Anti-Atlanticism: the lynching of Ian McEwan and Tony Judt

The American War of Independence

Curiously regressive behaviour?

Tip-toeing in after an absence of a few months feels like becoming the ghost of un blog perdu. Haunting has a touch of the illicit about it, doesn’t it? — and I should be not here but scrabbling at the coal face. The same irresistible force behind my first comment on the net four years ago has put springs into these blog-tapping digits. It’s the hope of finding others who have noticed odd behaviour going unremarked in life offline, as far as I can tell.

Why has the Sunday book review section of The New York Times taken to attacking British writers with unique savagery? Discovering two particularly egregious examples in the same spring in which the phrase ‘anti-Atlanticist’ has gained traction in political commentary has me wondering which came first, a cooling ‘special relationship’ in diplomacy evolving into mutual disdain, or growing, widespread cultural friction reflected, now, in barbaric literary scalping?

The first review invites the question of whether the venerable NYT books section is trying to imitate very angry or deranged bloggers to sound younger and less stuffy. Its target was Ian McEwan. Assiduous hyping by his publishers has made this almost mathematically elegant, if uneven, writer the object of bloggers’ bile in direct proportion to the excessive praise lavished on his work by his promoters. But surely the NYT has a reputation for weighed words to protect?

In late April, a front-page critique in the Sunday review of McEwan’s new book, Solar, by the American novelist Walter Kirn read like the sort of baffling murder in which a victim is stabbed often and unnecessarily enough to become a mortuary reminder of Emmental cheese. Were the reviewer and his editors suffering from acute short-term memory lapses or desperate for some NoDoz when they failed to notice how redundant most of Kirn’s complaints were?

That might be obvious from a simple listing of metaphors he used — describing the book as (1) the work of a talented but dull architect; (2) a literary exam; (3) a corpse; (4) a crossword puzzle; (5) a diagram; (6) a culinary disaster wrought by an incompetent cook; (7) a lesson plan.

Here are some choice extracts:

… Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.

[…] What makes “Solar” such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess.

[…] Because a fictional character can exhibit only so much awareness of his own thematic utility, Beard [the novel’s protagonist] doesn’t notice any of this, merely regarding himself as a colorful eccentric. But readers will see him for what he is: a figure so stuffed with philosophical straw that he can barely simulate lifelike movement.

There’s little that’s lifelike about “Solar,” despite its relentless pretensions to relevance.

[…] The sequence occasions much calculated zaniness, none of it surprising or spontaneous, most of it as dreary as a diagram.

[…] Beard’s fall is at once so generic and so contrived that its climax feels neither inevitable nor cathartic but, rather, overbearing and schematic.

[…] This fine flourish of scatology is not only verbally overripe … but it doesn’t describe a smear of fecal matter.
In “Solar,” McEwan’s Cordon Bleu prose is like that: a buttery, rich sauce ladled onto overcooked, dry meat to help readers swallow an otherwise indigestible meal.

[…] The long-awaited disaster stands revealed as the last phase of a carefully crafted lesson plan.

I’m still trying to work out what ‘a quotient of stress-free mastery’ could mean, and whatever it does, what that might have to do with McEwan’s novel. Two protests from readers about Kirn’s hostility ran in the NYT’s books section the following week. ‘The tone was so venomous and vitriolic, it read as if a personal vendetta were taking place on the front page …,’ complained Elmera Goldberg from New York. Mary Vaughn Blake in Massachusetts said that in forty-eight years of reading the section ‘I don’t recall another [review] quite as hate-filled.’

Like McEwan’s American fans racing to his defence, supporters of a more vulnerable victim of the NYT’s book-vetters have expressed their distress about the treatment of Ill Fares the Land, a dissection of capitalism’s destructive effects on society by the superb British historian Tony Judt on May 2. At least half a dozen times in the last ten years I have guessed — correctly — that some old and famous writer in close touch with New York literati must be fatally ill from the startlingly uncritical and reverential, if not canonical, tone of an interview with, or assessment of a book by, that author. Far from any such consideration, the editors of the NYT books section sanctioned a clumsily personal blast at Judt, even after he revealed that he is gravely ill, too young, with ALS.

That review’s closing paragraph says,

Judt, the immigrant, should know. He has done better in America in terms of access and fame than an American of the same calibre would have done in Sweden or Germany. It is still easier to escape from the slums of America than from the banlieues of France.

But Judt did not come to the US as an impoverished immigrant. He is not American but British (as far as Wikipedia or I know) – simply, a British expatriate.

If he were an immigrant –as the reviewer and the NYT’s fact-checking department imagine – he would apparently have forfeited the right to criticise the staggering growth in income equality in the world’s richest country. Blogging at the Huffington Post, Don Agin said:

Who but the New York Times would assign a foreign conservative hack to review a new liberal anti-capitalism book by Tony Judt? The reviewer, Josef Joffe, is a former publisher-editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit. […] The choice […was…] unfortunate and silly […]. It may get the New York Times some attention, but it acts against the good of the public. Next time choose a centrist to review a book on the left or right.

[…]Joffe says Judt offers a very old idea: the “virtue of collective action for the collective good.”

Well, yes. But does the fact that it’s an “old idea” lessen its import? Joffe thinks so.

Judt is just as critical of Blighty as of the land of Uncle Sam. His book sets out some stunning numbers – of which the Walmart statistics are among the most obscene markers of inequality in the modern West that I have ever seen:

The greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference have resurfaced in the US and the UK: epicenters of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism. Although countries as far apart as New Zealand and Denmark, France and Brazil have expressed periodic interest in deregulation, none has matched Britain or the United States in their unwavering thirty-year commitment to the unraveling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight.

In 2005, 21.2 percent of US national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners. Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee. Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the US population: 120 million people.

The UK too is now more unequal—in incomes, wealth, health, education, and life chances—than at any time since the 1920s.

Now, that is an extract from the book that ran in the New York Review of Books, whose standing among New York intellectuals is far higher than the NYT’s, and understandably envied by the newspaper’s book editors. Joffe himself goes out of his way to remind us of that fact in his first paragraph:

But unless the reader belongs to the choir to which Tony Judt preaches — call it the Europhile liberal left, who would rather sell their Prius than forgo their New York Review of Books — …

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the NYT reviewer and his prose doctors would rise above juvenile rivalry to give Judt the respect that a widely-admired scholar and public intellectual deserves – or at least, refrain from directing such a poorly argued screed at what could be his valedictory offering.

It would have been so easy for the editors to find a dozen reviewers with the credentials to write a measured, elegant and riveting assessment of Judt’s book that it’s hard not to suspect that something more powerful even than jealousy lay behind their choice of critic – and failure to demand a rewrite. Could that possibly be a reflection of ‘the anti-Britainism in Washington’ further north and east? Even supposing that the McEwan and Judt reviews were retaliation for the literary equivalent of latter-day redcoats eviscerating some American novelist — or novelists — dear to their hearts, couldn’t the skewering have been done gracefully, humanely, and with even the smallest thimbleful of wit?



Filed under Criticism, Editors and editing

10 responses to “Anti-Atlanticism: the lynching of Ian McEwan and Tony Judt

  1. ISA

    As a deranged blogger myself I know there is something very satisfying about letting rip.

    And I don’t like McEwan and I haven’t read him, though I have heard that Atonement is wel written and the story absorbing.

    But coming off my deranged blogger high I find it difficult to go back to the Guardian. I’ve lost my respect for it. Familiarity breeds contempt.

    So I pick up the TLS a lot and read it through and that doesn’t satisfy me either because there is usually a right wing political agenda behind most of the literary criticism.

    You can have any kind of review you want so long as it’s blue.

    It is as if underpinning many interesting screes about this or that book are very uninteresting views of the world, and they leak into the writing.

    All these poets who admire Seamus Heany, for example. They do so because he buids words into fresh pictures with sound and texture and he does so effectively but what is he saying in the end.

    In the end he is conventional and limited in his outlook and his well crafted poems cannot contain more than this conventionality and limitation. They conjour and evoke but they can only conjour and evoke the bounded musing of an old Irish intellectual.

    And Ian McEwan too. The bounded musing of an establishment author writing from a mind like a drawing room. What offends are the claims to universalism of writers who represent the parrochial, anti-intellectual British establishment.

    As if the principle of least intellectual effort for most reward governs the writing of people like Amis and McEwan and this they try to pass off as restraint and unpretentiousness.

    It’s as if they are pulling a fast one.

    How little the old men of empire were interested in the countries they administered. How they looked down at India and the Middle East. How they regarded the Ingigenous Americans and Aborigines and Hottentots as subhuman.

    These are your cosmopolitan, universalists. And this is why they are offensive. They are not universalists at all. They piss from a height. Pissing from a height may give you a broader perspective. The literary representatives of the British establishment have always had a broad perspective.

    But pissing from a great height also makes you a piss artist.

    I think, Wordy, it’s not about an irrational prejudice against “British” writers I think an hyper aggressive attack on writers like McEwan and Amis is long overdue.

    Puncture them and cast them aside, I say!

  2. How can I hold my own in a discussion about Ian McEwan with a comrade who has the decisive advantage of never having read any of his books? …………………… !

    Can’t say more than that at the moment, @ISA, as I have travelled a few hundred miles since I wrote the post, but thank you … and I’ll attempt a reply as soon as I can.

    I see that I also owe @Suzan and a new blogger, @Howard, a reply from my period in purdah. . .

  3. Sorry, @ISA … and for other missing replies … was on my way to answering when I came upon the subject of the next post.

    Back as soon as I can be …

  4. @ISA, I have read McEwan’s short stories – enough to be sure that that’s where his real gift lies – and at least four of his novels. The one male character he’s treated most tenderly is Robbie, the hero of Atonement – who happens to be the clever son of someone like the head gardener or groundskeeper (or ???) on a country estate. He gets booted off that estate after he falls passionately in love with the eldest daughter of the family that employs his father. McEwan’s story sides with him all the way through the consequences that unfold. . . So why do people think that McEwan is a flag-bearer for the upper-middles or middle-middles in our tedious, neverending class wars?

    McE went to the University of East Anglia, didn’t he? … so it isn’t as if he had a privileged education, and I don’t believe he has or has ever claimed to have blue blood. So what’s the fuss about? … I mean, what would a super-Marxist really have on him if he had time to read his books? (Enjoyed your post, even though I lost my faith in all the ideologies young. . .would have said so on your site if you hadn’t made it so hard to post comments there. Why???)

    … And no, I don’t agree that it’s a good thing to see the NYT imitating bloggers merely letting off steam in its book review section. Like other newspapers, it’s hoping to hang on to its status as an authoritative voice – and doing this is at least one half of what they must to survive. If they let their standards collapse and their reviewers read like repetitious loons, why should any of us waste our time reading them? … Well, I can only speak for myself… You sound as if you like Kirn’s review so much that you’re ready to buy a subscription … [ahem :)]

    .. , On the NYT and British writers. All I’m offering are impressions, of course, and I wish that you and Teresa had ever lived here – because that could give us a basis for comparison. . . In the 1980s, the NYT and the rest of the NY literary establishment were embarrassingly Anglophile to the most extreme degree. The NYT does everything so deliberately that I do think that there is _some_ pattern in the treatment of McEwan and Judt, if nothing I could prove. . . There’s an odd coincidence not just with the anti-Atlanticist drift in geopolitics I’ve mentioned in my post but this, about Hollywood – and never mind that it’s in the paper it’s in:

    … [U]ntil the end of the Cold War the natural heavy in most Hollywood movies with an international theme was identified as Russian, whatever the nationality of the actor playing him.

    With the coming of Glasnost, however, Hollywood thought it politically expedient to look elsewhere for bad guys, and so they chose us, though it’s hard to see the logic in this decision.

    After all, we were supposed to be a friend of the U.S., what with our pathetic belief in ‘the special relationship’ and our leaders obediently doing the bidding of America’s leaders.

    But maybe deep-grained tribal memories come into play. Is it possible that, perhaps through the teaching of history in schools, Americans have a brooding resentment of the lordly way we used to rule our colonies there, and the ‘taxation without representation’ that led to the Boston Tea Party and the American War of Independence?

    Far-fetched? Well, not necessarily …

    Now, that ran five days after I posted my protest. . . Must be something in all these independent reports, don’t you think?

    … Not much point in answering the old comments @Suzan and @Howard were kind enough to post … just because I’m back as a phantom, why should they be?

  5. ISA


    As you are only about very rarely I should set up an alert to let me know when you post a reply otherwise we will be endlessly apologising to each other for failing to reply promptly.

    Do you really think I should actually read I am McEwan before I criticised him. Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of my boycott.

    He’d be laughing all the way to the bank with his royalties.

    My vote goes to keeping accacciatura alive and kicking.

  6. Well that sounds like a good idea, @ISA … much appreciated. I can only post here when I can. That hasn’t been possible, lately:

    (1) mysterious rash, possibly caused by spider bite
    (2) small flood: plumber, … sopping, mopping, etc. …
    (3) a long-overdue visit from my favourite family member

  7. Pingback: What will yours be, madam/sir? A Walter Kirn or an Ian McEwan? « acciaccature

  8. Pingback: Deconstructing Ian McEwan-envy, the UK and US versions « acciaccature


  10. Sorry for being so slow to let your comment through, @tom dengler, I’ve been — and mostly still am — hors de combat. Just haven’t been checking in here at all, I’m afraid.

    Yes I agree that they make an odd combination — one standing out for cerebral super-detachment. the other passionately engagé — even though I am still sure that the points I’ve made in that post are legitimate. Not always the case. Reading some old entries in this blog I think, oh no … no. no … etc..

    As for TD’s frame: aren’t all framings just someone saying, ‘What if we looked at it all like this?’

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