Saturday, April 07, 2007

Identity Crisis

I haven't read Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, so I can't comment on Natasha Walter's review in last week's Guardian, but I am very interested in McEwan's reply to it this week. While acknowledging that the review was generally positive, he takes exception to the fact that Walter conflates one character's views of anti-nuclear campaigners with his own as the author - or indeed as a real-life person: Walter pronounces, 'You cannot judge a novelist for his political views'.

One would need to read the novel to be able to say whether there is a true distinction in attitude between character and author, but McEwan is a sophisticated and more than conscious enough writer for me to believe that there is, and for me his closing statement strikes a true chord:
I sometimes wonder whether these common critical confusions arise unconsciously from a prevailing atmosphere of empowering consumerism - the exaltation of the subjective, the "not in my name" syndrome. It certainly seems odd to me that such simple precepts need pointing up: your not "liking" the characters is not the same as your not liking the book; you don't have to think the central character is nice; the views of the characters don't have to be yours, and are not necessarily those of the author; a novel is not always all about you.
I have written previously here about the way that the Cult of Personality - powered, as McEwan indicates, by commercial imperatives - and the consequent appetite for memoir and the focus on the author of a fiction rather than the book, are eroding our understanding of the nature of fiction and the fictive process. This in turn erodes our appreciation of fiction and devalues it and leads to a situation in which, if he is to be believed, a publisher can persuade James Frey against his wishes to allow his work of fiction to be marketed as a memoir.
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