The Book Business: Nicholas Clee on Why a Writer's Work Can Sometimes Be above Criticism
Clee, Nicholas, New Statesman (1996)
Something unusual happened to Ian McEwan in the New York Review of Books a few weeks ago. His novel Saturday, before that the subject of almost universal praise, suffered not just a bad review, but a 4,000-word, scene-by-scene demolition. Saturday was "a dismayingly bad book", the reviewer wrote; its characters were "like the dim stars of a lost galaxy", and its politics were "banal". To read the novel was to be subjected to "a neoliberal polemic gone wrong".
The author of this piece was John Banville, one of the handful of writers in Britain and Ireland who can consider themselves to be in McEwan's league. Banville himself referred, in dismay, to "the ecstatic reception Saturday has received from reviewers and book buyers alike", attributing it to the post-9/11 atmosphere of the novel and to the glib consolation of McEwan's plot.
Leaving aside the question of whether McEwan's vision in Saturday is really so feeble, one can agree that he is a writer with precisely the talent to encapsulate our 21st-century fears. As Banville observed, the image of the death-bringer emerging from a clear blue sky might have come from McEwan's fiction. In other words, his time has come; and when that happens, criticism is disarmed.
The phenomenon is only tangentially related to literary merit--although, in McEwan's case, it was stimulated by the publication of his particularly fine previous novel, Atonement. It is marked by a tone of awestricken respect from reviewers: received opinion neuters its prose. In the theatre, David Hare enjoys it; in cinema, Pedro Almodovar; in music, James MacMillan; in the visual arts, Damien Hirst. It is not a good thing to lose. Once-fashionable playwrights such as Peter Nichols suddenly find that they cannot get their new plays staged. …