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Ian McEwan's Uneasy Relationship With Fiction
February 16, 2013 12:50 PM   Subscribe

When I Stop Believing in Fiction, by Ian McEwan
posted by rollick (15 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I stopped believing in fiction after being fooled by one too many unreliable narrators in Ian McEwan novels.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 1:11 PM on February 16, 2013 [7 favorites]


'Twas somewhere between Saturday and On Chesil Beach, I'd wager.
posted by .kobayashi. at 1:48 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


This an apology for fiction and at the same time a dismissal of fiction that doesn't chime with a specific non-elitist but at the same time kind of elitist vision of what fiction ought to be. Ian McEwan may be a fascist but that doesn't mean his own stuff is necessarily shit or anything. Unless you compare him with Nabokov, and no-one benefits from such a comparison.
posted by tigrefacile at 1:51 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, as much as I want to agree with McEwan, it's hard not to say that it's a consequence of my own predilections. I want to say, "Gently caress the prose, I'd rather read Ted Chiang than Jonathan Franzen!" Prose is just a lot more interesting if it's grounded in theories outside of an MFA program because the latter has a habit of churning out neurotic, overwrought stuff that's saddled with extremely banal and insular criticisms of the world. A lot of the would be MFA students I know write for other writers and why shouldn't they if the only way a university can do a fiction program these days are through workshops?

DFW said that 'the exchange between consciousness' was the ultimate goal of writing. Franzen, atthe same roundtable, pretty much interprets that the process of writing is all about him and is consumed with how original his works are in comparison to the other works of the past. If the great American writer of the post-millenium can't get over the present world of criticisms and being overshadowed, what hope is there for future writers to be interested in anything but their own navels? I want to like what McEwan says even though I don't think that realistic nostalgia is the necessary ticket to trailblazing fiction because at the very least he sounds like he writes for an audience who isn't himself.
posted by dubusadus at 2:10 PM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Funny, most of his arguments seem to apply to why I don't like non-fiction...
posted by Dmenet at 2:10 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Appreciating the lines, you are not only at one with the writer, but with everyone who likes them, too.

"At one"? Now, what in the hell does he mean by that?

Could be the type of oneness you have whenever you share a thing with another person, but nope, next line says: This doesn’t happen when you learn what a Higgs boson does. Mutual enthusiasm for the Higgs boson surely does produce some kind of shared experience, but not kind he's interested in.

Looking for an example (I presume) he goes to an experience he had looking up a reference made in a book he once read, and finding his experience of the book enriched with a kind of nostalgia by proxy. Nonfiction works reference one another all the time. What makes this kind of reference different--how does it make you "at one" with the writer and the other readers? To see and hold the same thing as a character could be different from seeing and holding the same thing as a real person did, insofar as the character's experience of the thing may be of a kind you can't get from a real person. Yet, the book used in this example is a solidly realistic one. If the experience therein cannot be had from a real person, the novel fails at realism.

The argument seems to better support the kind of far-out fantasy with realistic referents that you get from, well, quite a lot of fantasy and science fiction these days. There are many subgenera devoted to different ways of mixing the real and the fantastical.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:27 PM on February 16, 2013


"Get stewed; books are a load of crap." - P. Larkin.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:37 PM on February 16, 2013


Great essay; laid out all the lines of argument I expected him to at the beginning, then wove them into shining transcendence by the end-- what I always hope for from fiction but rarely get. Stunning.
posted by jamjam at 2:52 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Mutual enthusiasm for the Higgs boson.
posted by mhoye at 3:32 PM on February 16, 2013


I stopped believing in fiction after being fooled by one too many unreliable narrators in Ian McEwan novels.
This.
posted by variella at 3:39 PM on February 16, 2013


Man, as much as I want to agree with McEwan, it's hard not to say that it's a consequence of my own predilections. I want to say, "Gently caress the prose, I'd rather read Ted Chiang than Jonathan Franzen!" Prose is just a lot more interesting if it's grounded in theories outside of an MFA program because the latter has a habit of churning out neurotic, overwrought stuff that's saddled with extremely banal and insular criticisms of the world. A lot of the would be MFA students I know write for other writers and why shouldn't they if the only way a university can do a fiction program these days are through workshops?

Ted Chiang is a fantastic writer and isn't writing anything you wouldn't find in a collegiate workshop. In fact, a shrewd writer who wanted to write science fiction but had to do it in the context of an MFA program would probably write something a great deal like "Hell Is the Absence of God," because it would be extremely easy to make an argument for it as a sophisticated allegory (which it is) in a way that is not true of some space opera military SF thing that would get you looked at like a fresh lump of dogshit on the carpet.

Could be the type of oneness you have whenever you share a thing with another person, but nope, next line says: This doesn’t happen when you learn what a Higgs boson does. Mutual enthusiasm for the Higgs boson surely does produce some kind of shared experience, but not kind he's interested in.

I think he's interested in that, but that it's not the thing he's talking about that you can get from fiction, and that presumably you can only get from fiction. The shared experience of enthusiasm for the Higgs boson could be generated many ways, but what he's looking for only comes from fiction.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:52 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Very interesting, typically perceptive and well-written: and a lovely story about the go-between.
posted by Segundus at 4:03 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


So if I may bring the gimlet eye of the faithless to bear on his argument, he returns to the true faith at the end, bringing the other stuff (nonfiction, ie, everything else in the universe) along, but more as tools to be "put to use" than creeds in themselves. And that true faith's liturgy is that we cannot live without stories, and its practice, kindled by the imaginative warmth of the Nabokovian detail, brings you into oneness with the writer and the readers in an expansion of selfhood that learning about the Higgs boson can never provide.

Well, he is certainly right in his analogy to established religion, since beginning middle and end, this is the most cliched, bog-standard MFA account of fiction out there -- or at least, it was in 1962 when he was reading Punch and Nabokov was calling the shots. Funny to reverse history and call his own doctrine Low Church, by contrast with the High of magical realism (those silly Latin Americans), which of course was actually as much a revolution against the orthodoxy he exalts as "experimental fiction" is. Both of these genres, and many more (including SF), were born out of exactly the doubts he seems to briefly encounter as a sort of sabbatical between book-churnings. Unlike him, however, these later (in spirit, if not in time) writers take their doubts seriously, and bring them along into their fictions as more than random tools and baggage to be "put to use." God rest monotheism.
posted by chortly at 6:05 PM on February 16, 2013


Honestly, I wanted to like it. But the only thing harder to read than unappealing fiction is an essay about someone finding it hard to read unappealing fiction.
posted by salvia at 11:32 PM on February 16, 2013


... Or finding all fiction unappealing, to be more accurate. But still, I couldn't make it past the part where he waxed on about nonfiction. It's cool, dude, just go read nonfiction. You don't have to explain yourself to us.
posted by salvia at 11:34 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


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