A conversation with Ian McEwan on the hows and whys of fiction

'The novel begins with the love of the small print of being'


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As part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, Ian McEwan will give a free public reading at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh's William Pitt Union Ballroom in Oakland (on Bigelow between Fifth and Forbes avenues).

Mr. McEwan called in from London to speak about the state of fiction with Robert Peluso, co-publisher of Braddock Avenue Books, a new literary press in Pittsburgh. The full transcript of their conversation appears below the following text.


Ian McEwan published an essay last month in The New Republic under the arresting headline of "When I Stop Believing in Fiction." What was this about? He's won numerous prizes and seen a number of his books, such as "Atonement" and "Enduring Love," made into successful films. Was he finally giving it up?

In his latest novel, "Sweet Tooth," the main character is a voracious reader who tells us she reads because "I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them." I wondered: What kinds of expectations did Mr. McEwan have for his own readers? Was there anything he wanted them to take away from his books?

"I think the first step -- and it really then fixes me for the whole project -- is to interest myself," he said. "And my assumption is that if it interests me, then it's going to interest someone else. It's a notion of shared human nature: I know it's not going to interest everybody else, but that's not how things go for any writer. But really that's the key, an assumption that one's in a sort of communality of interests with readers. Once I'm on fire with this, then I hope someone else will be."

For me, he was right. I told him how much "Sweet Tooth" moved me. His response was unambiguous, and I understood instantly how deeply he felt about everything he had said. "Oh good!" he declared. "Oh, very good!" Mr. McEwan's enthusiasm underscored a personal engagement with novel writing that permeated our entire conversation. I couldn't help asking him about his decision to use facts from his own life in the new novel: Writer friends appear, as do details of his formative years and his schooling.

"Distorted autobiography," he called it. "The '70s meant a lot to me personally because that's when I started writing, that's when I started publishing. And I was doing all that and having, actually, a very good time against a background of a great deal of political, social turmoil. The contrast of this rather warm, fond memory of myself in my 20s having really a wonderful ball of a time in London, and yet all around me, real, real problems. I mean, the country really did feel like it was falling apart. But if you're 22 years old, you never have really quite that stake in it that a newspaper editor reflects in a leader [editorial]. So, that was one reason."

Sensing something of an "Atonement" moment, I asked if he thought of himself as a moral writer.

"Well, in the broadest sense -- not that I have any inclination to tell people how to live -- but to deal in a kind of currency of the sorts of questions where we're asking ourselves all the time: What it is to grow up, what it is to fall in love, grow old, make choices, deal with regrets, try and do something about your errors -- if you can do anything at all, and so on. This really is the sea that I swim in, as it were, or the air that I breathe."

He sees the novel as a pre-eminently moral vehicle "because morality is fundamentally about the recognition that you are like others and the ability to empathize with others is at the core of our moral thinking."

With such a strong sense of purpose -- and being such a productive writer (12 novels, three story collections, multiple screenplays and film adaptations) -- you would imagine that writing comes easily to Mr. McEwan.

"I've been messing around now, and this is actually the usual pattern, with the opening of a novel for months on end," he said, "forcing myself to it, dragging myself to it, kicking and screaming, hating doing it." Comforting news for any writer, for sure. He added, wryly: "I would rather empty the dishwasher than write the opening paragraph to this book, but now I'm fine and the dishwasher can look after itself."

This concern with working over details is crucial for readers as well. "It's in there, I think, that the novel begins -- the love of the small print of being, of existence. It's not a top-down process; it's a bottom-up process, of small things leading to big things."

But "big things" doesn't necessarily mean big books. Mr. McEwan declared the novella to be "perhaps ... the supreme literary form" because of its ability to totally immerse us in the fictional world. Given this concern for immersion, what about the book as artifact, the power of its physical presence, especially relative to e-books?

"You can imagine the pleasure of, first of all, just finding the book where it's meant to be on your own shelf. The way one's forefinger hooks over the top of the spine, and the way it hinges outward into your hands, and the way you might find your own pencil marks and marginalia -- all those things we cannot have with an e-book." And yet, even if e-books "cast us out of the sensual, out of the somatic, and into maybe a more cerebral relationship with the book," they nevertheless offer the advantage of instant availability and enhanced interconnectedness.

No matter the format, the idea of the novel will endure. "I think it is robust and it will survive this transition and we'll say goodbye to the paper book with a tear in our eye. And those of us who really care that much can still fill their houses with them."

The essay that Mr. McEwan published in The New Republic last month appeared simultaneously in a British newspaper, The Guardian, under a more hopeful headline: "When Faith in Fiction Falters -- and How It Is Restored." We're usually the ones known for our sunny outlook, but this time it seems The Guardian got it right -- and reading Ian McEwan is certainly one way to restore (or maintain) your faith in fiction.


Robert Peluso (robertjpeluso@gmail.com), who teaches English at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, co-founded Braddock Avenue Books last year (braddockavenuebooks.com).





Q&A with Ian McEwan

Here is the complete text of Robert Peluso's conversation with Ian McEwan. The author called from London on Friday, March 15.


Peluso: Many of your novels begin with or center on an organizing incident -- "Enduring Love," obviously, "Saturday," "Amsterdam" and so on. "Sweet Tooth" seems to be doing something a little bit different. It looks like a departure for you. The story unfolds more slowly. What was the reason for that shift?

McEwan: Well, I find that a slightly difficult question partly because I don't fully go along with the premises. I know that people do say this of my fiction. I know that in some of my novels like "Enduring Love," as you say, there is right in the beginning a crucial incident which changes everything, but you know other books like "Amsterdam" or "Atonement" or "Solar" have not used such a method, but I suppose speaking more broadly, I've always wanted to get back to writing a spy novel.

I wrote one in the mid 1980s called "The Innocent" set in Berlin in the Cold War. We made a movie with it actually a long time ago with Anthony Hopkins and Isabella Rossellini. It never really got off the ground, I think for a number of reasons; but, I got a real taste for something of the connection between the actual world of spying and intelligence and something about the innate spy-like nature of novel writing.

And so it was a departure for me to actually address that directly, to actually use the idea that you might have a love affair in which one person was a spy, the other person was the novelist. The novelist is spying on the spy; the spy is spying on the novelist and to run on that kind of enfolded conceit.

And I suppose I picked up there on some themes that were in "Atonement." If you could say that "Atonement" was really a novel about writing, this is a novel about reading, and how we read people. How novelists read people but also how readers read themselves or read others in reading novels. So all that was for me was a kind of, rather delightful, departure.

Peluso: And I think maybe "formative event" might be a better term than "organizing incident."

McEwan: Yes.

Peluso: Actually my own term would be "formative event."

McEwan: Well, I don't really like novels without events.

Peluso: Sure. No, absolutely. Well, let me ask you another question that comes out of your comment about reading and readers and about "Sweet Tooth" in particular. The main character Serena is a kind of promiscuous reader and she makes the comment early on that her needs are very simple. She wants characters that she could believe in and she wanted to be made curious about what happened to them. And certainly many of your books deal, obviously, with this issue of reading and readers and writing and so forth, in terms of their subject matter, structure, style.

But they're also recognizable as your books. My question is this, when you're writing, do you have certain expectations for what you want to accomplish with your readers? Is there something in particular that you would like them to take away? Serena has her takeaway -- and I'm not going to spoil the ending of that book -- but what's your view? Is there something particular you want readers to get from your material?

McEwan: I think the first step, and it really then fixes me for the whole project, is to interest myself. We might pick up on this when we talk about The New Republic piece, but I sort of languish between novels, and as I say in that piece, I do read a lot of non-fiction. I'm casting around for something that I can really live with and explore, and my assumption is that if it interests me then it's going to interest someone else.

It's the notion of shared human nature: I know it's not going to interest everybody else, but that's not how things go for any writer. But really that's the key, an assumption that one's in a sort of communality of interests with readers. Once I'm on fire with this, then I hope someone else will be.

I know from reviews, for example -- I no longer read my own reviews but I get a sense of them -- you can publish a novel and on the same day read a review that damns it to hell and another one that praises it to the sky, both written by intelligent, thoughtful, educated people. Readers are too diverse to be able to hold in your mind and try to please or displease or surprise or whatever. One really has to work for yourself, I think.

Peluso: That's interesting. And I know that when I read "Sweet Tooth," I was one of the weepers, to be honest.

McEwan: Oh, good! Oh well!

Peluso: Powerful novel, I thought. Really stunning. I had to sit still for a while after that.

McEwan: Oh, very good! Well, hope you didn't get pins and needles.

Peluso: [Laughs] Well, let me ask you another question -- this kind of back tracks a little -- and then we'll move forward to the idea of a shared humanity that you were talking about . . . . Several of your novels include personal material, and "Sweet Tooth" is very consciously autobiographical, as you've even said. You've called it a kind of "disguised autobiography."

McEwan: Very distorted autobiography.

Peluso: Sure. And this is my question. Is that the end of the story or did that novel's focus -- and you sort of touched on this kind of surveillance in novel writing and so forth -- but is there another reason that the 1970s, for example, are so important in that book . . . or MI5 and the notion of government sponsored manipulation? Is there something in the culture that drew you to that topic?

McEwan: Well, to come back to the start of your question, the 1970s meant a lot to me personally because that's when I started writing, that's when I started publishing. And I was doing all that and having, actually, a very good time against a background of a great deal of political, social turmoil. The contrast of this rather warm, fond memory of myself in my 20s having really a wonderful ball of a time in London, and yet all around me, real, real problems. I mean, the country really did feel like it was falling apart.

But if you're 22 years old, you never have really quite that stake in it that a newspaper editor reflects in a leader article [British term for editorial]. So, that was one reason. I suppose that's one of the reasons why I fit some real events and some real people, and stole a few chunks of my own existence and distorted them a little to fit into the novel.

Peluso: OK. And maybe we can move on now to the purpose of fiction, which is really sort of a gloss on what you've just been saying. I know this is probably going to sound somewhat old fashion, but your work impresses me as a very moral fiction. In books as varied as "Black Dogs," "Amsterdam," "Atonement" are filled with serious questions about right and wrong. "Sweet Tooth" is too, in quite a different way. Do you think of yourself as a moral writer?

McEwan: Well, in the broadest sense, not that I have any inclination to tell people how to live, but to deal in a kind of currency of the sorts of questions where we're asking ourselves all the time what it is to grow up, what it is to fall in love, grow old, make choices, deal with regrets, try and do something about your errors--if you can do anything at all, and so on. This really is the sea that I swim in, as it were, or the air that I breathe. It's a medium, and I hope it flows reasonably effortlessly out of incidents that you were mentioning or characters or the drama of the novel itself.

I think the novel is, because it's such a good device for showing us what it's like to be someone else, and because morality is fundamentally about the recognition that you are like others and the ability to empathize with others is at the core of our moral thinking, I think the novel in its mainstream has always had that quality. It's the great investigator of human nature. I think more than any of the art forms, partly because it can follow people through time and partly because it's so good and has developed such robust conventions for displaying consciousness, for displaying a stream of thought or a stream of doubt, a stream of love in the mind.

For that reason, I think that's why it has held out so well against lots of other bright new forms, whether they were the arrival of television or now the Internet and all its glory. It's still managed to hold our attention. And I think it's surprised us. I mean, back in the seventies, if you go back to that decade, we were constantly writing or reading articles in the literary periodicals headed "Is the novel dead?"

You see fewer of those now. I know that people are now talking about the medium itself, whether it arrives in an e-reader or not, but I think that's a secondary and rather irrelevant question, whether we read our novels on pages or screens.

Peluso: Henry Miller has said that "understanding is not a piercing of the mystery but an acceptance of it." And Milan Kundera talks about "the wisdom of uncertainty" that's in the novel. Would you agree with them then?

McEwan: Well certainly -- well actually with both of those. I think the novel has always been a secular and skeptical form. It came out of the enlightenment really. It's an 18th-century form. I don't think, really, there are great religious novels. It's very difficult to write a novel if you've got a deus ex machina. I think the urge of the novel is to be about the individual and not about his gods. So individuals working out their fates probably fits very well with the Protestant tradition, and a rising middle class, and all of the things one talks of in universities.

It is, as I said earlier, the great form of investigation. And right from its very beginning, in the novels of Richardson and then just a little later of Jane Austen, we have laid out before us fantastic tools for that investigation, rhetorical tools that were extended again in Flaubert and marvelously in Dickens and Tolstoy. Over those two or three centuries we have established something that's, as I said earlier, robust.

We have, for example now especially in the Anglo-American tradition, sitting side-by-side postmodern novels that investigate every turn and twist and every sentence -- even their own methods -- novels that would be perfectly familiar to a 19th-century reader . . . the realist novels. That surprises me, I have to say. I would not have thought that 30 years ago.

Peluso: In your essay, "When I Stop Believing in Fiction," The New Republic piece, I almost got a sense that you were, after novel writing, exhausted by the demands that the novel puts on you in terms of drawing on one's humanity. You were talking about it from the position of a writer, but I'm thinking even as a reader, there's a certain . . . .

McEwan: Yes, I was talking about myself not only as a writer but also as a reader.

Peluso: Do you find, then, that nonfiction provides you with, oh I don't know, with a sort of modulated and graceful way to ease yourself, literally, back into fiction? So, in other words, what I'm hearing you say is that fiction is primary. The thing that might save us, if there's anything that will, might be fiction because it embodies that humanistic and collective spirit. Nonfiction, you mentioned in the essay, puts up a kind of impediment in a way. It's about us; it isn't a representation of us.

McEwan: Yes, it's not in that sense necessarily, at least, profoundly communicative. But on the other hand, I was re-reading, because I was having dinner with him recently, Danny Kahneman's book "Thinking Fast and Slow." And many of the things he's talking about there are of interest to a novelist. He's actually talking about the nature of our minds, and the nature of making mistakes, and how we're almost hardwired to make a certain kind of error. And so the nonfiction is not simply an accumulation for me of facts, but often of interesting argument -- the Who are we? What are we? Where are we going? kinds of questions -- which stretches through from psychology right through to international relations, say. Those do all feed back into what the novel is and what the novel could be.

But I do . . . yes, I get restless at the end of a novel. I want to be told about the world. I want to listen or watch -- read -- clever people speculate about what we are. And then, as I pointed out, it comes back to me, after a while, the taste returns. The rather jaded sense falls away.

Peluso: Well, that I think gets us to that craft question in a way, because it seems as if, obviously, as you were saying -- and I particularly appreciated that argument in "When I Stop Believing in Fiction" because it's not "I have stopped" but "when" . . .

McEwan: Yes . . .

Peluso: . . . because "when I stop, I also start again." I like the synergy, let's call it, between the two in the same way that your novels are kind of a synergistic moment between art and life, between facticity and fiction and so forth. And, I think, you know, even back to your comment about the "deeper more diffuse morality of fiction." I think what you stand for and what makes you so impressive as a writer to so many of us is precisely your ability to, I'll say, narrate that moment that is so ephemeral and difficult to realize. You sense it -- you're able to capture it in your novels, novel after novel, amazingly enough.

McEwan: Yes, I think that I'm a very slow beginner with novels. I've been messing around now, and this is actually the usual pattern, with the opening of a novel for months on end and only now -- and it was right about the time I was writing that piece, that New Republic piece -- that I just felt myself turning the corner and beginning to get interested in what I was doing. In other words the opening was sort of . . . I was forcing myself to it, dragging myself to it, kicking and screaming, hating doing it. And only now just rediscovered the pleasure principle -- want to do it, keen to do it 'til I drop at night and so on.

Peluso: That's very comforting to know, that even Ian McEwan must be dragged kicking and screaming to his novel!

McEwan: Oh god! I would rather empty the dishwasher than write the opening paragraph to this book, but now I'm fine and the dishwasher can look after itself.

Peluso: Right, right . . . . Well that gets me to another set of questions and they really are in certain ways about your writing process, but also about your background, and your ability to examine things that many new and younger writers don't have that opportunity to examine.

And so, I'm going to go back to your education as Sussex, for example. It seems to have been, obviously, very important in what today we would call cross-disciplinary inquiry. It seems to have allowed you to really, you know, which is what you are doing in your life and in your novels, to absorb everything there to be absorbed. Do you think that younger writers are too focused on technical issues of writing rather than, what you call, again in the New Republic piece, that "small print of subjectivity"?

McEwan: Well, I don't know if I can really generalize about this. I think there is nothing wrong with being focused on technical issues. But you've got to have a subject . . .

Peluso: . . . May I add a footnote to this, so that you'll see where I am coming from? I recently came back from this gigantic conference in the United States, The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and very interestingly its acronym is AWP, as if the writers and the writing program have collapsed onto each other. Most of the conversations I heard there were about craft . . .

McEwan: Yes . . .

Peluso: . . . and I completely agree with you, you need to talk about craft, but I felt -- and again it was brought home to me reading your New Republic piece and thinking about your novels -- the absence of that, and again I'll call it, that moral conversation . . .

McEwan: Yes . . .

Peluso: . . . I think you and I know I'm not talking about specific morality, but that humanistic depth. And that is what I'm asking you to speak to in a certain sense, and yes we're generalizing, but do you see a tendency -- for example you mentioned that the first to go is fabulist and magical realism fiction -- do you see a tendency toward more experimental fiction? And what are your thoughts on that? What will save us?

McEwan: Well, my first thought is very general and it might tie in to the kind of conference you've just been attending. Writing programs in the States have clearly done a lot of good for a lot of published writers, but I sometimes get the feeling that writers shouldn't be on campuses at all. And that they need to be in the city or they need to go and turn their back on the city like Updike did and go live in a small town or go and, you know, just put down some shoe leather as journalists or be out in the world a little more.

And I suppose the American university has become like the medieval monastery, it has provided the buildings and the protection for the monastic pursuit. But this might have generated a, maybe, more of a taste for the technical.

You know, I don't know if I could substantiate that, but I think a literary culture to really thrive needs cities. Writers do need to see each other. When I see writer friends and we talk about literature, it's usually in a celebratory rather than in a technical tone . . . things we love, and those things are often details. It's hard to a love a theme.

Peluso: Ah, yes.

McEwan: I will often quote from that wonderful Cornell lecture that Nabokov gave when he tells the kids -- forget the moonshine of generalization and themes, fondle the details, learn to love what you love in the novel, find those little apercus, those moments of shared humanity, commit them to memory even, but do celebrate them. It's in there, I think, that the novel begins -- the love of the small print of being, of existence. It's not a top-down process; it's a bottom up process, of small things leading to big things. And I think that's true for readers. Readers must concentrate on small things until they intuit the beautiful large thing in the novel. So, that might be the problem at your terrifying conference.

Peluso: Well, there were 12,000 terrifying members of us there! And it has gone up 20 percent a year over the last few years, and that's why I was curious about your thoughts.

McEwan: Yes, well, that's my thought. I mean, I know that it's not . . . I have no social program that would release 12,000 writers into the cities. Especially not in these economic times.

Peluso: Yes, it goes back to . . .

McEwan: . . . The monks and abbots need to get out into the cities, that's my sense.

Peluso: Well, that gets to a couple of other questions. One goes back to your comment about beginning novels. You mentioned that you don't plot them out. And as I said, I'm kind of thinking, I'm hearing so much about plotting out the novel, getting it ready before you begin to write it, and I know that you've said you'll spend untold amounts of time -- and you hinted at that just today -- working over those first 5,000 words or so, you know, going over and over and over [them] until the structure begins to emerge, and the voice, and the tone, and ultimately the story begins to unfold organically.

And so the next kind of question I guess I would have is, You're able to do really extraordinary amounts of research, you've gone off with neurosurgeons, and journeys around the world, and you're able to bring that back and enrich your fiction. I think that's what you're talking about, when you think of the city as a metaphor, too, not just a . . .

McEwan: Yes, it could be the country, really -- but just out there . . .

Peluso: . . . Yes. And I'm wondering this too, then. So looking at, and this is a different kind of issue though, you've written most of your novels that come in at a very comfortable 275 page range -- some have been shorter, "Black Dogs" in particular. Could you talk a little about your views of fiction at the extremes? Like the 800-page behemoth on the one hand and the new trend in hint fiction on the other? And this is, again, sort of an outgrowth of this focus on form. Is a sentence a novel? Does it do what novels can do? And as Kundera says, the thing that a novel does is what a novel does, nothing else can match it. It deals with "existence not reality." And I think you would probably agree with that.

McEwan: Well I've always had a taste for the novella . . .

Peluso: Yes, yes . . .

McEwan: I think it . . . perhaps it's the supreme literary form, as far as I'm concerned. It's probably the only form in fiction that one might at least dream of obtaining perfection. No one can write a perfect 500-page novel. But it might be possible to write the perfect hundred-page novel. It's a great service to readers. You know, a two or three hour total immersion in the novella holding the whole structure in your mind. It's very hard for readers to grasp structure in the novel, on a first reading at least. We can perceive it on the second reading because we know where we're going; but as the thing unfolds it's too large, it's too long, and our reading is generally interrupted by life and work and so on.

So the novel in its short form allows us still to have all of the delights of character and incident and moral complexity, but it's rather more focused, often the prose is better and tighter and more worked on. I've written, I don't know, four or five novellas in my life and I'm always drawn to them and drawn to other people's. It's rare, I think, for writers to hold together an 800 page . . . I don't think even in "Ulysses" Joyce manages it. There are his parodies of various forms of grammar, for example. Tolstoy I think managed it in "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina." You've somehow, I think, with the really huge novel, got to be able to exude the writing. You know, it's got to come out like the print equivalent of sweat. It's another completely different thing -- a different animal from the novella. But my own taste has always been to pare back. So that's why I've always ended up somewhere around the ninety to one hundred and ten thousand word novel. The shape of that appeals to me. But every now and then I hope to turn in one of thirty or forty thousand words.

Peluso: Your novels obviously are so crystalline. And part of what readers respond to is that compelling quality because there is no waste. One's not tripping over and mired in things. You're drawn forward to the beacon.

McEwan: Well it's very kind of you to say so.

Peluso: Well, I believe it's true. It certainly is true for me. And so let me ask this last question, or maybe next to last question. It is about the respect that you have in the field of writing. You've been called by The New Yorker, "England's National Author" and your very first book, I believe, "First Love, Last Rites" won the Somerset Maugham Award. And you've won a staggering number of very prestigious awards in between. So I'm wondering, when you write, having so many, so much of a, I don't know if I want to call it a burden, but do you feel that way? Do you feel these awards are looking over your shoulder and if so are they guardian angels or are they demons from the depths or do you just not think of them? Are do you just not think about them?

McEwan: I don't really think about them actually. I haven't won an award for ages, actually, so that's another easy way of forgetting them! No, they don't really. I mean, they are . . . they're on the outer shell of the whole business. The actual private, secret pleasure of a novel unfolding by a few or several hundred words a day is completely distinct from putting on a tux and going to Milan to pick up some prize and 2,000 euros and having a jolly nice dinner. It's sort of out there. It doesn't belong in the study. It's jolly nice to have recognition. I think all writers feel that. Jolly nice, too, to have that sense of connection with the society of readers, which is finally what it is about . . . and does.

But actually, it doesn't interfere with the process at all. I once told Martin Amis -- and this phrase has passed into our . . . yes, into a kind of mythology -- but I was complaining about having to go on the road and do a book tour, and I said, I feel like the wretched employee of my former self. My former self being the happily engaged novelist who now sends me, a kind of brush salesman or double glazing salesman, out on the road to hawk his book. He got all the fun writing it. I'm the poor bastard who has to go sell it.

So, being the employee of my former self is often how that feels, that other stuff. That's not to say it can't be great fun. I've sometimes sat in signing queues two hours and come away feeling it's amazing. Everyone was so nice, so kind and friendly.

Peluso: That's again, I think, your generosity of spirit certainly coming through in everything you do and say, and I think that's rewarding for everybody. It makes us part of a literary life -- readers, writers both. And even though you may be employed by your harsh self, it's really gratifying to be able to have an opportunity to, for example, talk with you today.

McEwan: Well, it's a pleasure Robert.

Peluso: I don't know how much time we had, if this is your limit.

McEwan: The last question was your penultimate, so if you want to ask one more.

Peluso: I guess it would be about the future of the book. You talked about the typewriter and you mentioned that it was somewhat of an impediment. The computer you liked because it kept everything in play for you to pick and choose from. You had touched on this a little bit earlier, but that move to e-books, for example, and especially enhanced e-books where there are clickable links, embedded photos and images. I'm thinking back to Alberto Manguel's, "The Library at Night . . .

McEwan: Yes . . .

Peluso: . . . and your piece, "When I Stop Believing in Fiction," that moment where you're reading and you get up and walk across the library to pull down that volume -- the "agreeable delusion" as Manguel says. Literature is not going to solve our problems, but to be physically in its presence is meaningful.

I guess my final question would be, looking at the direction books are going, the way that hyperlinks may lead us outward, away from the book -- and you were just talking about novellas as a supreme form because of their ability to fully and totally immerse us and to hold us for that amount of time -- what are your views, what are your thoughts, on where we're headed as a people, all of us?

McEwan: Well, I think we will lose something sensual and tactile. You speak of going to the shelf and picking out a book. It's more than that. You can imagine the pleasure of, first of all, just finding the book where it's meant to be on your own shelf. But the way one's forefinger hooks over the top of the spine, and the way it hinges outwards into your hands, and the way you might find your own pencil marks and marginalia -- all those things we cannot have with an e-book. Nor can you have the silent presence of unopened books.

I'm staring at a whole wall of them right now, all kinds of colors and shapes going right up to the ceiling and a wooden set of library steps at the bottom. These are the books I've accumulated over a lifetime, and they've followed me through every house move. At each house I've moved into the first thing I've had to do is commission a carpenter to come and build bookshelves because most houses don't have them. All that, I know that this whole library, could fit into a couple of iPads.

So, we will lose something. I think it would be a long, slow process. I mean, I think there'll be a place for the book for a long time, but against the fact that you can set off on a journey taking only an e-reader with not all the books that you want to read but several hundred more that you don't even know that you want to read yet is an enormous privilege. And I often now, well, I'm leaving for the States on Wednesday, and I'll only take an e-reader and if I am in the middle of a conversation, as I was, say, just a couple of weeks ago, and a German novelist friend of mine said, there's this book by an American philosopher that you absolutely must read. I mean, I had it within seconds, downloaded in the middle of the conversation, and started reading it that night, so that the following morning I had already read maybe 10,000 words of it and we had a conversation that we could not have had if I said, Well next time I'm in a bookshop I'll get a copy. He would have moved on. I would have been three months late.

So, in a way, the e-reader will cast us out of the sensual, out of the somatic and into maybe a more cerebral relationship with the book. It certainly won't be a physical one. But for all that still, we're going to have to engage with writers who can show us the news about ourselves and about human nature and give us whole fates, whole lives extended over several hundred [pages], tens of thousands of words and do so with sentences that thrill us at best, appall us at worst. It's still going to be: people are going to have to make it up and do so in language that thrills us. So, I don't think the form itself will go, as I said earlier, I think it is robust and it will survive this transition and we'll say goodbye to the paper book with a tear in our eye. And those of us who really care that much can still fill their houses with them.

Peluso: Yes ... Well, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

McEwan: It's a pleasure, Robert.

books


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