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Kingsley Amis: He laughed at everyone who needed laughing at
As the collected stories of Kingsley Amis are published, Rachel Cusk celebrates his astringent humour – and argues that he is as relevant today as when he was writing

"Yet if Amis kept close to the sources of his own experience, it may partly have been out of a kind of humility, almost a shyness in the face of questions of art. Self-deprecation, usually in the guise of comedy, is a hallmark of an Amis project; humour was his mode of attack and of address. And if humour is also a defence against, among other things, the accusation that one is taking oneself too seriously, Amis may have relied on his identity as a comic writer to shield him from the larger consideration – both private and public – of his stature as an artist.

Nowhere is this clearer than in his handling of the short-story form, whose particular possibilities for advancing the representation of modern experience he acknowledged while firmly distancing himself from them: “The things that only the short story can do,” he wrote, “the impression, the untrimmed slice of life, the landscape with figures but without characters, make little appeal to me.” His own stories, he said, were mere “chips from a novelist’s workbench”.

He goes on, more revealingly, to observe that the contemporary short story tends to be published in “those pale and sickly present-day equivalents of the Victorian fiction magazines, the periodicals subsidised by the Arts Council or one of its offspring. A writer, or any other kind of artist, who partly or largely need not depend on pleasing the public, who in effect has his fee guaranteed whatever the quality of his produce, is tempted to self-indulgence and laziness.” Better to stick to the novel, “which is as yet unlikely to contain any material subsidised by the Arts Council”.

Amis’s fear of art being viewed as pretence and the artist as lazy or dependent is clear from these remarks; and who would accuse an artist of being lazy? The answer might be: a working man. With his talk of produce and workbenches, Amis is trying to create the image of the writer as an ordinary worker, to dispel art’s associations with foppishness and pretentiousness and self-aggrandisement. These associations were evidently painful to Amis – but why? It is as though, in the modernist possibilities of the short story, he perceived a threat both to his masculine and his writerly identity; yet for a generation of American male writers emerging contemporaneously with Amis, the short story was a sort of “working man’s” – almost a macho – form."

For the full article

The Telegraph