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Modern Brit lit is “worthless,” while U.S. readers are “profoundly bored.”

July 29, 2010

Ian McEwan: Not your year, pal.

In the same week the Man Booker long list spurned their latest novels, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan have been dismissed as “hollow” by a leading British professor. Meanwhile, McEwan blames the chilly reception to Solar on Americans’ “profound boredom with climate change.”

God, I love the smell of fried egos in the morning.

I’d like to think Americans are profoundly bored with Ian McEwan, my nominee for the most overrated serious novelist on our overheating planet, but that can’t be so. I have too many otherwise intelligent and well-read friends who adore him.

One of these is the Miami Herald‘s Connie Ogle, with whom I’ve had many pleasant shout-downs over the (de)merits of McEwan’s Saturday–to me a wretchedly inauthentic novel. But even so ardent a McEwan partisan as Connie found fault with Solar — not for its subject matter but for its “broad” and “sophomoric” satire.

Speaking at a U.K. festival last week, McEwan admitted being “knocked off my pedestal” by the “passionate dislike” many American readers and critics expressed for Solar, a comic novel about a fading scientist who tries to cash in on the global warming crisis.

“They just didn’t want to hear about [climate change] any more,” McEwan said, according to the London Telegraph, “they were sick to the teeth. I think there was a strong element of that.”

He added, with a laugh: “Or maybe it was no good, there was always that possibility.”

With that laugh, McEwan is sharing a joke with his British audience: Of course it can’t be that I, Ian McEwan, a six-time Man Booker finalist, could ever write a not-so-good novel. Perish the thought!

Oh ho, on the contrary: Gabriel Josipovici, the former Weidenfeld professor of comparative literature at Oxford University, says it’s unlikely McEwan — or contemporaries like Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie or Jonathan Barnes — have written any good books at all.

According to the Guardian, Josipovici says these titans of modern Brit lit are mere technicians who writes novels with “a lack of vision and limited horizons,” thereby squandering the rich modernist tradition that spawned them.

“They all tell stories in a way that is well crafted,” Josipovici says, “but that is almost the most depressing aspect of it — a careful craft which seems to me to be hollow.”

Josipovici’s provocative remarks may not be entirely disinterested: He’s plumping for a forthcoming book of his own, What Ever Happened to Modernism?

And Josipovici shares with McEwan a dispiriting and elitist readiness to blame the press and public: “It’s an ill-educated public being fed by the media – ‘This is what great art is’ – and they lap it up.”

If Gabe and I were at a cocktail party, this is the point where I’d be casting over his shoulder for someone less tiresome to talk to.

Whatever the reason, this year’s Man Booker long list spurned massively promoted new novels by Amis, McEwan and Rushdie. Plenty of familiar literary heavyweights remain, though, like two-time winner Peter Carey, Rose Tremain and David Mitchell.

Former poet laureate Andrew Motion, chair of the judging committee, said the panel made an attempt to set aside literary reputation and judge the novels on their individual merits. I say: Good for you, Andy.

The Man Booker short list will be announced Sept. 7, with the winner revealed Oct. 12.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    July 29, 2010 11:26 am

    Has Martin Amis said anything about his Man Booker rejection, or is he just playing it cool because he’s Martin Amis? I like ‘The Information,’ which is the only book of his I’ve read. It has two interesting villians in a failed writer and a well-read goon the writer hires to do bad things to a literary rival. It’s caustic as hell, but funny a lot of time in a very bleak way. In any event, I cordially invite those silly gits McEwan and Josipovichi to bugger off. I love British insult slang.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 29, 2010 3:08 pm

      Yes, the Brits do have great slang. I selcom have occasion to call anyone a “git,” though I want to so very badly. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of opportunities (“git: foolish or contemptible person”), but the jargon does not roll off my American tongue, more’s the pity.

  2. Connie permalink
    July 29, 2010 1:27 pm

    If there were ever two novels that did not deserve accolades, they are McEwan’s Solar and Amis’ The Pregnant Widow. Both actually qualify as bad novels, in fact. They’re both tiresome in the extreme.

    And as for Americans not wanting to hear about climate change or other unpleasant things as a reason for rejecting Solar: I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s upcoming Freedom, one whopping great book, and it not only touches on climate change but wholesale environmental destruction of the planet, species being driven to extinction by overpopulation and our inability to do anything about it. Strangely, I was not put off by this at all. Because the novel is wonderful.

    Solar was not.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 29, 2010 3:09 pm

      You like the new Franzen? Godammit. After the self-important and redundant bloat that was The Corrections, I was hoping for less…

  3. Connie permalink
    July 29, 2010 1:27 pm

    I disagree with the Oxford prof, though. Come on. You’re telling me London Fields isn’t a great novel!?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 29, 2010 3:11 pm

      I concur. Methinks Mr. Professorman is playing the PR card a little too frenetically…

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 29, 2010 2:48 pm

    Rest assured I will not read that book!

  5. Connie permalink
    July 29, 2010 3:53 pm

    Chauncey. I loved The Corrections! Perhaps you won’t like this new one then.

  6. July 29, 2010 3:58 pm

    McEwan’s excuse for the failure of Solar is beyond lame. It’s a crippled effort to blame the weather. Subject matter has nothing at all to do with Solar’s failure. Apocalyptic novels like Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and McCarthy’s The Road have sold so well not because of the subject, but because they’re brilliantly written. I read a McEwan novel, Enduring Love, and was riveted by the opening in which a man falls from a balloon high in the sky. I thought, yeah that’s good, this McEwan knows what he’s doing. BUT the rest of the book was staggeringly unbalanced and lacking in imagination, some sort of stalker-type thing. I didn’t believe a word of it. Haven’t picked up a McEwan since. Life is too short and worthy novels abound.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 29, 2010 4:51 pm

      Obviously, given my oft-stated antipathy for all things McEwan, I agree completely, Duff. On top of what you say, I’ve found that serious novelists, even (or especially) the most accomplished frequently fail badly when they turn their pens to humor. One case in point: Mark Helprin’s pitiful Freddy and Fredericka, “a misbegotten satire of the British royal family.” Or so said one smart aleck when it came out in 2005:

      http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2005-09-04/entertainment/0508310861_1_freddy-mark-helprin-fredericka/

      Life is short and worthy novels abound: Wise words, my friend.

      • July 29, 2010 8:55 pm

        Chauncey, I’ve nearly finished Wolf Hall and truly I love it so much I don’t want it to end, a rare flare for me. I would never have known of Mantel’s book if it wasn’t for you. Lordy, I’m in love with her now and will read anything she writes. If you know her, please tell her she has a major fan fanning his face everytime he comes across lines like these: As fate had it, there was no battle in Putney. For the outriders and escapees, the women were ready with bread knives and razors, the men to bludgeon them with shovels and mattocks, to hollow them with adzes and to spike them on butchers’ steels. Etc Etcicero. “To hollow them with adzes” Jesus, that’s priceless. The whole book is priceless, the best thing I’ve read in years. Blessings upon you. And Mantel.

  7. July 29, 2010 9:03 pm

    OMG I just read the Helpren review. Where is the razor? Time to slit the author’s throat. Actually, I’ve had reviews nearly as bad. When Too Cool came out the Washington Post said “The Hero is a Zero!” I laugh about it now, but I didn’t laugh about it then.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 30, 2010 9:25 am

      If writers had a whit of common sense, they wouldn’t read reviews. Where’s the profit? As Philip Caputo told me in an interview at the dawn of my book reviewing days, a positive review can be as upsetting as a negative one. On the other hand, no one with a whit of common sense would be a writer anyhow…

  8. Connie permalink
    July 30, 2010 11:58 am

    Duff, loved your comments about Enduring Love. Absolutely mesmerizing first chapter. And then it falls apart. A shame. Still, I love Atonement and Black Dogs and will defend them accordingly…

  9. August 1, 2010 2:00 am

    You want see climate change up front and personal? try ”polar cities”, here:
    http://pcillu101.blogspot.com

    as for Man Booker prize this, simple: it’s David Mitchell, finally. That guy rock! Watch…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 2, 2010 12:42 am

      Danny, I think you may be right about Mitchell. We’ll know come October.

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