The Blog

A Competition in Alpha-Male Condescension

Since Martin Amis and Terry Eagleton are middle-aged men, their mutual panties-bunching is dignified by the banner of "literary spat."
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If this were a contretemps between two women, the word "catfight!" would be gleefully utilized by every reporter (as it was during the never-bettered war of words between Julie Burchill and Camille Paglia).

However, since Martin Amis and Terry Eagleton are middle-aged men (middle-aged, in Eagleton's case, being a charitable description) their mutual panties-bunching is dignified by the banner of "literary spat." Having witnessed, over the years, Wolfe v. Mailer/Irving/Updike, Theroux v. Naipaul, even (sigh) Franzen v. Marcus, we know all too well what that means: a public pissing-contest in which the opponents exchange bons mots of maximum pomposity, each claiming the moral high ground while reveling in the media spotlight's glare.

For the sake of those who've had better things to do than follow the ego-clash of "an ideological relict, unable to get out of bed in the morning without the dual guidance of God and Karl Marx" (Amis on Eagleton) and "a British National Party thug" (vice versa), here's a quick summary:

In a new foreword to a reissue of his 1991 book Ideology: an introduction, literary theorist Eagleton attacked Amis's "Islamophobia" as expressed in an essay written for the 5th anniversary of 9/11, explicating the novelist's views as a call for "hounding and humiliating [Muslims] as a whole [so] they would return home and teach their children to be obedient to the White Man's Law." Eagleton also took aim at the late Kingsley Amis, calling him "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals."

Cue the appearance of a dozen articles on the matter, including a Guardian blog post by Eagleton and various rebuttals to his characterization of Amis Sr.

Then last Friday, in a letter to the Independent - where columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown had responded angrily to Amis's views as filtered by Eagleton - Amis lamented that it was "a dull business, correcting Eagleton's distortions, but this is the work he is obliging me to do. The anti-Muslim measures he says I "advocated" I merely adumbrated, not "in an essay" but [...] in a long interview with the press." (The incomparable Jenny Diski wondered: "He may have been adumbrating not advocating, but is there another way to describe patronising and smug?")

The extra frisson supplied by this so highbrow of scraps is that Amis just started teaching creative writing at Manchester University, where Eagleton has been professor of cultural theory since 2001. "It was the prospect," opined the latter, "of a senior common room punch-up (not that we have anything as posh as a senior common room at Manchester) that set even the broadsheet press slavering." (Naturally, Britain's most famous Marxist wouldn't drink his tea in anything as posh as a senior common room. Owning three houses is OK, though.)

Obviously, you can't buy this kind of publicity. Eagleton's publisher has probably doubled his book's print run, and Amis gets people talking about his next novel - which, surprise, has an Islamic theme - a year before its publication. Meanwhile, I'm suffering from the weird cognitive dissonance of feeling equally unsympathetic to both parties' positions, a sensation for which there's surely a word, something German and multi-syllabic. Perhaps wise old Professor Eagleton could enlighten me?