Saturday, March 24, 2007

Is there quicksand on Chesil Beach?

No doubt many more of us will be linking with breathless enthusiasm to this extract from Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel On Chesil Beach. When they do, I hope they also comment. What do readers really think of this? Like Florence in the second paragraph, I'm "mildly incredulous" that this sort of thing is still being written. It's not that it's bad writing. In fact, one can't deny that it's hugely accomplished. But that is, in a way, its deepest problem. In addition to the control-freakery observed by Ellis Sharp last week quoting James Wood, this extract is also cruel, prurient, patronising, glutinous and smug.

Ian McEwan is undoubtedly one of our best writers. It's just that he's not a very good artist.


  1. Anonymous10:39 pm

    Which do you consider of the higher importance in an artist, if you'll permit such crudity; what the artist has to say or the ability to say it? Obviously you want the marriage of both but where I suppose I'm going is that, not having read McEwan and so risking an unfair position, I suspect I have very little interest in what it is he 'has to say', and so regardless of his technical expertise, nothing draws me towards him. There is no magnetic attraction towards some kind of essence of being. 'What he has to say' not to be interpreted in a kind of simple intellectual materialistic sense. Something like Knut Hamsun's Mysteries being perhaps an example of art where something essential being said, though like all great art, this something ultimately elusive to the reasoning intellect.
    Which perhaps amounts to saying I feel the McCewans are lukewarm artists. I have read two pages of some McEwan novel if that's worth anything, which is one page more than my reading of Thomas Pynchon though he's presumably of a different kind of intellectual territory.

  2. Anonymous12:33 pm

    Interesting to see how selectively today's Guardian Review quotes your comment, Mr Mitchelmore! After a single reading, I'm not a fan of On Chesil Beach - something in me resists its immense seriousness. I'm also sceptical about the way that - twice now, after Saturday - McEwan appears to ward off criticism, by writing novels that turn on events initial reviewers won't mention for fear of spoiling the reading experience. Any more thoughts? (I wonder if the distinction you make between writing and art keeps critique at arm's length...) All best.

  3. Is the Guardian's quotation in the paper version only? I haven't seen it.

    I'm not sure what you mean about the distinction (perhaps) keeping critique at bay. I'd be interested to hear more.

    John Banville's criticism of Saturday seemed understated to me. But combine it with Ellis Sharp's brilliant acid-pour at
    And we have the means of putting this suffocating sort of fiction behind us.

  4. Anonymous3:07 pm

    Yep, p. 23 in the paper: '"No doubt many more of us will be linking with breathless enthusiasm to [Guardian Review's] extract from Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel On Chesil Beach," writes Stephen Mitchelmore.' And that's it; is then quoted - 'remarkable that McEwan can paint such a wonderful portrait in such a short space... It's truly a superb work'.

    Banville was terrific I thought - Craig Raine's ad hominem response in the TLS Books of the Year was pretty shocking, especially given his advertised role in Saturday's composition.

    I remember enjoying the Sharp attack on Saturday, and I've just spent a good wee while looking at your own responses to the extracts that appeared pre-publication - could you face reading the entire novel in the end? (Sorry if I missed any post that said so.)

    As far as I can make out - maybe I'm wrong? - your collective beef with McEwan is political as much as anything else. (Or maybe it's as much impatience with the inevitable blindspots of literary journalism and the hype machine, at least as 'suffocating' as the fiction itself.)

    Your original post about the On Chesil Beach extract is much kinder to McEwan than your reply here, or your previous posts about Saturday. Is your writing/art distinction to do with McEwan's apparent lack of interest in staging 'who speaks?' problems? (For want of a better...) When I wondered if your distinction keeps critique at bay, I suppose it was a query about criteria, ultimately.

  5. Anonymous3:12 pm

    Oh - I meant to mention this for some reason re McEwan - it just seemed like the kind of thing that is part of the problem. From a 2005 interview in Der Spiegel:

    SPIEGEL: Your new book, "Saturday," is written in expectation of an act of terrorism. Now it has happened. What was your first thought when you heard it was a terrorist attack?

    McEwan: It confirmed my book.,1518,365767,00.html

  6. First of all, thanks for your response Anthony. Such a relief when one has got used to corner-of-the-mouth comments from “Anonymous”. I'm shocked at the Guardian's use of my quote - above all I hate being misrepresented. I had a look in the library's copy but couldn't see the quote and, worse, saw instead a picture of Emma Brockes on the cover, someone I despise even more than Ian McEwan.

    But onto your comment: If McEwan was solidly anti-war, my beef with his fiction would remain. Yet his politics follows from his fictional practise. It's a kind of imperial string-pulling. There's no doubt or anxiety with the form - real life is trampled underfoot by the all-conquering word machine. The narrator lords it. Some people think that's art; I call it solipsism. One doesn't have to read more than a long extract or a set of competent reviews to see that. (There are people who demand that one must read every last fashionable novel before criticising them, yet the same people seem never to have read one extract or even a review of the books I celebrate - because they get ignored in general - yet they seem happy to label them bone dry, difficult and cerebral).

    It's the same with “Suite Francaise”, almost all mainstream and most “cult” fiction. It all flows from violent, solipsistic appropriation. I'm much more interested in writers who aren't writing fiction because they want to be novelists or to tell stories but because that is the only way of saying what they needed to say. Fiction - writing itself even - then becomes an issue, a question that comes alive between reader and the world.

  7. Anonymous7:34 pm

    Thanks for replying. I don't know about McEwan's politics - as far as I can tell he tries (and probably fails) to have things all ways in Saturday - but I'm not necessarily convinced that they automatically follow from his apparently traditional, uncomplicated narration. Not saying I disagree, just that I don't see how it follows - is this to do with a lack of empathy or ability to transcend lordly height, in your view?

    You might be missing a beauty of an ending in that book, though perhaps you got it from the later reviews. (Blake Morrison writes about it kindly in today's Guardian Review, if you're able to get past the mugshot of Ms Brockes.) The ending is all the better in the paperback, where McEwan or Cape (or both) decided to append Dover Beach - impressively distrustful of its reprint audience.

    I suspect your apparent antipathy towards McEwan is at least in part a reaction to hastily-conceived, written-to-deadline journalism. I absolutely agree about fashion and the excessive concentration on particular novels and novelists, though I'm a bit wary of your 'people who demand that one must read every last fashionable novel before criticising them'. Seems uncharacteristically straw-man for your blog if I may so. (Don't get me wrong, I know it's a Saturday afternoon and I'm not demanding an index of broadsheet idiocy.)

    Do you think anything solipsistic could be construed from your final remarks? (I don't mean this in any adversarial way.) You find Saturday an example of something that could have been written in some other form. But its success - you may have no truck with this - must be something to do with the way most readers like relating to a certain kind of fictionalised debate. A novel like J.M. Coetzee's Slow Man is infinitely less solipsistic by your definition, and yet many readers (my own straw men) would consider it infinitely more so.

    Thanks again for replying.

  8. Thanks again Anthony. I think I've more or less said all I can on this. But two things: the straw man: I work with people who regularly tell me I read difficult cerebral books and that they've never heard of Thomas Bernhard, let alone read him! But yes, it was a bit uncharacteristic of this blog. Still I felt it necessary to pre-empt the herd of independent thinkers rushing to tell me again what I read. In mitigation, as I wrote that comment, Fulham got an injury-time equaliser, making me even more grumpy than usual.

    Second, you're assuming I liked Slow Man! I didn't much. I enjoyed Disgrace more but I wouldn't call it particularly special. “Elizabeth Costello” on the other hand - despite the dull tone, the staged dialogue and weird ending - took the top of my head off. Perhaps this has to do with the way the sincerity or passion of the author impinged on the device of its expression. Coetzee is aware that it's a necessary impingement. So few writers are aware. In my review in this week's TLS I suggested that most people read Harry Potter rather than contemporary fiction because of an attachment to sincerity, even if they no longer believe in what they're reading. They just want to, and pursue the path of least resistance. The grown-up fiction they might be expected to read is either fake in its sincerity or full of annoying postmodern insouciance. It's not hardcore modernism I'm calling for so much as genuine sincerity. In my essay on Richard Ford's trilogy (on ReadySteadyBook) I'm saying something like these three novels are the way they are because Richard Ford wants to tell the truth about his character and the only way he tell that truth is in this form, a displaced monologue. The criticism of he's received, for instance by Maud Newton recently in that fatuous “Tournament of Books” thing in the US, but also the praise, has been profoundly wrongheaded. I'm not even sure Richard Ford is aware of what he's done.

  9. Anonymous12:49 am

    Commiserations over the result - a draw and Villa win tomorrow keeps you in the UEFA hunt though!

    Sorry if I flogged a dead horse with the previous comment re McEwan. Coetzee and 'genuine sincerity' - something to conjure with there eh? I guess you mean the sincerity of the endeavour as a whole. And sorry to assume you liked Slow Man - it just came to mind as a potential example of the kind of fiction you might mean. I preferred Elizabeth Costello too (far more moving than the bloodless book many newspaper reviews described). Youth is my favourite just now I think.

    I've never read any Harry Potter. Am I missing out? (One day.)

    Thanks for the RSB tip - I'll look it up. Very best.

  10. I agree with half of this assessment, I personally found the extract lacked any style. There's no rhythm here, no life. It's being acclaimed for being drab, as if this drabness constitutes an achievement. Is there anybody writing fiction more ponderous, more humorless, than McEwan? This doesn't sing of life, it mimes.



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