5th Week Newsletter: Reporting on Reporting on Death

This week, our sponsorship director Sam is writing about the death of famed writer Martin Amis and the obituaries that have followed the news of his death.

Martin Amis belonged to a golden age of English literature. The group is a familiar one: Rushdie, Fenton and Barnes. His death was something of a surprise. By modern standards, 73 is not particularly old. After all, Henry Kissinger is entering his hundredth year — a handful of heart surgeries have helped along the way. Although mildly unexpected, Amis’ death has sparked a remarkable number of obituaries. He hadn’t published a novel since 2014, but most critics agree that after Time’s Arrow in 1991 and The Information in 1995, they started to lose their sparkle. His most recent work has been essays and autobiography. The outpour of attention is striking; all national broadsheets ran an obituary. A nifty opportunity to compare the craft of each advocate arises. 

Nigel Farndale, the Obituaries Editor of The Times, wrote that they should be “life affirming rather than gloomy, but they should also be opinionated” — a tall order. Amis’ novels are rarely life affirming, more life-affecting. Newspapers adopted different techniques to locate the opinions needed for opinionated writing. Some like The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph turned to literary figures well-known in their own right, their assessment of Amis somehow buoyed up by their own literary credentials. 

Geoff Dyer wrote a thoughtful and noticeably penetrating obituary of the now-deceased enfant terrible of British literature. Comparing Amis to Mick Jagger is a little overwrought, but Dyer embarks upon a biting analysis of the life and literature which escapes the looming risk of superficiality. Howard Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the Booker prize in 2010, wrote a less insightful piece for The Daily Telegraph which dedicated the bulk of its word count to already weathered biographical details. 

Alternatively, The Financial Times and The Times relied on their trusted regulars. The FT obituary was penned by Jan Dalley (Arts Editor) and The Times’ was anonymous. The tactic brings an objectivity which feels reasonably appropriate for what is an inescapably morbid topic. 

Farndale went on to declare that obituaries should leave “the reader with a strong sense of whether the subject lived a good life or bad.” Again, this seems a high bar to set. Amis, caricatured as waspish and even misogynistic — the latter claim often stemmed from a conflation between the cast of characters and the man who created them — has not emerged unscathed from the body of recollections. However, the coverage which was, for me, the most engaging was not an obituary at all. The Today programme interviewed Ian McEwan, who described his friend as tender and ever-generous to the vulnerable. A temperament at odds with the one conjured up by the swarm of pen portraits currently infesting on Martin Amis’ corpse. 

Sam King,
Sponsorship Director

Poll Results:

Our poll this week was on the question of: “Are obituaries still useful?”
The results are: 

YES – 62%
NO – 38%

Recommended Reading

The New York Times: ‘Martin Amis, Acclaimed Author of Bleakly Comic Novels, Dies at 73’

The Guardian: ‘Martin Amis was Mick Jagger in literary form, I was besotted with his electrifying prose’

The Telegraph: ‘Howard Jacobson on Martin Amis: ‘His prose never begged to be loved – you either got it or you didn’t’