Why Are People More Interested in Norman Mailer's Penis or Martin Amis's Teeth Than in Their Books?

By French, Sean | New Statesman (1996), October 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

Why Are People More Interested in Norman Mailer's Penis or Martin Amis's Teeth Than in Their Books?


French, Sean, New Statesman (1996)


Clive James wrote that he gave up writing his Observer TV column when he started seeing the same ideas coming around and being acclaimed as original. Now it's not just a matter of ideas. Is it me, or are there more anniversaries than there used to be?

At the moment there are celebrations accompanying the 30th anniversary of the first: episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. There is a documentary, a book, repeats. A nation rejoices. But didn't we go through all this for the 25th anniversary? I remember a documentary presented by the comedy producer John Lloyd that featured all the same stories that are being told this time around.

We are paying a terrible price for living in an age when the people running BBC television are of the generation who spent much of the early seventies in playgrounds across Britain doing funny walks, pretending to be gumbies (the one impersonation that everybody could manage) and doing impromptu performances of the four Yorkshiremen sketch.

I was a schoolboy in the early seventies so I used to love it as well, but I now seem to have a much clearer memory of the story behind the show than I have of the show itself. I know about the different titles that were considered, such as Owl Stretching (I've never seen anybody mention that the Monty Python title itself was, in its surreal, Edwardian militariness, a variation on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had come eu! two years earlier-perhaps it's too obvious). I've heard about the resistance of the stuck-up BBC. I'm familiar with the combinations in which they wrote.

Haven't the Pythons got better things to do than talk about themselves again? In the case of Eric Idle and Terry Jones the answer is decidedly not. Outside of Python, has Idle created a single thing that's funny, apart from the strange semi-Californian accent in which he now speaks? (Imagine if back in 1970 you had been told that the two most successful Pythons in the nineties would be Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.)

Are we more compelled by the story behind the thing rather than the thing itself? The biography of a writer, rather than the books the writer wrote? I've just edited a book called The Faber Book of Writers on Writers, which is in some ways the fragmentary history of how people started being drawn not just to the books but to the person who wrote them. It consists of pieces written by writers about meeting other famous writers and moves from Shakespeare's time, in which there seems to have been no interest at all in the details of a writer's life, up to the present day, in which people are more interested in Norman Mailer's penis or Martin Amis's teeth than in their books. …

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