Two years ago, you had a very public disagreement with Hitchens’s close friend Martin Amis.
For a long time, they were quite divergent politically: Hitchens was still some kind of socialist and Amis was vehemently anti-communist in an uninteresting, cold war kind of way. But they’ve since converged. And now they’re old cronies backing each other up – instant responses to attacks on the other.
I’m interested in the way a whole stratum of the liberal literati (Rushdie, to some extent Ian McEwan, A C Grayling, obviously Amis and Hitchens) – the very people you’d have expected to be guardians of the liberal flame of tolerance and understanding – have, at the very first assault, rushed into these caricatured postures driven by panic. I’m very struck by how those who are making ugly, illiberal, supremacist noises about the superiority of the west are precisely the sort of literary and liberal characters from whom you’d expect more imagination, openness and sensitivity.
Your book Literary Theory (1983) has sold almost a million copies. Do you enjoy writing for lay audiences?
I enjoy popularisation and I think I’m reasonably good at it. I also think it’s a duty. It’s just so pedagogically stupid to forget how difficult one found these ideas oneself to begin with. And I think it’s dismaying how small a patch there is for public intellectuals – particularly public intellectuals of the left. I value journalistic platforms as a way of extending beyond academia. You’ve got to have a sense of different audiences. I’m a kind of performer manqué – I come from a long line of failed actors!
Read the full interview here.
The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue , a book of interviews with Matthew Beaumont.