Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
Critical Essays, Reviews
Literature, Literary History, Literary Study

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Steven Augustine

Dan, thanks indeed for the generous attention. But if I agree with your overall post (and I do), it's not out of gratitude, it's because one of my favorite writers seems to have died a while back, yet books in his name keep popping great acclaim!

"But there still ought to be room for saying that McEwan's early work was arresting and rather daring, completely unlike most British "literary fiction" that preceded it, and that his later work is predictable and often tedious, a pale imitation of the British modernists it seems to take as inspiration."

When I first read McEwan (The Innocent), I was amazed to find what felt like Updike's technical precision wedded to something like Paul Bowles's talent for cold horror. "Atonement" is just an Anthony Minghella film in comparison.

There's always hope that McEwan will tire of his new role as Articulator of the Middlebrow Heart and that his late phase will bring us spectacular work. Another nasty divorce should do the trick.

Jason Hyun


Besides Stephen Dixon (who is a realist), is there a psychological or otherwise realist fiction writer who you think DOES succeed on his or her own terms even if you disagree with the aesthetic?


Dan Green

I just recently posted a discussion of Kent Haruf's Plainsong, a realist novel I did indeed think succeeded on its own terms. Check it out.

Edward Yang

Holy shazbot! You read First Love, Last Rites when it came out 25 years ago? I never would have guess you were that old. You're voice sounds like it's fresh out of grad school.

Jason Hyun

I just reread your review of Haruf's PLAINSONG. Good reasoning there. Thank you. It's funny. Now, pulling it out of the new books shelf of my apartment, home from work sick, after I read the opening chapter ("Guthrie") again and remembering the book's design and I feel that the folksay narration and the structure makes the novel something else besides realism. But, perhaps that is the point: realist novels that are in some way innovative challenge the genre's predictability.

This is a question for me...

Again, thank you.

Rohan Maitzen

I didn't like On Chesil Beach much either, but I found Saturday wholly engrossing. I went so far, in fact, as to assign it in one of my classes, and my appreciation for the integration of form and ideas in it grew as I worked on it more closely. It seems to me very much in the tradition of the 'condition of England' novel, which is appropriate given its framing allusions to 'Dover Beach.' Though overall I suppose 'realism' is the right way to categorize its genre, it has many 'fabular' elements, from the first encounter with Baxter that generates the plot (not, itself, all that realistic) to the elaborate working out of the squash game and then through to the wholly implausible climax--the implausibility of which, I thought, rather than ruining an attempt at straight realism, prompts us to re-think our realist assumptions about what has happened before in terms of the novel's exploration of scientific or rational vs. poetic/literary ways of understanding the world, etc. I found the early McEwan I read (not much, because I didn't like it) alienating, as it seemed to put a kind of intellectualized technical perfection above what (in slopppy shorthand) I'd call 'heart.' I guess my taste is just middlebrow!

Steven Augustine

"Saturday" always struck me as an extremely schematic exercise that may well have scored a technical achievement in the metaphor department (surgery as redemptive military incursion and so forth) but at a serious cost to the integrity of the narrative.

Baxter's actions, during the (anti)climax, become less natural the more McEwan requires of him to fit the intended schematic...the treacly family life (the author's failed experiment in writing interestingly about happiness) was bad enough...but the confrontation and aftermath are both ridiculous, and destroyed my willingness to suspend my growing disbelief. (Having said that, I suppose it can't hurt to keep a few poems lying about in case of a break-in...)

When the characters are bent so far to fit a rigid schematic, the work actually strikes me as "cold". And to what end? Clever as McEwan's metaphor-coding was in "Saturday", what did he end up saying about "The War" that we haven't already decided (or read in vigorous commentary, Left and Right) ourselves? Is McEwan somehow cleverer than Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky or Adam Greenspan on the topic? No. At best he's constructed a well-done-but-ill-conceived apologia for an ill-conceived military venture that looks less well-conceived every day.

I somehow doubt the book will age well.

Steven Augustine

Oh dear. Did I write "Adam Greenspan"? Well, you know what I meant (I always think of "Adam Smith")....

Nigel Beale

Thanks for your McEwan post Dan. I've been musing about him lately...comparing him to Amis and Barnes. Here's a brief blurb on Amsterdam:

" Amsterdam is the only McEwen novel I’ve read so far... I found it a pleasant enough read. Worth the time. But only just. Although attention has clearly been paid to sentence and story, the book is a disappointment. It lacks meat, ambition; in total, a good, fun opening chapter, some clever dialogue, character description, and musings on friendship, mortality and morality, and an abrupt, hollow ending. Serious themes humorously dealt with throughout, falling sharply into incongruent farce that does the book a disservice. Huckleberry Finn suffers similarly.

Ironically, by imposing symmetrical structure on the novel McEwan undermines efforts to sketch ‘the perfect arc,’ truncating what could have been a much better, more significant read. Amsterdam represents the modest achievement of a modest objective. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge intentionally light fare with heavy standards. Better to blame the Booker for my bloated, unmet expectations.

Christopher Hitchens calls Saturday McEwan’s ‘most successful and daring novel.’ Atonement was voted number three (tied with Burgess’s Earthly Powers) on the Observer’s top 25 novels in the last 25 years. Number one on that list is J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. So, respecting the judgment of Hitch and the Observer’s panel of literary experts, I’ll read more, I won’t weigh McEwan’s worth on one book alone, I’ll report back. "

Judging from your post, if I don't want to waste time, I'm better off going back to his early stuff...

Must say that based on what I've read so far I think Amis much the better writer.

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