Saturday, September 01, 2007

"McEwan Problem" and Overlooked Books

There is a strange article in The Independent by John Sutherland defending Ian McEwan. I was particularly struck by this bizarre comment. I don't know if it was meant seriously or written for comic effect:

The British do some things supremely well. Novels – the writing and making of them – is one such thing. If we did cars as well, we'd be Japan. If we did sport as well, we'd be the old communist German Democratic Republic with its drugs and all. If we did three-course meals as well, we'd be France.

The long and short of it is, we're world-beaters when it comes to fiction. And McEwan is the best novelist we've got. Or have had for decades.

Even if we limit ourselves to just the anglophone world, it is the American fiction which has consistently been more daring, more inventive and more willing to take risks and tackle big and serious questions. Really weird.

I have read a few books by McEwan and liked them (except Amsterdam) but my interest in him has gone down considerably over the past more than a year or so after being exposed to so many more inventive and challenging writers from around the world. I am sure if I read Atonement now I will find it dull and conventional (not badly-written mind you, a book can be beautifully written and yet be dull), specially the second section. In any case the movie version doesn't excite me at all.

Elsewhere The Guardian asks a bunch of contemporary writers to pick what they think are underrated books. One of the featured book which has been on my immediate to-read list (actually it has been there for long) is Chilean Novelist Jose Donoso's The Obscene Bird of Night. And I don't know why Knut Hamsun's Hunger is featured on that list. It is both very famous and very highly rated, even after all the Nazi connection.


puccinio said...

Well that's classic British self-aggrandizement. They tend to be worse than the Americans in that regard. The Americans at least aren't pretentious.

That said, to give the devil it's due, the novel as we call it today was a speciality of England in the 18th and the 19th Century producing some of the world's finest works.

But that's the the 20th Century the most innovative English language fiction has come from outside England...from the US, Ireland and every other ex-colony.

And in Post-War world, the only truly great writer they produced was Harold Pinter...Ian McEwan, not really!

But then English culture is facing it's self-destruction now so this kind of delusion while tragic is understandable.

Madhuri said...

The British are always conceited people - that's what defines them. So such a comment only makes you feel that all is normal in the world. Besides you can't blame them for living in the past - most people do that, including us Indians who are still proud of what we achieved once .
About Mcewan, well I am reading him for the first time currently and I actually am quite enjoying his 'Saturday' - even though I would not go as far as saying that he is amongst the best novel writers in the world. He has a introspective quality which is somewhat reminiscent of the old British novel.

Alok said...

puccinio: I agree totally. Even within England most of the serious and innovative work in the past few decades has been done by the immigrants... like Rushdie, Naipaul and others.

An article by Terry Eagleton recently made similar points.

madhuri: McEwan is certainly a very competent writer but he is definitely not in the league of greatness. I liked Saturday too but thought it was in the end a very conventional book. It doesn't say anything new, just confirms what we already think about the world... it just says the same thing we already knew in a very well-written eloquent prose.

Vidya said...

I agree with what you say of McEwan.I reached a saturation point after a few books. Also the post-reading effect was very transient unlike a few other authors. Hunger and unconsoled are the only two books I recognize in that list!