and philosophies.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast