Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Deconstructing Ian McEwan-envy, the UK and US versions

Beard said, ‘It’s all crap, Toby. Don’t listen. This is the queen’s birthday honours list. She doesn’t choose it, she knows fuck-all about it, and they all scramble to be on it, every booby and arriviste from science and the arts and the civil service who wants to strut about the place hoping to be taken for a member of the minor aristocracy.’

Solar, 2010

Reasons for the widespread hatred of Ian McEwan fall into three categories, as far as I can tell. While I can’t relate to the people positively bludgeoning him for the first of these, I’ve been as irritated as they are by the hyper-inflation of his reputation by marketing gnomes dedicated to generating mountains of cash for his publishers. We must blame these worthies for the McEwan novels that read like superb short stories glued together with monstrous padding, with an eye to profit — because collections of short stories do not sell as well as long-form fiction does.

In the second category, an exclusively British phenomenon, he is accused repeatedly – often by those who have never read a page of his words – of being a member of the ‘middle-class’ only interested in writing about that social segment for other people in it. Presumably, these critics believe that a prominent writer committing this sin is conspiring with others like him – and middle-class publishing executives – to perpetuate their economic advantages at the expense of those further down the social scale. They do make it plain that they consider the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged to be the only legitimate subject for a serious writer of fiction. Why, in other words, doesn’t silly old McEwan see that it’s his job to serve as the Dickens, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Pinter or Jean Genet of the 21st century?

I have a question for these critics: why can’t they understand that there can be no one more devastatingly subversive than a perceptive writer concentrating on the privileged, their beliefs and biases?

Simply by choosing a scientist as his protagonist, and doing science today as his focus — as McEwan has in his latest novel, Solar — a writer in Britain is lobbing a small but deadly grenade at one of the most vicious, deeply rooted prejudices of upper-class England. Reviewing Never Pure, a book about the history of science for the New York Times last month, Katherine Bouton observed:

In the essay titled “The Scientific Person,” the professor shows how science gained from the upper classes’ disdain for learning and the learned. The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, made up of gentlemen one and all, attempted to garner respect for science. But it failed: scientists continued to be seen, as Professor [Steven] Shapin puts it, as “swilling around in human urine,” eliciting a “polite retch reflex.” This left the field open to the rising class of those industrializing Britain.

So science has, in fact, been a critical social leveller – as far as possible from a tool for entrenching middle- and upper-class privilege..

Reviewers have on the whole missed McEwan’s impish commentary in Solar on the war between lovers of science and the humanities – the subject of C. P. Snow’s famous ‘two cultures’ debate. He gives Michael Beard, his book’s lovingly mocked anti-hero — an obese, Nobel prize-winning physicist — a transformative experience at Oxford, where he has arrived as a scholarship boy. To impress Maisie Farmer, the beautiful literature student who has until then resisted all his attempts to persuade her to go out with him – he turns himself into an expert on Milton by buying a one-hour tutorial on the subject from a fellow-student, and then speed-reading for a week. The plan works and, McEwan writes,

… was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however bright, could have passed himself off after a week’s study among the under-graduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard’s colleagues. The traffic was one-way. [. . .] The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily in his course. [ … ] He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to come to terms with some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week. He suspected there was nothing they talked about there that anyone with half a brain could fail to understand. He had read four of the best essays on Milton. He knew. And yet they passed themselves off as his superiors, these lie-a-beds, and he had let them intimidate him.

There’s a sly joke buried there, sinc McEwan himself – though he was never a science student or scientist – is showing off as a rare literary artist proving that the traffic is not necessarily all one-way. He writes so accurately about complex theories in science and medicine that reading some highly technical passages of Solar is about as thrilling as munching on sisal carpeting.

As he never attended Oxford or any other elite university, the charge of smug obliviousness to social discrimination constantly levelled at him is even more baffling.

But bigots will be bigots, as the third category of complaints about him also illustrates. This one is largely an American phenomenon. An online search will show no shortage of his countrymen congratulating Walter Kirn on his crude and atrociously written attack on Solar, extensively quoted on this blog a few weeks ago. Yet any lit-lover who took the time to study last week’s comparison of paragraphs by Kirn and McEwan writing on closely similar subjects would surely agree with Moristotle, a wise, dissenting American who diagnosed ‘a serious case of jealousy’ as the explanation for Kirn’s hatchet-job on a novelist who, I believe, could out-write him sedated and fast asleep.

The gist of Kirn’s complaint was that McEwan writes too well, and is guilty of over-the-top over-writing. Yet in the puff piece he lavished on another novel, the excruciatingly un-funny, cliché-ridden Absurdistan, a review that put it on the NYT’s ten-best-books-of-2006 list, he made elaborate excuses for the same aspiration and flaw, respectively, in a novelist who did not make him feel quite so insecure. About Gary Shteyngart’s collaboration with his own protagonist-narrator, Kirn said:

Shteyngart and Misha, exuberant depressives, don’t stint on the syntax or the verbiage when objects huge and rotten hulk into view. Their thick, overloaded style is what happens, though, when socialist realism decays into black comedy. This is the prose of heroic disappointment, faintly labored at moments but fitted to the task of shoveling up mountains of cultural debris. Hemingway’s clean sentences wouldn’t do here. A man needs commas, semicolons, adjectives. He requires linguistic heavy machinery.

He does, does he? …And yet Kirn would, if he could, forbid McEwan — a sentence-by-sentence master of English prose — the use of any such machinery. Reviewing Shteyngart’s new novel, the NYT’s redoubtable Michiko Kakutani said earlier this week that it ‘avoids the pretensions and grandiosity of Mr. Shteyngart’s last book, “Absurdistan,” … ‘. Well said, Ms. Kakutani.

Jealousy aside, why is Kirn so much more indulgent of Shteyngart’s literary showmanship than McEwan’s? There might have been a clue in this paragraph of an article by Judith Warner in the NYT earlier this month:

A tendency toward anti-intellectualism isn’t new in our country … [I]n his 1962 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” Richard Hofstadter wrote of our culture’s longtime devaluation of the head in favor of the heart and a historic tendency to prefer people and phenomena — educational approaches, types of religious experience — motivated by passion or gut rather than intellect or reason. “Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion,” he wrote. “It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.”

The emotional excessiveness of Shteyngart’s ‘exuberant depressives’ makes him a more sympathetic chronicler of the human condition for a Walter Kirn than someone like McEwan, who cares just as much, but chooses a cooler and more detached stance towards his characters.

The British alternative is neatly encapsulated in a protest against overflowing sentimentality getting in the way of good sense by a prison doctor, Theodore Dalrymple, in the Telegraph earlier this week: ‘Sentimentalists try to make up for a lack of feeling by emotional exhibitionism.’

Wit – black humour – is much preferred in Blighty to Shteyngart’s style of histrionic Russian-American lamentation, extended tantrums and breast-beating.

I wouldn’t ordinarily be wasting time on such odious comparisons. It’s just that putting Kirn’s obtuse butchering of Solar on the front page of the NYT‘s Sunday books section did look a bit too much like an aggressive attempt to bring McEwan to heel, and to impose the American approach to fiction-writing on the world as the model against which all other styles must be judged.

It’s not unlike the persistent attempts by Americans to rewrite the rules for football – not simply re-name a game they don’t know how to win any version of without padding themselves to look like blank, faceless, Egyptian mummies in motion. P.J. Rourke was only half-joking when he whinged in the Wall Street Journal near the end of the World Cup:

“Nil-nil” is not a sports score, “nil-nil” is a foreign policy. Judging by the many successes of the United Nations, it’s a foreign policy favored by the majority of the world’s foreign countries. Of course nil-nil is not an American foreign policy, or wasn’t until we got a president with a suspiciously foreign name. Americans like to win. And, come on global sports fans, you like to win too. In this one respect you’re all Americans at heart. So knock it off with the whole “everybody’s a loser” soccer thing.

No thanks, P.J., go away – we don’t want any… Solar is, by the way, one of the funniest contemporary novels I’ve read for a very long time. One sequence in it could make a short story brilliant enough to make Woody Allen turn chartreuse and weep. It has just two male characters travelling on a train together, and a bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps.

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What will yours be, madam/sir? A Walter Kirn or an Ian McEwan?

A sequel to Anti-Atlanticism: the lynching of Ian McEwan and Tony Judt has been taking shape, but I won’t have time to write it for a day or three. In the meanwhile, …

You are lying beneath shimmering eucalyptus trees, breathing in the invigorating perfume of their leaves, eavesdropping on the shffffffffffrrr-shhhhrrr-shffffffffffrrr of their movements in the caressing breeze … A waiter approaches your deck chair with the e-reader that you have rented with your hotel room. ‘We’re offering our guests a choice of complimentary e-books,’ he says. ‘These are sample paragraphs to help you make your selection. Both novelists are tackling the flitting-about part of today’s work world, the endless airport terminals, the plane rides. . . I’ll be back in ten minutes, …’.

I

Planes and airports are where I feel at home. Everything fellows like you dislike about them – the dry, recycled air alive with viruses; the salty food that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil; the aura-sapping artificial lighting – has grown dear to me over the years, familiar, sweet. I love the Compass Club lounges in the terminals, especially the flagship Denver Club, with its digital juice dispenser and deep suede sofas and floor-to-ceiling views of taxiing aircraft. I love the restaurants and snack nooks near the gates, stacked to their heat lamps with whole wheat mini-pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls. I even enjoy the suite hotels built within sight of the runways on the ring roads, which is sometimes as close as I get to the cities my job requires me to visit.

Up in the Air, Walter Kirn, 2001

II

Half an hour later, the Berlin flight was docked and he was fourth man off, towing his carry-on luggage, walking stiffly at speed, with unmanful little skips and hops (his knees, his body, indeed his mind, were no longer capable of simple running) down the sealed capillaries, the carpeted steel tubes that fed him through the airport’s innards towards the immigration hall. Far quicker to pound alongside the hundred-metre walkway than squeeze by the dreamy, motionless voyagers and their luggage blocking the runs. At least a dozen young men off his plane, hurrying more effectively, overtook him along this stretch, lean, crop-headed business types, raincoats flapping over their forearms, unhindered by their weighty shoulder bags, talking easily as they flew by. An avenue of ads for banking and office services, weakly humorous, effortfully eye-catching – clearly, advertising was an industry for third-raters – increased his irritation in the underventilated, overlit corridors.

Solar, Ian McEwan, 2010

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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?

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