Amis is chiefly known as a comedic novelist of mid- to late-20th century British life, but his literary work extended into many genres — poetry, essays and criticism, short stories, food and drink writing, anthologies, and a number of novels in genres such as science fiction and mystery. His career initially developed in a pattern which was the inverse of that followed by his close friend Philip Larkin. Before becoming known as a poet, Larkin had published two novels; Amis, on the other hand, originally wished to be a poet, and turned to writing novels only after publishing several volumes of verse. He continued throughout his career to write poetry which is known for its typically straightforward and accessible style, yet which often masks a nuance of thought, for example, in "Bookshop Idyll" or "Against Romanticism", just as it does in his novels.
Amis's first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), is perhaps his most famous, taking its germ from Amis's observation of the common room at the University of Leicester, where his friend Larkin held a post. The novel satirizes the high-brow academic set of a redbrick university, seen through the eyes of its protagonist, Jim Dixon, as he tries to make his way as a young lecturer of history. The novel was perceived by many as part of the Angry Young Men movement of the 1950s which reacted against the stultification of conventional British life, though Amis never encouraged this interpretation. Amis’s other novels of the 1950s and early 1960s similarly depict situations from contemporary British life, often drawn from Amis’s own experiences. That Uncertain Feeling (1955) centres on a young provincial librarian (again perhaps with reference to Larkin, librarian at Hull) and his temptation towards adultery; I Like It Here (1958) presents Amis’s contemptuous view of "abroad" and followed upon his own travels on the Continent with a young family; Take a Girl Like You (1960) steps away from the immediately autobiographical, but remains grounded in the concerns of sex and love in ordinary modern life, tracing the courtship and ultimate seduction of the heroine Jenny Bunn by a young schoolmaster, Patrick Standish.
With The Anti-Death League (1966), Amis begins to show some of the experimentation – with content, if not with style – which would mark much of his work in the 1960s and 70s. Amis’s departure from the strict realism of his early comedic novels is not so abrupt as might first appear. He had avidly read science fiction since a boy, and had developed that interest into the Christian Gauss Lectures of 1958, while visiting Princeton University. The lectures were published in that year as New Maps of Hell: a Survey of Science Fiction, a serious but light-handed treatment of what the genre had to say about man and society. Amis was particularly enthusiastic about the dystopian works of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, and in New Maps of Hell coined the term "comic inferno" to describe a type of humorous dystopia, particularly as exemplified in the works of Robert Sheckley. Amis further displayed his devotion to the genre in editing, with the Sovietologist Robert Conquest, the science fiction anthology series Spectrum I–V, which drew heavily upon 1950s numbers of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction.
Though not explicitly science fiction, The Anti-Death League takes liberties with reality not found in Amis’s earlier novels, and introduces a speculative bent into his fiction, one which would continue to develop in other of his genre novels, such as The Green Man (1969) (mystery/horror) and The Alteration (1976) (alternate history). Much of this speculation was about the improbable existence of any benevolent deity involved in human affairs. In The Anti-Death League, The Green Man, The Alteration and elsewhere, including poems such as "The Huge Artifice: an interim assessment" and "New Approach Needed", Amis showed frustration with a God who could lace the world with such cruelty and injustice, and championed the preservation of ordinary human happiness – in family, in friendships, in physical pleasure – against the demands of any cosmological scheme. The matter of Amis’s religious views is perhaps ultimately summed up in his response, reported in his Memoirs, to the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s question, in his broken English: "You atheist?" Amis replied, "It’s more that I hate Him."
During this time, Amis had not turned completely away from the comedic realism of Lucky Jim and Take a Girl Like You. I Want It Now (1968) and Girl, 20 (1971) both depict the "swinging" atmosphere of London in the late '60s, in which Amis certainly participated, though neither book is strictly autobiographical. Girl, 20, for instance, is framed in the world of classical (and pop) music, of which Amis was not a part — the book's relatively impressive command of musical terminology and opinion shows both Amis's amateur devotion to music and the almost journalistic capacity of his intelligence to take hold of a subject which interested him. That intelligence is similarly on display in, for instance, the presentation of ecclesiastical matters in The Alteration, when Amis was neither a Roman Catholic nor, for that matter, a devotee of any Church.
Throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, Amis was regularly producing essays and criticism, principally for journalistic publication. Some of these pieces were collected in 1968’s What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Essays, in which Amis’s wit and literary and social opinions were on display ranging over books such as Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (panned), Iris Murdoch’s debut novel Under the Net (praised), or William Empson’s Milton’s God (inclined to agree with). Amis’s opinions on books and people tended to appear (and often, be) conservative, and yet, as the title essay of the collection shows, he was not merely reverent of "the classics" and of traditional morals, but was more disposed to exercise his own rather independent judgment in all things.
Amis became associated with Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, which he greatly admired, in the late 1960s, when he began composing critical works connected with the fictional spy, either under a pseudonym or uncredited. In 1965, he wrote the popular The James Bond Dossier under his own name. That same year, he wrote The Book of Bond, or, Every Man His Own 007, a tongue-in-cheek how-to manual about being a sophisticated spy, under the pseudonym "Lt Col. William ('Bill') Tanner", Tanner being M's Chief of Staff in many of Fleming's Bond novels. In 1968 Amis wrote Colonel Sun, which was published under the pseudonym "Robert Markham".
Amis's literary style and tone changed significantly after 1970, with the possible exception of The Old Devils, a Booker Prize winner. Several critics accused him of being old fashioned and misogynistic, while others said that his output lacked the humanity, wit, and compassion of earlier efforts.
This period also saw Amis the anthologist, a role in which his wide knowledge of all kinds of English poetry was on display. The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), which he edited, was a revision of the original volume done by W. H. Auden. Amis took the anthology in a markedly new direction: Auden had interpreted light verse to include "low" verse of working-class or lower-class origin, regardless of subject matter, while Amis defined light verse as essentially light in tone, though not necessarily simple in composition. The Amis Anthology (1988), a personal selection of his favourite poems, grew out of his work for a London newspaper, in which he selected a poem daily and presented it with a brief introduction.
Amis was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times in his writing career for Ending Up (1974), Jake's Thing (1978), and finally winning the prize for The Old Devils in 1986.
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