Who is Britain’s greatest living author?


Clockwise from top left: Amis, Pinter, Naipaul, Rushdie, Rankin, Stoppard, Rowling and Hornby (in the centre).

If Martin Amis isn’t Britain’s greatest living author, who is? asks the Guardian today. Amis is certainly the flashiest. His brilliance with words simply dazzles. No one comes close except Salman Rushdie, whose name also came up in the random survey of writers, critics and booksellers.

But Rushdie has moved to the US. Still, Amis has plenty of competition. The biggest contenders whose names came up most frequently in the survey were Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul. Two of them have won the Nobel prize. But Pinter and Stoppard are playwrights. My choice would be a novelist.

I would choose Naipaul over Amis. Not just because I am an Indian. Naipaul has been around much longer and has covered a lot more ground, starting when Amis’ father, Kingsley, was the famous writer in the family. Naipaul is a great writer in every sense, not just a story teller but a social critic like Dickens or Tolstoy.

Amis is also more than a novelist. I haven’t read his criticism but have read his pieces on the War on Terror. Some may not like it, but he isn’t afraid to speak up.

Still, I wouldn’t call him Britain’s greatest living author for one simple reason: He can be heartless. Think of books like Money and London Fields. There’s no question about their brilliance. London Fields stands the whodunnit formula on its head. But it also shows a cruel streak. Some of the characters are treated with such utter contempt it becomes tiresome: Why write about them at such length at all unless one got a kick out of savagely ridiculing them? Satirists do that. But compare London Fields with Catch 22 and the difference is striking. Catch 22 is funny, not London Fields.

No wonder Amis is a sharply polarising figure — the Hillary Clinton of the literary world — equally hated and admired. (The same may be said of Rushdie. I prefer him to Amis.)

Interestingly, JK Rowling was also named by some in the survey as one of Britain’s best living authors. She wasn’t the only popular writer to make the list. So did Nick Hornby and Ian Rankin. Hornby is funny. I love Rankin.

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