Elizabeth Jane Howard, author of the Cazalet Chronicles and Martin Amis’ stepmother, died at the beginning of January this year. The only reason I mention this – never having read any of either of their books – is because I read Amis’ tribute to her and found some remarks very interesting.
In the early years at least, Kingsley [Amis, Martin’s father] and Jane seemed made for each other. It was an unusual, and unusually stimulating, ménage: two passionately dedicated novelists who were also passionately in love. Their approach to the daily business of writing formed a sharp contrast, one from which I derived a tentative theory about the difference between male and female fiction. Kingsley was a grinder; no matter how he was feeling (hungover, sickly, clogged, loth), he trudged off to his desk after breakfast, and that was that until it was time for evening drinks. Jane was far more erratic and mercurial. She would wander from room to room, cooking or gardening, she would stare out of the window smoking a cigarette with an air of anxious preoccupation. Then she would suddenly hasten to her study, and you’d hear the feverish clatter of her typewriter keys. Very soon she would cheerfully emerge, having written more in an hour than my father would write in a day.
The great critic Northrop Frye, in a discussion of Milton’s elegy Lycidas, made the distinction between real sincerity and literary sincerity. When told of the death of a friend, the poet can burst into tears but he cannot burst into song. I would very cautiously suggest that there is more “song” in women’s fiction – more real sincerity, and less tradition-conscious artifice. This is certainly true of Elizabeth Jane Howard. She was an instinctivist, with a freakishly metaphorical eye and a sure ear for rhythmically fast-moving prose. Kingsley once “corrected” one of Jane’s short stories, regularising her grammar. All his changes were, strictly speaking, technically sound; and all of them, in my view, were marked disimprovements.
Obviously this is a massive generalisation but, if we’re speaking in generalisations, what do you think? I haven’t really spent much time in the company of male writers so I’m not sure how my approach differs to theirs, if at all. I certainly used to write in the erratic fashion described above, but with Corpus I made a considerable effort to take a more methodical approach and I think it was a marked improvement.
I’m interested to hear your reaction to Amis’ thoughts.