"Martin Amis should be required reading for any advertising writer"
The late Amis may have fallen from favour but the sharpness of his writing and characterisation endures
24 May 2023
Advertising's claim to Martin Amis,who died last week, was only a very tenuous one. He lasted just one week in his job as a trainee copywriter at J. Walter Thompson before finding alternative work at the Times Literary Supplement. But advertising may have helped inform and inspire his brutal, caustic writing and the exquisite shaping of the darkly comic characters that populated his novels.
In his autobiography Experience, Amis described his spell in the industry thus: “The ad world used to be something of a refuge for literary types. But I feared for myself at JWT. It seemed to be entirely peopled by blocked dramatists, likeably shambling poets, and one-off novelists. The whole place felt like a clubworld sunset home for literary talent.”
Harsh, perhaps, given the number of acclaimed writers that have emerged from the ad industry (and of which many are bubbling away still). But Amis wasn't renowned for his sentimentality. He wasn't repelled by advertising either - he sat as a judge at the D&AD Awards in 1995, and the cover of his novel The Information (pictured above) won a Wood Pencil in 1997.
In his 1984 novel Money: A Suicide Note Amis drew upon his own experience as a screenwriter on the flop film Saturn 3. The leading character, and narrator of the book, John Self is a director of ads who is invited to New York City by Fielding Goodney, a film producer, to shoot his first film. Self is a caricature of the time in which he was created - slobbish and drunk, with a preoccupation with prostitution, pornography and onanism. In short, probably not the sort of anti-hero that would feature in any contemporary novel.
While books by Amis, an Oxford-educated "nepo baby" with a dark eye for the profane and the offensive, may have fallen from fashion now, they will always be considered classics. And if his work was inspired by the fusion of commerciality and popular culture, of which the advertising industry appears to be the apex, some of the best writers in the ad industry have also been inspired by him. We asked some to give their thoughts below:
Alex Grieve, global chief creative officer, BBH
It’s hard to imagine but in the 1980’s and 90’s books were cool. And the writers defining that cool were the literary rat-pack of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. McEwan was macabre, Rushdie the Magical Realist, Barnes philosophical but Amis was the one any aspiring writer wanted to be: witty, caustic, scabrous, dangerous, provocative. Who wouldn’t want those five words to describe them?
The ink in his pen was filled with cartridges of ink-black zeitgeist. He had a cultivated mystery. He managed to be both accessible and aloof. He was just as comfortable writing for The Face or GQ (and similarly at ease appearing on the front cover: cigarette in hand, smirk on his face) as he was for Granta or the TLS.
He will, of course, always be remembered for his London trilogy of novels: Money, London Fields, and The Information. As he himself described, he created ‘a high style to describe low things’. And what a style. He was the master of finding a voice. You didn’t always want to listen, you often didn’t like what you heard, but it stuck, like an ear-worm, in your head forever. In recent years he has fallen out of favour. The man who shaped the culture of his time would, perhaps, be cancelled by the culture of ours. But whatever you think, you will think better if you pick up his books. So do that. Read what he wrote; read everything.
Ben Mooge, chief creative officer, Publicis Groupe UK
I must have read Dead Babies when I was 17. The bastard stepdad to the Trainspotting that was waiting a few years round the corner. The glamorous squalor, a weird remix of the Sunday night ITV Agatha Christie world. What the fuck was this?
Fast forward and I had finished my university dissertation (English & American Literature BA Hons, 2:1) in the ‘lack of self’ in the work of Bret Easton Ellis – teenagerly titled “I Simply Am Not There; From Less Than Zero to American Psycho”.
I thought I’d completed magnetic, narcissistic, rampagingly-entertaining debauched fiction, and then I read Money. Should have read that first, really….
Obviously there’s often a necessary separation from the art and artist, and that’s clearly more than applicable in the case of Amis, both from the extra-curricular activities that Boris Johnson would be jealous of, but more disturbingly some of the post 9/11 viewpoints (read Chris Morris’ ‘The Absurd World of Martin Amis’.)
But away from the author and back to the writing, Martin Amis should be required reading for any advertising writer. It’s all there. High society and low culture, low society and high culture. Graphic consumerism, on-the-nose character names, parallel lives and sliding doors.
That’s the stuff we (should) be doing every day.
And I’m sure he would despise it all.
Al Young, joint chief creative officer, St Luke's
Martin Amis's books remind me of arriving from the safety of a childhood in the sticks to the dangers and the temptations of fast-changing London. In most works of comic fiction, there's a character or two you can gun for. Martin framed all his characters rich and poor alike in way that would make us hate them all.
For me, his greatest strengths as a writer were two-fold. Brilliantly vivid, brutally visceral descriptions and a prophetic understanding of how technology was about to change us all. Here are some of examples of both:
“Keith Whitehead lay on sandpaper blankets farting like a wizard" Dead Babies.
"She looked at me with eyes resembling eels swimming in absinthe" London Fields.
"No-one ever said on their deathbed, gee I wish I'd spent more time alone on my computer" The Information.
"...in the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes" From his collected essays.
Jon Burley, creative consultant
A very dear and literary-minded friend of mine (with whom in 2001 I attended a Southbank reading by Amis from his collection of essays, The War Against Cliche - I too was once of a literary bent, and plumply pretentious with it) passed comment on Amis’ passing yesterday with the words: “People found him hard to love, I’m afraid.”
A fair judgement. I personally find his sneery depiction of his working class and female characters, along with his later explicit Islamophobia, very hard to love indeed. And yet, and yet. In the mid-90s, as a not-terribly-well-educated young man recently escaped from the Dickensian wharfs of Portsmouth, the vividly modern unpleasantness of some of his more celebrated novels was a revelation.
I speed-read Money and The Rachel Papers, gannetted London Fields (there was a second-hand bookshop in Finsbury Park that was a good friend to me during these placement-paid times).
With both plumpness and pretension long behind me, I shan’t pretend that Amis was one of my favourite authors, or that Time’s Arrow inspired a 30” telly ad I once did for Bird’s Eye Fish Fingers.
But his playfulness with form and language, his blackly scabrousness sense of humour, his impolite delight in showing up and showing off - these things most definitely (if unconsciously, perhaps) informed my formative years as a creative at HHCL, was part of the influential cultural soup that fed my desire to create noisy work. In our creatively timid times, perhaps there’s a light lesson here - better remembered at all than easily loved and forgotten. RIP, and all that.