Here’s Ian McEwan on the literary blogosphere:
I don’t read the blogs much. I don’t like the tone-the rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet. I don’t like the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism. It seems that when people know they can’t be held accountable, when they don’t have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn’t belong in the world of book reviewing.
I don’t agree with this but I’m not surprised McEwan doesn’t like blogs as he seems to be an object of hate for most of them.
Most of the vitriol is directed at McEwan’s novel Saturday, which deals with a day in the life of a neurosurgeon.
There are many legitimate criticisms of the novel. The twist at the end is unrealistic and sentimental, Perowne’s children are irritating and McEwan tends to over-describe – as Ellis Sharp said, we don’t need a sixteen-page squash match. Apart from this, though, I enioyed the book – a decent read by a good, but not great, author.
However, the criticism McEwan gets from the Brit Lit Blogs is not so much for his writing but for his politics. Saturday is set on the day of the 2003 antiwar march, and McEwan’s protagonist is not totally convinced by the antiwar case. He has treated an Iraqi doctor who has been tortured by Saddam, and feels that war is the only way to get rid of the fascist regime.
These are the passages that really annoyed the Brit Lit Blogs:
“Not in My Name” goes past a dozen times. Its cloying self-regard suggests a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumers of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice. Henry prefers the languid “Down with This Sort of Thing.” A placard of one of the organizing groups goes by—the British Association of Muslims. Henry remembers that outfit well. It explained recently in its newspaper that apostasy from Islam was an offense punishable by death.
All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think – and they could be right – that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view.
These passages confirm McEwan as one of the Blitcons. Like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, McEwan is an imperial propagandist, writing in the service of the war machine, justifying the crushing of all other cultures with the jackboot of Western rationalism. According to Ziauddin Sardar, he shares a belief that ‘American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world.’
Of course McEwan’s readers among the public, the critics who review his work favourably and the judges who shortlist him for prizes are too stupid to see this hidden agenda. Only a handful of literary bloggers are smart enough to see what is really going on.
Even before Saturday was published, retired blogger Ellis Sharp confessed that he was feeling ‘apprehensive’ about the novel:
The Saturday in question is Saturday February 15th 2003, when somewhere between one and two million people marched through central London to a rally in Hyde Park to protest against the impending war on Iraq by the Bush and Blair governments. It was the biggest demonstration in London’s history. Around the world an estimated 35 million people marched against the impending war that day. The Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy called it “The most spectacular display of public morality the world has ever seen.”
But it looks as if that display is about to be mocked by one of Britain’s leading and most highly-regarded writers, if an extract from Ian McEwan’s forthcoming novel ‘Saturday’ published recently in The New Yorker is anything to go by.
The main protagonist’s views on the Iraq war in ‘The Diagnosis’ – an extract from an early section of ‘Saturday’ – appear to parallel those of Ian McEwan.
Sharp then babbles on for a couple of thousand words, dismissing the Iraqi interim government as a fascist Vichy regime (eight million Iraqis went to the polls a couple of weeks after his post was written) taking in a vicious two-para ramble about Israel that is of little or no relevance to McEwan at all, and claiming without evidence that McEwan spent the eve of war at an official dinner with George W Bush. Ironically for a blogger, he describes McEwan’s views as ‘couch-potato politics.’
When he finally returns to McEwan’s fiction, it’s to repeat the schoolboy error in book reviewing of confusing author and protagonist:
Henry Perowne witnesses the marchers gathering for the great anti-war rally and finds their “general cheerfulness…baffling”. He thinks “The scene has an air of innocence and English dottiness.”
Maybe McEwan is being ironic here. Maybe we are supposed to perceive Perowne as complacent and self-satisfied. But I suspect not entirely. I think these are probably McEwan’s own views.
Of course, Sharp concedes, ‘It would be unfair to condemn a novel which hasn’t yet been published and which I haven’t yet read.’
By February 5 he has read the book, and produced a 5,500-word tirade against it. The opening paragraphs sum up the whole post.
This is a novel which is set entirely on 15 February 2003, the day of the great London anti-war march.
Not a single character in this novel goes on the march.
Later on, we get:
‘Saturday’ is a novel for liberals who didn’t go on the march (and I have yet to read a review of the novel or hear or watch a discussion of it that engages with the question of whether or not the critic participated in that march. My guess is that probably not a single one of them did.)
In one section of the left this has become a litmus test of morality. If you went on the Grand March you’re good, if you didn’t you aren’t. Membership of the club rests on participation in a dubious exercise of street politics that made absolutely no difference to government policy.
Later – much later – there is a kind of summing up:
‘Saturday’, is, then, a novel about anxiety. It is in the great tradition of the nineteenth century bourgeois liberal novel, when affluent, talented writers were terrified of the idea that their whole way of life was under threat by dark, destructive forces. Back then the threat was from working-class radicalism. The image of workers gathered together for political purposes sent a shiver down the spine of novelists like George Eliot, whose vision of the proletariat was that of a terrifying mob, a “mass of wild chaotic desires and impulses”. Dickens in ‘Hard Times’ suggested that those who suffered under capitalism should respond with dignified restraint, in heroic isolation. Nothing as vulgar as politics should intrude. Henry James in ‘The Princess Casamassima’ proposed that the major motive of political radicals was envy and suggested that the only decent destiny of a thinking militant was to see through the sham of revolutionary politics and commit suicide. (Thanks, Henry.) The actions of Al-Qaeda have, alas, soured the agreeable quality of suicide as an apt political destiny, and even when liberals with a capital ‘L’ do something so liberal as to empathise with the state of mind of Palestinians who detonate themselves beside Israelis, they quickly find, as Jenny Tonge did, that the liberal – or Liberal – imagination is suddenly a very narrow and slyly calculating one.
Equating the working class radicals of the nineteenth century with the conservative, well-funded Saudi rich boys of Al-Qaeda is a grotesque insult.
This stuff is often recycled on This Space and RSB without criticism. It’s interesting to read – it’s like a road-map of the reactionary left. All the features are there – a parochial habit of putting domestic preferences before internationalism, a weird obsession with Israel, and a hatred of liberalism that would rival Fox News.
But let’s hear what McEwan has to say.
“There’s always been a part of the left whose dominant impulse is anti-imperialism. And that’s where a lot of the energy I think came from in the anti-war protest here. And there’s another part of the left whose driving force is anti-totalitarianism. And the anti-totalitarians were, I think, a minority, and among themselves and within themselves, deeply split. I mean, by the week before the invasion I really was in a sweat, thinking this is a TERRIBLE mistake.” Now, he thinks the whole adventure has been “a disaster. An absolute disaster. It would have been a lot better to have done nothing than to do it badly.”
On the Blitcons article:
A review of On Chesil Beach by Natasha Walter in this paper recently drew a sharp letter of riposte, for what he saw as a conflation of his characters’ politics with his own. He had already been stung by another piece, reprinted from the New Statesman, “making out Salman [Rushdie], Martin [Amis] and myself to be some kind of wing of American foreign policy. I mean, it was incredibly stupid. And it felt to me like Natasha Walter had decided I was on the political right, and she was virtuous and I wasn’t, and that she was good and I was bad.”
People felt very uncomfortable because I painted this exaggerated version of themselves, really. Henry is really the fat contented western man, they themselves are fat contented western people. And it was a mirror, in a sense, like Caliban’s mirror, and it made people feel enraged. So I’m completely unapologetic about that – that was always the premise – I mean, I’ve had fantastic unhappiness in my private life, as the clippings will tell you – Henry does not.
My views have not changed substantially; the renovation or replacement of Trident is a waste and a folly; I am sceptical about the proposal to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in the cause of limiting CO2 emissions when we have an adequate, safe, untapped nuclear facility 93m miles away.
Here McEwan gets to the nub of the matter.
I sometimes wonder whether these common critical confusions arise unconsciously from a prevailing atmosphere of empowering consumerism – the exaltation of the subjective, the “not in my name” syndrome. It certainly seems odd to me that such simple precepts need pointing up: your not “liking” the characters is not the same as your not liking the book; you don’t have to think the central character is nice; the views of the characters don’t have to be yours, and are not necessarily those of the author; a novel is not always all about you.
Try telling that to the bloggers, Ian…
Update: Ellis Sharp has pointed out a mistake in this post.
I wrote that Ellis ‘claim[ed] without evidence that McEwan spent the eve of war at an official dinner with George W Bush.’ This is not true. In fact he wrote in January 2005 that:
McEwan’s own personal journey from left to right led him to Number 10 Downing Street on 20 November 2003. While 100,000 people marched through central London protesting against the visit of the warmonger Bush, McEwan was enjoying the reception at Number 10 for the President and his wife.
He doesn’t give evidence but the story is confirmed here (thanks to Anthony Cummins for the link). As Ellis says, I have confused two different dates and occasions.
My apologies to Ellis Sharp.