Like many male British writers my age, I am engaged in a grotesque Oedipal struggle with Martin Amis. His new collection of journalism, “The Rub of Time,” produced the usual reaction in me: intense, fawning admiration for his wit and verve, interspersed with bursts of contemptuous irritation at some pomposity or other. Annoyingly, for a part-time dabbler, he is one the finest writers of nonfiction in English.
Among the living greats whom I’ve been rereading (that’s the test, isn’t it?) are J. M. Coetzee, Jorie Graham, Alan Hollinghurst, Cormac McCarthy, Hilary Mantel and V. S. Naipaul. Evie Wyld is in her 30s and has published just two novels, but she’s already on the small list of writers whose work I will buy without hesitation as soon as it is published. David Peace lives, like me, in Tokyo, but writes the boldest and most original British fiction of his generation. Jayne Joso has quietly and determinedly produced three novels over the past eight years — her latest, “My Falling Down House,” about a mysteriously alienated young Japanese man, is an unacknowledged gem: subtle, allusive, and deceptively ambitious.
Among the journalists I most admire is Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor and proprietor of the London Review of Books, which succeeds in being authoritative, deadly serious and playful all at the same time. Patrick Cockburn, who publishes much of his best work in the LRB, writes about the Middle East, but is the greatest living foreign correspondent in English, a writer of understated integrity and compassion, with the necessary balance of indignation and detachment.
What are the best books you’ve read recently about contemporary Asia?
I steer clear of books that offer big, overconfident diagnoses of an entire country or continent, written by the kind of “public intellectuals” who congregate in Davos every year. Having said that, “Easternisation” by Gideon Rachman is very good — published just pre-Trump, but offering more reasons to be pessimistic about Asia’s chances of avoiding an appalling war at some point in the next few decades.
And what books do you consider the best historical accounts of Asia?
It’s strictly natural history rather than historical history, but “The Malay Archipelago” by the 19th-century naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace is a singular account of what are now Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s part travel book, part scientific treatise and it captures better than any book I know the spirit of that alluring region.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Apart from Davos super-bores, I avoid what in Britain is called “chick lit” or, even worse, “lad lit.” Anything that hitches itself too closely to a particular readership has failed a crucial test of literature. You’ve got to try to make a broad appeal, or at least not to exclude 50 percent of humanity.
What do you most appreciate in a work of literature? And in nonfiction?
Nonfiction and literature are not exclusive categories. Much of the writing I value the most operates in the overlap between the two. In writing of any kind, the most important qualities are precision, boldness, imagination and flair in the use of language. Everything else — subject matter, plot, “character” — is secondary. It doesn’t matter whether it happened, or is imagined — it just has to read beautifully.
How do you organize your books?
Alphabetically by author, within the following categories: literary periodicals; general fiction and poetry; film and television; criticism; fiction and poetry on, or from, Japan; nonfiction on Japan; nonfiction on other countries; general literary nonfiction; reference books; guidebooks on Japan; guidebooks on other countries; art, photography and design.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
That would depend on how easily surprised they are. People who know me well would be flabbergasted to know that I do actually own a couple of cookery books. I also have two hefty volumes of shunga, exquisite pornographic Japanese prints of the feudal period.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
The most interesting characters are both hero and antihero, aren’t they — sometimes with a touch of villain sprinkled in? Sir Gawain. The eponymous hero of Conrad’s “Lord Jim.” Winston Smith in Orwell’s “1984.” “W. G. Sebald,” the fictional narrator of the works of W. G. Sebald.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
As a boy, I was obsessed with supernatural mysteries all kinds — U.F.O.s, alien abductions, ghosts, people with psychic powers, mysterious animals. I used to conduct my own “investigations” into such phenomena in my local area. (Mostly people who vaguely thought they’d seen a flying saucer — there weren’t many Yetis or cases of spontaneous human combustion in my corner of northwest England). I read Roald Dahl and C. S. Lewis and the rest, but the books that lodged in my mind had titles such as “The World Atlas of Mysteries” and “The Unexplained.” They, and perhaps Hergé’s “Tintin” books, were what made me want to be a journalist.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? The prime minister?
For President Trump: “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia” by Andrei Lankov, the best guide to understanding the Kim regime. Not that it would make any difference at all.
For the British prime minister, Theresa May: “Carry On, Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse. She looks as if she needs a dose of pure escapism, to take her mind off things.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
One of the lessons of literary biography is how egotistical, obnoxious and inadequate many “great” writers are. It’s a dinner party, for Pete’s sake — who needs a babbling drunk like Hemingway, or some preening member of the Bloomsbury “set,” making everyone else feel inadequate? Having said that, I have always wanted to meet the great 18th-century poet and visionary William Blake, who would probably be quite a handful. To counteract his nuttier tendencies, I would invite Geoffrey Chaucer, evidently a droll, humane and tolerant character, who could also bring along a few fascinating medieval delicacies. And, from the 21st century, Jennifer Egan. I don’t know her at all, but judging from her fiction, she is warm, generous, funny and wouldn’t be freaked out if Blake started seeing angels over pudding.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I loved Edward St. Aubyn’s novel “Never Mind,” a droll, tragic account of an abusive family, and the toxic, but hilarious, horrors of the English “upper” classes, and I immediately read the rest of the Patrick Melrose quintet. But the last four books were a disappointment. Instead of being a surgical dissection of snobbery, as the first book was, they were too often a manifestation of it, an expression of resentment and contempt rather than anger and compassion.
Who would you want to write your life story?
As a national newspaper journalist of some years standing, I can probably expect a modest sized obituary in my own newspaper. But I’ll have to do something wonderful, or truly terrible, to earn a biography. If I was to get the full 700-page treatment, I’d want it to be written by someone with the qualities of any good biographer: stamina, patience, empathy, humour, detachment and an ear for language. A woman.
What book hasn’t been written yet that you’d like to read (but not necessarily write yourself)?
“The Zen of Kim: How I Abandoned Totalitarianism and Found Inner — and World — Peace Through Buddhism” by Kim Jong-un.
If there was a little line of type at the bottom of the cover, reading, “As told to Richard Lloyd Parry,” that would be even better.
What do you plan to read next?
“The Adversary” by Emmanuel Carrère.