Laying Yourself Open

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Friday, 16 February 2007

Interesting to note in The Guardian yesterday that Martin Amis, ‘often described as Britain’s greatest living author’, has apparently decided to take up the post of professor of creative writing at Manchester University. Reassuring to also note that, despite his reputation as the once ‘enfant terrible of English literature’, he won’t be casting his sometimes caustic comments in the direction of his fledgling apprentices, stating instead:

I may be acerbic in how I write but I'm not how I live. And I would find it very difficult to say cruel things to people in such a vulnerable position. I imagine I'll be surprisingly sweet and gentle with them.

Calming words for those budding novelists and writers who sign up to study on the course, anyway. But what interested me about the article was Amis’ following assertion:

One of the things I've learned about fiction - you really do lay yourself open in a way that no other so-called creative artist does. Most other art you're just exhibiting a particular talent, even poetry up to a point, but by writing fiction you expose not only your talent but your whole being, your social, sexual and psychological being and you're never more vulnerable than when you do that.

Hang on a second there, Martin. Fiction is the only art form where artists leave themselves open and vulnerable? What about particularly evocative and personal works of art, as in Ron Mueck’s Mask II: a larger-than-life piece that displays the artist’s face in incredible personal detail, each fold of skin and fleck of stubble meticulously crafted and presented to the public en masse? I find it hard to imagine anything more revealing and exposing of the artist’s own identity. You might take the line that, indeed, such an artwork doesn’t necessarily reveal the artist’s psychological make-up, sexual orientation, or political stance. But then how much of literature (novels, poetry, drama, short stories, and so on) is, at least to some extent, smoke and mirrors; reflections and refractions merging and blurring? I don’t think Amis is putting forward a very convincing case: even if it was a relatively flippant and ill-thought-out suggestion, he was nonetheless presumably comfortable with it next to his picture, resplendent on a broadsheet’s cover.

I like Martin Amis’ work. Time’s Arrow is possibly one of the better novels I’ve read, and certainly the best Holocaust novel I’ve ever read, if you’ll forgive me such terrible pigeonholing. But I’m pretty sure all art leaves the artist vulnerable and open in some way, a lot of it having to do with the artist’s own willingness and desire to deal with themselves in their art, of course. But no form, literary or otherwise, is any better, or indeed, more restrictive, in helping artists to achieve this. Is poetry really just ‘exhibiting a particular talent’, then, albeit ‘up to [more of] a point’ than other forms?

In counter, Sylvia Plath springs instantly to mind, but then I’m an advocate of reading her poems with a lack emphasis on her own life and persona, for pretty obvious reasons. But we don’t really have to cast around too much here, do we? Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, and so on, in no particular order. All exhibit a ‘particular talent’, that is, an innovative renewal and reiteration (in a Derridean sense) of what had artistically come before them, but many of their poems are also invested with a considerable piece of themselves: Hughes and Larkin’s existential concerns, for example, or Duffy and Paterson’s philosophies and sexualities. After all, ultimately, how could they not be?

Quoted Guardian article:,,2013359,00.html