Amis on the rules of fiction

Robert Birnbaum’s latest interview is with Martin Amis, who pronounces Saul Bellow the “greatest American author ever.” Amis says Bellow “breaks all the rules,” particularly “the rules about universality in fiction”:

One of the supposed limitations of autobiographical fiction is that unless the characters are works of the imagination, creations of the imagination, they will lose universality. They will be locked into the particular. Now the people in Bellow’s fiction are real people, yet the intensity of the gaze that he bathes them in, somehow through the particular, opens up into the universal. I don’t know of another writer who does it that way round… I think it is fair to say that many a novelist will use someone they know as model, and perhaps this is more the Philip Roth method. You take someone’s appearance and then give them someone else’s character and you can put a fictional character together that way and I have done it myself, many a time. But with Bellow it’s a specificity that excludes all else. And he is taking a reading of people he has met and encountered of such depth that any addition, any fabrication would skew it. He is staring absolutely unflinchingly at entities that he has encountered.

Amis also talks about the different perceptions of writers’ political views in the U.S. and the U.K. Americans are curious to know what writers think, he says, while in England “the tradition is that a writer’s view on politics is of rather less interest than the man in the street.” He goes on:

It’s like the exchange between Saul Bellow and Milton Friedman where Saul said something about economics and Friedman said, “When I have a question about literature, I’ll come to you.” And Saul says, “But you never will have question about literature.”


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