The notorious New York literary agent Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie was prowling around London recently, preparing for the publication in May of what is already being breathlessly advertised as the "first literary masterpiece of the new century". The work in question is none other than Martin Amis's memoir, Experience, in which the old boy (now, unbelievably, into his sixth decade) grapples candidly with recent public traumas: the death of his father Kingsley; the discovery that his cousin, Lucy Partington, who disappeared in 1973, was a victim of Fred West; the discovery that he had a teenage daughter from a distant relationship; the rumours about his private life that have, at times, been woundingly malicious; and the other experiences that have made him the scowling king of literary London.
Dan Franklin, Amis's editor at Jonathan Cape, told me that he thought the book was "stupendous" - perhaps Amis's best. There is no reason to doubt him: Amis, with his stylised signature sentences, swagger, and arch, languorous wit, evolved long ago into a more consistently impressive essayist than novelist. No, what is so interesting about the pre-publication hype - the excitable trade advertising, the forthcoming serialisation for which the Guardian is thought to have paid more than pounds 100,000 (the first time the paper has exceeded six figures for such a deal) - is that this is final proof, if ever any were needed, of how the tentacles of the star system have stretched far beyond the movies to wrap themselves around even the once grey world of books. It is a reminder, too, of how writers have definitively become, as Don DeLillo suggests, "part of the background noise, part of the buzz of celebrity and consumerism" that so defines our modernity.
No British writer has thought harder about the subject of literary fame than Martin Amis. To read The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), his selected journalism, is to encounter the most concentrated meditation on contemporary literary celebrity ever written - and this was long before Martin himself became Famous Amis; became too famous, in fact, to interview anyone other than A-List movie stars such as John Travolta.
The Moronic Inferno can be read now as an exercise in wish- fulfillment. Amis flies the Atlantic, shares drinks with Mailer, Vidal, Updike, Capote and Bellow, and returns home to write with wonder and a touch of envy about that incredible world of American literary celebrity, with its accompanying rivalries, envy and huge ambition. He contrasts that world with the meagre littleness of literary life back home: "When success happens to an English writer, he acquires a new typewriter. When success happens to an American writer, he acquires a new life. The transformation is more or less inexorable." As we know, the American present has an invariable habit of becoming the English future, and Amis wrote that in 1983, before the globalisation of publishing, the advent of competitive auctions for books and chain bookstores, the emergence of the superagent and the professionalisation of literature transformed for ever the way books are written, bought and published in this country. As a result, we are all Americans now, in some form or other; we are all in thrall to a particular notion of celebrity authorship.
Almost from the beginning American writing was consumed by the idea of its own difficulty. As James Wood, an editor on New Republic, says: "The notion of a doomed wager has been there since Melville wrote that it `is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation'. American literature is intensely self- conscious about this wager: beginning with Melville's Pierre (about a struggling Melville-like author) it has an entire genre about American authorship." Wood is characteristically astute here: the major contemporary American writers - Philip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo - are certainly unusually interested in what it means to be a writer and to dare to cover the world in language. …