The worst chapter in Christopher Hitchens’ patchy memoir Hitch-22 concerned his literary friendships. Packed with detailed accounts of booze-sodden lunches, and agonising explanations of in-jokes, it could have been summed up in five short words: you had to be there. Few if any of us can retell old drinking stories in a manner than is even sufferable, and a touch of nostalgia near what would turn out to be the end of his life can be understood, but if it left a sour aftertaste it was because the circle of friends that Hitchens held so dear had been an influential clique in British literature, and often, sadly, to its detriment. I call them the Loomers.
The Loomers included Hitchens, Martin Amis, Ian McEwen, Salman Rushdie, Craig Raine and Clive James. I call them “the Loomers” both because they have loomed over British letters and because they were all literary boomers, born around the end of World War Two and coming of age in the late sixties and early seventies. All were charismatic men with eye-catching prose and poems. All were critics and editors. All were fiercely ambitious.
In describing the Loomers as something of a clique I am by no means succumbing to conspiracy theory. They were described as such in Hitchens’ autobiography, and Martin Amis’ memoiristic Experience. Craig Raine’s long poem A La Recherche du Temps Perdu makes reference to “mutual friends/the Martins, Julians and Ians.” Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan that is. One doubts an obscure “Phil” or “Brian” would have earned a mention.
Now, the Loomers are in their senescence. Amis has been promising a novel about Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin and Christopher Hitchens, which has created the buzz of a dead housefly. Ian McEwan has produced a series of clever books which have produced diminishing returns. Rushdie’s last novel barely made a dent in the public consciousness. Unpopularity need not reflect quality. Amis might create a masterpiece for all we know. Yet how did a group of writers who were so famous end up with such indifference?
I should pause to make it clear that if I criticise collective tendencies of this clique I am by no means reducing its individual members to those features. The Polish football team has a problem with goalscoring but Robert Lewandowski does not. The Loomers’ novelists have had a problem crafting memorable characters but Martin Amis’ John Self remains one of the finest comic creations of the last century. Nonetheless, private and professional collegiality, and similarities, between the Loomers make them a just subject for generalisations.
One of the two main problems with the Loomers has been their often pompous attitude towards style, where linguistic cleverness has often been elevated above linguistic power. In his essay “A Criticism of Life” Craig Raine singled out as an exemplar of good prose Marianne Moore’s comparison of the top of a fir tree with “an emerald turkey foot.” This, he said, allows us to “see the fir tree more stereoscopically than before.” It does not. In fact, it diminishes the readers’ appreciation of the tree. With all due respect to Moore, the phrase has the novelty and cleverness that Loomers admire but is symbolically inapt. An “emerald turkey foot” is a comical image that degrades the dignity of a grand old fir. In another essay, Raine chided Bruce Chatwin for inaccuracy in saying that in winter “the frozen leaves of foxgloves dropped like dead donkey’s ears” but even if this is less accurate as a comparison of likenesses, which it is not by much, it has far more symbolic power.
What is clever has too often replaced what is effective. Thomas Mallon criticised Amis for calling Stalin’s slaughter a “census-slashing deformity” because the phrase was “a squawking bird perched on the cenotaph” (it was also too abstract, and reused after its appearance in Koba the Dread.) It was nothing more than a distraction.
I have no intention of defending stylistic clichés. The world could do without hearing of another “moody silence” or “heartfelt sob”. But the veritable holy war the Loomers have conducted against the hackneyed image has been far too narrow, pedantic and self-regarding. In an essay on the youthful Amis, Hitchens writes:
If one employed a lazy or stale phrase, it would be rubbed in—no, it would be incisively *emphasized—*with a curl of that mighty lip and an ironic gesture. If one committed the offense in print—I remember once writing “no mean achievement” in an article—the rebuke might come in note form, or by one’s being handed a copy of the article with a penciled underlining. He could take this vigilance to almost parodic lengths. The words “ruggedly handsome features” appear on the first page of 1984, and for a while Martin declined to go any further into the book. (“The man can’t write worth a damn.”)
Hitchens uses this to emphasise Amis’ love of language but while I have no doubt that this love exists it is also suggests to me a certain attachment to lording it over other people.
When Craig Raine reads Ian McEwan’s drafts, it has been reported, he scribbles “FLF” in the margins to remind the author of Enduring Love and Atonement of when he tried to use the phrase “flickering log fire” in one of his books. It is a sweet little routine. Yet I think the mortification that the memory of this lapse is implied to evoke symbolises the narrow attitude towards “style” that the Loomers have maintained. “All writing is a campaign against cliche,” Amis has suggested, “Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart.” Fair enough. But contra the sub-Nabokovian theme of his work – where it is claimed that “cliché spreads inwards from the language of [a] book to its heart” – there is no necessary link between the three. Just a cough might or might not be a symptom of illness, a stylistic cliché might or might not be a symptom of imaginative or observational ineptitude. A scene around around a fireplace that refers to a “flickering log fire” might have more substantial characters, incisive dialogue, wittier allusions et cetera than a scene which refers to, I don’t know, “the mewling tiger cub on the hearth.”
While Amis and Raine have preached that style is substance, the Loomers have increasingly sought to be substantial. “He isn’t content to be a good writer,” wrote Tibor Fischer in a famously hostile review of Amis’ Yellow Dog, “He wants to be profound; the drawback to profundity is that it’s like being funny, either you are or you aren’t.” This was somewhat unfair. Amis can be profound when he is being funny, as in Money, or even the underrated The Information. When he tries to be profound, however, rather than allowing profundity to emerge through his wit, he has been neither. In Koba the Dread or The Second Plane – about communism and jihadism respectively – one faces a terrible combination of humourless self-importance and superficiality.
Amis is not alone. Ian McEwan writes powerfully, insightfully and interestingly about human relationships, but when he turned his hand to politics in Saturday the result was a lot of chin-stroking bourgeois moralism. Salman Rushdie wrote great novels about India but when he tried to do the same about the United States in The Golden House the result was a mess. The problem, I think, is not that these men are incapable of tackling great themes but that they set out, ex nihilo, with the aim of tackling them and the product is inorganic and ill-considered. They have wanted to define their age; to be on the cultural and ideological frontlines – like Orwell, Koestler and Bellow – yet have displayed more ambition than inspiration.
Their politics have not helped. Christopher Hitchens’ transition from full-throated Trotskyism to full-throated neoconservatism has been well-documented and his friends have followed suit, if, in some cases, in a waterier way. “Hussein was running a regime beyond evil,” Clive James mused in 2013, justifying his support for the invasion of Iraq, “What have you got to do with places like that?” Not make them worse. McEwan (like Amis and Rushdie) did not support the invasion but Saturday was disfigured by a lot of handwringing about anti-war protesters not being solemn enough, as if this would have made the slightest difference to anyone.
Rushdie earned a great deal of admiration for his courage during the hideous, fanatical backlash against his book The Satanic Verses, and his friends were admirable in sticking up for him. Nonetheless, it is regrettable that Islam became the great cause they had been looking for, not because they were bigoted (as critics from Terry Eagleton to the current author in his callow days often alleged) but because they were unable to understand or contextualise its influence on the modern world. I think they wanted political Islam to be their communism – an elitist ideology that was inflicted on the masses – but the invasion of Iraq and the death spiral of the Arab Spring proved that wrong. Martin Amis’ inelegant claim that he was not an Islamophobe but an Islamismophobe obscured the fact that there is no clear difference between the two, Muhammad, after all, being a religiously inspired statesman.
The desire to be, like the great authors who came before them, combatants in a showdown between liberalism and a force of tyranny has blinded Loomers to the tensions with liberalism itself, and with admirable exceptions – like Amis’ Money and The Pregnant Widow – they have had almost nothing to say about social stratification, consumerism, gender, mass migration and the Internet. To be sure, their books might be a haven from the identity politicking of progressives but their bland liberalism offers no defence against it.
The decline of the Loomers is not cause to cheer. Their successors have often been worse. Yet this has, to some extent, been no coincidence. The Loomers have not bridged the gap between tradition and modernity, but tried to float across on wings of ephemeral style and plunged, grousing, into the abyss.