Some British Literary Figures
Amis, Fenton, Hitchens, McEwan, Rushdie: A Portrait Gallery
By Paul Quinn
The Daily Telegraph, November 18, 2007
He's the recipient, this year, of the Queen's Medal for Poetry,
and the man who rode the first North Vietnamese tank into the Presidential
Palace when Saigon fell in April 1975. He's a trustee of the National Gallery,
and the one-time film critic of Socialist Worker. He's the Antiquarian of the
Royal Academy, and a man who was kidnapped in Belfast by the IRA.
He's adapting Don Quixote for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he's the man
who was commissioned to write the book for Les Misérables, thus making him
almost the only rich poet in the world. He's sitting beneath a pergola in the
remarkable garden he's created at his house, six miles from the centre of
Oxford. There is, as his friend Christopher Hitchens says, 'a lot of James'.
But the bigness is a solidity that seems entirely suitable to such an eminent
member of the intellectual great and good. Altogether, 'the old curmudgeon'
(Hitchens again) has what the Tories used to call 'bottom'. There's nothing new
in that; as Martin Amis says, 'James always had gravitas, even as an
undergraduate. He always behaved with dignity - unlike the rest of us.'
Had he felt burdened by being called 'the most talented poet of his generation'?
'Well,' he says, 'I didn't necessarily feel I was living up to things. But I
don't think I had an offensive amount of praise.' The Queen has been the most
recent to bestow some of that praise.
Fenton has said that, 'My feeling is that poetry will wither on the vine if you
don't regularly come back to the simplest fundamentals of the poem: rhythm,
rhyme, simple subjects – love, death, war.' To Stephen Spender, Fenton was 'a
brilliant poet of technical virtuosity.' For Peter Porter, 'It's the way he
writes, with a mixture of poetic language and real directness.'
Fenton first published poems in the national press while still at Oxford, where
he also reviewed fiction for the New Statesman and won the Newdigate Prize for
Poetry. In 1973, he took off for Cambodia, as a freelance foreign reporter.
After an unhappy period in Vietnam, Fenton returned to England. He wrote the
political column for the New Statesman, went to Germany for the Guardian and was
theatre critic and chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times. He translated
Rigoletto for the ENO - a triumph that brought Les Misérables to his door.
Fenton said he got less than one per cent of worldwide royalties, but given that
the show has earned more than £1.4 billion worldwide, the wolf has since been
absent from his door.
His home is the Oxfordshire house, Fenton tells me, that Ian McEwan described as
'the scene-of-the-crime house', so derelict and so likely to contain a murder
victim did it appear when Fenton bought it and the 150 acres around it.
Fenton shares his life with Darryl Pinckney, an American writer. They've been
together since 1989. Fenton was recently asked if he would be prepared to go on
the Pink List as one of the top gay people of influence. He said yes.
The Book of Mormon
The New York Review of Books, June 11, 2011
Book of Mormon show at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre drew praise from the
press. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints made a decision
not to take offense. Its Head of Public Affairs, Michael Otterson, listed
three things we should know about Mormons: They follow Jesus Christ. They
are friends of the family. They like helping people.
turns on a couple of young men sent as missionaries to Uganda. Most of the
inhabitants are suffering from AIDS. Poverty is endemic. Conditions are
gross and previous missionaries made no converts. But one of the two young
men discovers a gift of improvising on church doctrine, adding whatever
nonsense springs into his brain. Mass conversion follows, in a proselytizing
miracle. The Ugandans save the day by pointing out that religious discourse
is metaphorical anyway.
Otterson pointed out that in the seven years
that it had taken to put on the show, the Mormon Church in Africa had been
responsible for bringing clean water to more than four million Africans,
getting wheelchairs to 34,000 legless children, and so on.
mission to Africa was for a long time hobbled by racism. Then in 1978, the
leaders of the church experienced a convenient revelation. A willingness to
jettison or modify revelation has long been characteristic of Mormonism.
Acceptability matters more than doctrine. The musical at the Eugene O’Neill
Theater is a sort of hazing.
Why Hitch Became American
Slate, December 16, 2011
It surprised me that
there was so little in his memoir, Hitch-22, about the New Statesman.
Christopher said he didn't write more about that because he hadn’t been
happy and didn't enjoy recollecting it. Alexander Cockburn provided
Christopher with a model of what he might be — the outrageous but
unfailingly clever foreign observer of the American scene. In due course,
the Alex Cockburn model was left far behind. Christopher entered what was to
be the last phase of his life as a writer. What surprised me about this
phase was the deep significance becoming an American citizen held for him.
In our Bohemian days, we were internationalist in politics and quite the
opposite of patriotic. I hadn’t realized the need Christopher felt to belong
With Boris Kachka
New York Magazine, May 7, 2007
One of the most annoying things about Christopher Hitchens is
that, even at his most vitriolic, he makes at least as much sense as the
majority of sober journo-intellectuals buzzing around Washington. This despite
the fact that he is one of the last defenders of Bush's Iraq war — a position
that has cost him
a multitude of friends and gotten him new
ones like Paul Wolfowitz.
Hitchens has finally written the ultimate attack book,
God Is Not Great.
Do you think this book will mean as much to others as it means to you?
No, it's one small step for C.H. into one enormous argument dominated by giants
in philosophy and theology and science.
So what makes it different from recent atheist screeds by the likes of
Dennett and Richard Dawkins?
I don't think Richard Dawkins would mind me saying that he looks at religious
people with this sort of incredulity, as if, "How possibly can you be so
stupid?" And though we all have moods like that, I think perhaps I don't quite.
And what if one of your children found God? Would that be a problem?
Not at all. My children, to the extent that they have found religion, have found
it from me, in that I insist on at least a modicum of religious education for
them. The schools won't do it anymore. And I even insist, though my wife [who is
Jewish] isn't that thrilled, on having for our daughter a little version of the
What's your favorite Bible story?
"Casting the first stone" is a lovely story. And the first of the miracles. Jesus
changes water into wine. You can't object to that.
Well, you've said plenty about the pleasures of drink before.
But it also shows the persistence of the Hellenic influence in those regions. If
the Jews had not made the crucial mistake of rejecting Hellenism and philosophy
and submitting themselves, or being reconquered, by the Maccabean
ultra-Orthodox, everything would have been better and we’d never have had to
endure Christianity and Islam.
You're an even bigger critic of Islam.
If you ask specifically what is wrong with Islam, it makes the same mistakes as
the preceding religions, but it makes another mistake, which is that it's
unalterable. You notice how liberals keep saying, "If only Islam would have a
Reformation" — it can't have one. It says it can't. It's extremely dangerous in
Has anyone in the Bush administration confided in you about being an atheist?
Well, I don’t talk that much to them — maybe people think I do. I know something
which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he
doesn't shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I
think the way he puts it is, "I'm not fortunate enough to be a person of faith."
What must Bush make of that?
I think it's false to say that the president acts as if he believes he has God's
instructions. Compared to Jimmy Carter, he's nowhere. He's a Methodist, having
joined his wife's church in the end. He also claims that Jesus got him off the
demon drink. He doesn't believe it. His wife said, "If you don't stop, I'm
leaving and I'm taking the kids." You can say that you got help from Jesus if
you want, but that's just a polite way of putting it in Texas.
Do you consider yourself a hawk?
I used to wish there was a useful term for those of us who thought American
power should be used to remove psychopathic dictators.
So one day we'll all see just how right you all were about Iraq?
No, I don't think the argument will stop, perhaps forever. But when it does
become the property of historians rather than propagandists and journalists,
it'll become plainer than it is to most people now that it was just.
A lot of people
think you’re too rude.
I used to get told by nice old ladies at bookstores, "It's so nice to meet you,
because I used to think you were very unhappy and just disliked everything, and
you seem quite friendly." And I would think, Oh, God, is that how I seem?
Slate, August 8, 2005
It never seemed to me that there was any alternative to
confronting the reality of Iraq, which was already on the verge of implosion and
might, if left to rot and crash, have become to the region what the Congo is to
Central Africa: a vortex of chaos and misery that would draw in opportunistic
interventions from Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Bad as Iraq may look now, it
is nothing to what it would have become without the steadying influence of
coalition forces. None of the many blunders in postwar planning make any
essential difference to that conclusion. Indeed, by drawing attention to the
ruined condition of the Iraqi society and its infrastructure, they serve to
reinforce the point.
Hitch-22: A Memoir
By Christopher Hitchens
Reviewed by Dwight Garner
The New York Times, June 1, 2010
While studying at Oxford in the late 1960s (he was in the room on the famous
night that Bill Clinton didn't inhale), Christopher Hitchens discovered that
"if you can give a decent speech in public or cut any kind of figure on the
podium, then you never need dine or sleep alone."
Hitchens has a mind
like a Swiss Army knife, ready to carve up or unbolt an opponent's arguments
with a flick of the wrist. He holds dear the serious things, the things that
matter: social justice, learning, direct language, the free play of the
mind, loyalty, holding public figures to high standards.
devoted to wit and bawdy wordplay and to good Scotch and cigarettes and long
nights spent talking. He is also devoted to friendship. His close friends
include Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and James Fenton.
born in 1949 in Portsmouth. According to family legend, his first complete
sentence was "Let's all go and have a drink at the club." His parents
scraped to send him to boarding school at the tender age of 8. "If there is
going to be an upper class in this country," his mother said, "then
Christopher is going to be in it." Hitchens strode through boarding school
in Cambridge and Balliol College in Oxford.
Hitchens details his
early years as a literary journalist in London, his budding friendships with
Amis and Fenton and Clive James (among many others), and his Zelig-like
ability to be in international capitals when trouble was brewing.
the early 1980s, Hitchens moved to America. His drift away from the left
began in 1989, after the fatwa against Rushdie. This drift continued after
9/11. He supported the invasion of Iraq, in large part, because of his sense
of the wickedness of Saddam Hussein's regime.
George Orwell wrote: "A
man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying,
since any life
when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats."
this test, if only by a nose.
By Lynn Barber
The Sunday Times, March 6, 2011
knows he is dying: "I have inoperable, metastasized stage four esophageal
cancer — and there is no stage five."
He is thinking of doing a short
book on what he calls the malady. He was wary of writing about his cancer at
first: "I didn't exactly think, whoopee, I've got a whole new subject! But
there seems no point in not writing about it. And so I have done, and will
do, if I am spared."
The worst thing now, he says, is being
housebound by fatigue: "Just going down to the bank is becoming an
Carol Blue, his wife, explains how they met: "He was only
39 years old. And then he took me to Romania — he was so clever — just as
Ceausescu was being shot, and it was really wonderful, because it was like
being in a scene from Potemkin or something."
Hitch barely mentions
Carol in his autobiography, nor his first wife, nor his three children. He
gushes away about Martin Amis, James Fenton, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie,
but wives and children don't get a look-in: "If you do it properly, you have
to do it at considerable length, and the book was already much too long."
He has still got a letter he received from George W. Bush: "Thank you
for sharing your battle with cancer in that remarkable interview. There's no
telling how many folks you will inspire, whether you think it works or not.
I truly will pray for you. Fight on. You contribute meaningfully to our
country's discourse. God bless."
Amis on Hitchens
The Observer, April 24, 2011
Hitchens thinks like a child, he writes like a distinguished author, and he
speaks like a genius. Christopher is one of the most terrifying rhetoricians
that the world has yet seen. Christopher talks not only in complete
sentences but also in complete paragraphs.
Christopher is one of
nature's rebels. He has no automatic respect for anybody or anything. His
everyday manners are beautiful. He knows that in manners begins morality.
But each case is dealt with exclusively on its merits. This is the rebel's
Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism
By Christopher Hitchens
"There is, especially in the American media,
a deep belief that insincerity is better than no sincerity at all."
"One reason to be a decided antiracist is the plain fact that 'race' is a
construct with no scientific validity. DNA can tell you who you are, but not
what you are."
"A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the
realization that you can't make old friends."
On gay marriage: "This
is an argument about the socialization of homosexuality, not the
homosexualization of society. It demonstrates the spread of conservatism,
not radicalism, among gays."
On Philip Larkin: "The stubborn
persistence of chauvinism in our life and letters is or ought to be the
proper subject for critical study, not the occasion for displays of shock."
"In America, your internationalism can and should be your patriotism."
"It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by
burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment."
has always been the central absurdity of 'moral', as opposed to 'political'
censorship: If the stuff does indeed have a tendency to deprave and corrupt,
why then the most depraved and corrupt person must be the censor who keeps a
vigilant eye on it."
"What can be asserted without evidence can be
dismissed without evidence."
"A Holocaust denier is a Holocaust
The Independent, December 16, 2011
Hitchens looked frail two months before his death, but he was still speaking
the unspeakable: "The way I put it is this: if you're writing about the
history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the
word 'fascist', if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and
Austria and replace it with 'extreme-right Catholic party'."
presented him with an award in my name at the Atheist Alliance International
convention. Every day of his declining life he demonstrated the falsehood of
that most squalid of Christian lies: that there are no atheists in foxholes.
Hitch was in a foxhole, and he dealt with it with a courage, an honesty and
a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to be able to
The Atlantic, December 2011
prized bravery above all other qualities, and in particular the bravery
required for unflinching honesty. This devotion paradoxically lent a certain
military coloring to Christopher's intellectual, literary, and political
pursuits. This most intellectual of men valued intelligence, but valued
courage far more. It's commonly said that Christopher couldn't stand
stupidity. That isn't true: He couldn't tolerate stupidity married to
pretentiousness or dishonesty. It's also said that Hitchens was intolerant
of his adversaries. True, he saw many of his adversaries as beneath
Slate, December 2011
My first clear memory of
Christopher: Walking down a medieval alley in Oxford, with my
then-boyfriend, Martin Amis, we ran into Christopher and James Fenton coming
We stopped, I introduced them to Martin, we chatted briefly,
and we all moved on.
My next memory takes place in New York after I
married Peter Foges. Since we had a spacious
guest room, Christopher came
and stayed with us for about six months when he moved to New York in 1981.
We often went out to parties together in a kind of gang, and one evening
Martin, Christopher, and my husband and I all arrived at some upwardly
mobile soiree given by Arianna Stassinopoulos (later Huffington) in a
hideous apartment on the Upper East Side. Why
I can't quite recall now, but
Christopher and Martin took it into their heads to start chanting,
pigs frolic in a fountain of jizz."
The last time I saw Christopher
was in July at a party in New York when my book was published.
already very sick but he sat in the garden, drinking whisky, smoking and
talking, talking, talking. It was very late when I kissed him goodbye.
The Daily Beast, December 16, 2011
Hitchens lit fires in people's minds. He was an educator. He was polemical
inasmuch as he was naturally disputatious. No one I have ever met or
witnessed spoke better
on the hoof. His writing was immaculate, subtle,
crafted, filled with reference, knowledge, and
reason. As a writer and
speaker, his awesome command of English is a part of his greatness.
Christopher Hitchens was educated at Oxford and
became a champagne Trotskyite.
He worked on the New Statesman before he
moved to Washington.
I once had a drink with him in the old Academy
Club, in Soho. Hitchens was chain-smoking and drinking whisky, and he spoke
in long, rolling, perfectly formed sentences. His voice was deep and
absurdly suave. In manner and attitude, he closely resembled his old friend
He will be remembered as the louche cosmopolitan and
Laughter and Hitchens were
inseparable companions. Behind the laughter was what his friend Ian McEwan
called "his Rolls-Royce mind," that organ of improbable erudition and
brilliant, though occasionally flawed, perception. The Hitch was
an intellectual with the instincts
of a street brawler.
publication of my novel The Satanic Verses and the attack upon its author,
publishers, translators, and booksellers by the minions and successors of
the theocratic tyrant of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini. It was during these years
that Christopher became my close friend.
The spectacle of a despotic
cleric with antiquated ideas issuing a death warrant for a writer living in
another country, and then sending death squads to carry out the edict,
changed something in Christopher. It made him understand that a new danger
had been unleashed upon the earth. Christopher went to war.
that the attack on The Satanic Verses was not an isolated occurrence. Across
the Muslim world, writers and journalists and artists were being accused of
the same crimes — blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, and their modern-day
associates, insult and offense. And he intuited that beyond this
intellectual assault lay the possibility of an attack on a broader front.
Christopher came to believe that the people who understood the dangers
posed by radical Islam were on the right, that his erstwhile comrades on the
left were arranging with one another to miss what seemed to him like a
pretty obvious point, and so he joined forces with the warmers.
saved Christopher Hitchens from the right. Nobody who detested God as
viscerally, intelligently, originally, and comically as he did could stay in
the pocket of god-bothered American conservatism for long. On his 62nd
birthday we were photographed standing on either side of a bust of Voltaire.
That photograph is now one of my most treasured possessions.
Orwell's diaries, from the years 1931 to 1949, can greatly enrich our
understanding of how Orwell transmuted the raw material of everyday
experience into his novels and polemics.
His study of unemployment
and housing for the poor in the North of England stands comparison with
Condition of the Working Class in England. But with its
additional information and commentary about the reading and recreational
habits of the workers, the attitudes of the men to their wives, and the
mixtures of expectation and aspiration that lent nuance and distinction to
the concept of the proletariat, we can see the debt that
later authors and analysts owed to Orwell.
By his determination to
seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by
an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral
By Katie Roiphe
Slate, August 2012
In his memoir Hitch-22,
Christopher Hitchens wrote: "I want to stare death in the eye." In
Mortality, he comes close to doing so. The book's power lies in its
simplicity. He talks about his sense of loss, without getting lost in it:
"to the dumb question 'why me?' the cosmos barely bothers to return the
reply: 'why not?' "
The Hitch has done something extraordinary in
this book. He has created yet another style, another mode, on his death bed.
The last section, which is made up of notes, scrawlings, and half-formed
thoughts, is the saddest.
Afterword by Carol Blue Hitchens
New Statesman, September 2012
Christopher Hitchens died at the
age of 62 last December. Mortality includes the six elegant pieces he wrote
for Vanity Fair chronicling his illness and a closing chapter of dying
reflections from what he called Tumortown.
There is a timeless,
aphoristic quality to these essays that distinguishes them from his writings
on politics and literature. Following a series of adulatory
proto-obituaries, he observes:
"it seems that rumors of my life have also
After enduring chemotherapy, he says:
"I don't have
a body, I am a body".
Hitchens was a writer: "It's what I am, rather
than what I do." Ian McEwan wrote of how toward the end "his head would
droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would
drag himself awake to type another line."
Daily Beast, February 25, 2013
UnHitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour exposes
its subject as a liar, an "ouvrierist", a plagiarist, and an "amanuensis"
for the George W. Bush administration.
Seymour says Hitchens was an
opportunist. He says his supposed transformation from a radical into a
"left-wing defector with a soft spot for empire" was an act of
Hitchens supported Great Britain in the 1982
Falklands war, which Seymour attributes to "melancholic feelings" based on
"fantasies of imperial omnipotence". Seymour forgets the grossly illegal and
unprovoked invasion by Argentina.
Seymour describes Hitchens as a
nationalist, the "nation" being the United States. But Hitchens viewed the
Vietnam war as imperialist aggression, and throughout the cold war he
lambasted the foreign policy of the United States.
issue with radical Islam after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his 1989
fatwa upon the head of the novelist Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic
Verses. Hitchens was a friend of Rushdie.
Seymour faults Hitchens for
simplifying what was in fact a complicated issue. But even ignoring
their effect on Rushdie, forced into hiding for a decade, think of the
translators and publishers who were murdered or wounded.
supported the Iraq war. Seymour presents a caricature of the case. It is
frankly ridiculous to claim that only the Baath Party controlled Iraq's oil,
or that a popular uprising could have occurred were it not for the war. Iraq
had uprisings at the end of the Gulf war. They were met with mass slaughter.
Seymour charges Hitchens with plagiarism. Yet Hitchens had a reputation
as a highly original stylist, wit, and orator. Seymour provides no evidence
to substantiate his scandalous claims. Seymour says of a 2003 review
Hitchens wrote of the book Orientalism by Edward Said: "Much of the article
is actually plagiarized from the book it is allegedly reviewing." He cites a
single sentence, which reveals no plagiarism whatsoever.
"enjoyed abusing social inferiors", Seymour writes. Hitchens could have
spent all of his time socializing with the likes of Sean Penn and Martin
Amis, but he liked conversing with regular people.
Hitchens' views on religion as simplistic and reductive. But Seymour is
hardly the first critic of Hitchens’s unsophisticated take on religion. And
he strays too far in trying to paint Hitchens as an atheist zealot.
Hitchens would surely be proud that someone saw him as influential enough to
merit such a fervid attack on his career.
Christopher Hitchens, December 1990
Margaret Thatcher, November 1990: "I make up my mind about people in the
first 10 seconds, and I very rarely change it." Within minutes of first
being introduced to me, Thatcher lashed me across the buttocks with a
rolled-up parliamentary order paper.
It happened in 1977, when she
was still leader of the opposition and was pandering to South African
racists. I made the mistake of bowing as if to acknowledge some point of
hers, and she took swift advantage of my posture by shrieking, "Bow lower!"
and spanking me. Later, in 1979, she reversed her position and oversaw the
transition of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe.
It is easy to summarize the
foulness of the Thatcher years: the combination of Malthus and Ayn Rand that
went to make up her social philosophy; the police mentality that she evinced
when faced with dissent; the awful toadying to Reagan and now Bush; the
indulgence shown to apartheid; the coarse, racist betrayal of Hong Kong; the
destruction of local democracy and autonomous popular institutions.
Thatcher was a radical and not a reactionary. She has shown that there is
power and dignity to be won by defying the status quo and the majority
rather than by adapting to them. She has made possible a movement for a
constitutional republic in Britain.
More on or by Christopher Hitchens
A death in the family
God bless me, it's a best seller
Atheists with attitude
Chris Hitchens lunches with the FT
Hitchens on Buchanan on Churchill
Sarah Palin's war on science
Shame on Pakistan
By Benjamin Anastas
Men's Vogue, December 2006
Martin Amis is a smoker and a raconteur from the Old School.
His taste for both tobacco and tales is unapologetic, and his stories about
girl-chasing in literary London during the seventies ("You get the scent of
one in the wind," his friend Christopher Hitchens used to mock him, "and
you're gone") and his opinions on the rise of Islamist fundamentalism have
been crafted, like his prose, to be remembered.
I have come to the Paddington Sports Club to talk with Amis, who is relaxing
after a midday tennis match. It's a sunny October afternoon, and the
cheerful wallop of ground strokes fills the air. "One of the reasons I wrote
Koba the Dread was to give myself a political education," Amis explains
over a glass of beer in the club garden, recounting how an author famous
around the world for his devotion to the everyday was first drawn into the
nightmare reality of the Soviet Gulag, one of the twentieth century's
cruelest inventions and the setting of
House of Meetings.
House of Meetings just might be the
most somber book that he has written. "The reviews have been very good on
the whole," Amis says with a shrug, and it seems he'll leave it there. But
then he sits up to deliver the kind of diatribe you might expect from him.
"It's been said by a couple of reviewers that Zoya is a male fantasy figure.
All that means is she's pretty! And what's the subtext of that? Either
people think that novelists can't pull girls, or that book reviewers can't
pull girls." Once again, Amis pauses to relight his cigarette. "The idea of
having a pretty girlfriend is not a fantasy for me."
Wikipedia, July 2007
Martin Amis returned to Britain in September 2006 after living in
Uruguay for two and a half years with his second wife, the writer Isabel
Fonseca, and their two young daughters. "Some strange things have happened, it
seems to me, in my absence. I didn't feel like I was getting more right-wing
when I was in Uruguay, but when I got back I felt that I had moved quite a
distance to the right while staying in the same place."
Amis has been appointed as a Professor of Creative Writing at The Manchester
Centre for New Writing in the University of Manchester, and is due to start in
September 2007. "I may be acerbic in how I write but I would find it very
difficult to say cruel things to [students] in such a vulnerable position. I
imagine I'll be surprisingly sweet and gentle with them. ... A campus novel
written by an elderly novelist, that's what the world wants."
"I have a god-like relationship with the world I've created. It is exactly
There is creation and resolution, and it's all up to me."
"It is a sort of sedentary, carpet slippers,
self-inspecting, nose-picking, arse-scratching kind of job, just you in your
study and there is absolutely no way round that. So, anyone who is in it for
worldly gains and razzmatazz I don't think will get very far at all."
Martin Amis in 2011
By Ginny Dougary
The Times, March 26, 2011
Amis has always been a
kind of honorary American. He was "madly excited", he says, when Obama was
elected. He read both of the President's books: "It is wonderful to have a
very good writer in the White House — that's something we haven't had since
Lincoln. If you're a writer it's a thrill to have someone whose cadences are
so convincing and melodious. And you can't write like that without feeling
like that. It's not a superficial thing."
Amis leaves to get us
another drink and I stroll around the ballroom-sized living room, with its
blood-red velvet sofas and big flowery carpet under a coffee table with a
single art book of the work of Bruno Fonseca, his wife Isabel's late
brother. A pinball machine is snuck in a corner by one of the windows. An
antique sofa is covered in faded decorative cushions. Many shelves of books,
of course, and a guitar. I'd never read about Amis's rock-star ambitions.
Old photos show a smoking, pouting, velvet-jacketed Marty. There's one
famous image where he looks as pretty as a girl. "I was often mistaken for a
girl when I was 14 or 15," he says.
His most recent novel,
The Pregnant Widow, is set in a
castle in Italy in the summer of 1970 — "when sex", as the back cover line
proclaims, "is very much on everyone's mind". When we met in the summer of
2006, Amis was 300 pages into this book, which he described to me as a
"blindingly" autobiographical gossip novel. So what happened? "I had to
abandon it. We were back in Uruguay and I was looking at it and I just
realised that the whole project of writing autobiographically about the
sexual revolution was a complete dead end. And life is dead. What I say
towards the end of the book is that even the most crude, kitchen-sinky kind
of novel is, in fact, very stylised. Our lives actually have no shape at all
and they are just one thing after the other. There can be lives that have a
kind of shape but it's a fluke if they do. It's the difference between a
lady's court shoe and your actual foot. Life is the foot."
sister Sally's death, five years after their father died, Amis had a nervous
breakdown. His mother, Hilly, died last year and his male other half, the
Hitch, has cancer. It's scarcely surprising that Amis seems depressed. I ask
him about Hitchens: "All I can feel — apart from loving him as I always have
— is that if he does die, say in the next year, on top of everything else,
is just what a terrible job of work it's going to be to get over it. And I
am more and more depressed by that. When my mother died last year — just how
much somatic work, work of the body, there was lying in bed and sort of
juddering. Just how much of that there is with grief — working, working,
working just to get through it and you never get past it.
Julian Assange: "He reminds me of Andy Warhol; that sort of creepy upper lip
that I sort of suspect and, obviously, an egomaniac, up to a point," and
then a slyish grin. "Who has made such an impression as he has in the past
ten years, and you'd have to say there's only one — Osama."
The Telegraph, October 15, 2011
From an interview at a literary
festival in Mexico:
You get ugly when you get old. You're suddenly
visited by the past, and it's like a huge palace in your mind. You don't
feel your beauty until it's gone.
During the sexual revolution, love
and sex didn't separate entirely but they bifurcated. One of the
possibilities was the dissociation between love and sex, and this has got
slightly out of control. If you want to know the real meaning of
pornography, it is the utter dissociation of love and sex.
process of writing a novel is getting to know more about the novel until you
know everything about it. It's a kind of dreamlike state where you're
letting the novel make its own shape, and you're putting into it the
pleasure of creation, which is intoxicating. You can do absolutely anything;
you are the freest of all artists. It's that freedom that's frightening in
England went from being ruler of a quarter of the globe to a
second-rate country in the course of the Second World War. It was blackouts,
rationing, everything sordid and dirty and depressed, and what we were doing
was coping with this tremendous demotion from being a great power to being a
minor power. But we somehow got through. We now lead the world in decline.
When I teach literature I always tell them, identify with the author,
not with the characters. Your affinity is not with the characters, always
with the writer. Because the characters are artifacts.
science has condemned novelists to die twice. We're going to die as everyone
dies, but before that our talent is going to die. There are no exceptions to
From Rachel to Asbo
LA Review of Books, April 25, 2012
Martin Amis seized on the wheezing literary world of 1970s England and
shocked it back to life. His mid-career comedies — Money, London Fields, The
Information — revitalized English prose with the freewheeling energies of
its American cousin. His novels, essays, stories, and journalism make up one
of the most electric and original bodies of work in modern literature. It
takes serious effort to deny the overwhelming originality of the voice. His
13th novel, Lionel Asbo: The State of England, feels like an expansion of
the trajectory Amis first embarked on with Money.
thing about growing old is the fear of declining powers. Genius is all the
god-given stuff, the altitude of perception and articulacy. Talent is craft.
And what happens I think is your genius shrinks and your talent expands. I
still feel, when I wake up and all I've got to do that day is write,
can't wait to get down there. It's a wonderful way of earning a living.
Martin Amis in conversation with David Wallace-Wells
New York Magazine, July 2012
I love the working class, and everyone from it I've met, and think
they're incredibly witty, inventive — there's a lot of poetry there. A lot
of rough stuff as well. A lot of thwarted intelligence. When I talk to these
lowlife friends of mine and acquaintances, I'm amazed how brilliant they
Gentrification is like class cleansing. It's flushing out the
proletariat by pressure and money.
London and New York are on a par in terms
of inequality. I think it's tremendously demoralizing for a society when the
divide gets that big. Money is a much more fluid medium than class. Plenty
of people have got it who don't deserve it. America is becoming more like a
plutocracy than a democracy.
Failure is much more interesting than
success. I sometimes feel I'm a cult writer, rather than a mainstream
writer. Someone said of my stuff that I deliver truisms with enormous force.
A lot of people who read fiction are interested in subtlety, and respond to
that. But they wouldn't like my stuff. It's a bit too violent for many
They talk about pornography becoming mainstream and accepted.
And I thought, no, it never will, until masturbation is mainstream and
accepted and cool. Women will never assent to it. And the reason is because
their great power, procreation, is just ignored in pornography. It's as if
getting pregnant were caused by something else entirely. But I think that
women are coming around to it. A review by a woman I read the other day of
the Fifty Shades of Grey book ended with the sentence: I wouldn't wank to
it, but it's not bad.
Fiction has responded to the fact that the rate
of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to
accelerate. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels
of the postwar era don't have an audience anymore. No one is writing that
kind of novel now. Most novelists are much more aware than they used to be
of the need for forward motion in a novel.
I'm committed in fiction
to the pleasure principle. Fiction is much more to do with love than people
admit or acknowledge. The novelist has to not only love his characters but
also to love the reader.
That's what I mean by the pleasure principle.
The U.S. reviews for Lionel Asbo,
Martin Amis' latest novel, are not pretty:
Yobs, Aging, Death
By Ron Rosenbaum
Smithsonian Magazine, September 2012
lives in an elegant Brooklyn brownstone in Cobble Hill. Many who read Lionel
Asbo take his move to America as a bitter farewell to an England now
dominated by ugly yobs and a toxic culture of tabloids and porn. Amis says
the move had more to do with his wife Isabel Fonseca.
not only viciously satiric novels like Lionel Asbo but also books about the
Holocaust, Stalinism, nuclear annihilation, and post-9/11 Islam. On the
Holocaust: "The way they made the Jews pay for their tickets in the railway
cars to the death camps. Yeah, and the rates for a third-class ticket, one
way. And half price for children."
For Amis the focal point of bad
behavior is the yob: "I've always thought that people that are designated as
yobs actually have quite a lot of native intelligence and wit." On
masculinity: "It's without doubt my main subject. The way masculinity can go
wrong. And I'm something of a gynocrat in a utopian kind of way."
aging: "Your youth evaporates in your early 40s ... Then in your 50s
everything is very thin. And then suddenly you've got this huge new
territory inside you, which is the past, which wasn't there before ... Then
I find that in your 60s, everything begins to look sort of slightly magical
The Atlantic, November 2012
Martin Amis, 63, has led a writer's life, sedentary and doggedly
Can it be that he is famous just for writing? His great vice
Wall Street Journal, December 2012
Martin Amis was
a gifted young writer. He soon made his reputation as part of a talented
group of writers clustered around the New Statesman magazine: Christopher
Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Clive James, and James Fenton. Amis
consolidated his reputation with Money (1984) and London Fields (1989).
Probably the last book that helped his reputation was The Information
The simultaneous decline of his fictional powers and
inflation of his moral pretensions has meant that, for the past decade at
least, no writer has been a more tempting target for critics. His celebrity
has long increased without reference to the critical consensus about his
books. When the balance between reputation and achievement gets out of
whack, retribution is inevitable.
Financial Times, June 1, 2013
Martin Amis is grappling with
evil. The Holocaust is the subject of his new novel, now in its third draft.
It is set in an unnamed Auschwitz. The genesis of the work was a bolt from
"It was a very counter-intuitive one. It was imagining love at
first sight at Auschwitz."
Amis confesses that he refined the evil
and made it even worse. "I think that's what the Holocaust was: a very
thorough, Germanic exploration of evil: we're in it now, let's see how evil
we can be."
Critics will consider whether this novel calls forth some
of the critical acclaim Amis enjoyed for his earlier books. His 2012 novel
Lionel Asbo received distinctly mixed reviews. Lionel Shriver: "I hate to say this, because my hopes were high, but this novel becomes well and truly
On Lionel Asbo being a V sign to the UK: "It's actually a very affectionate portrait of England
... I think British people are very tolerant and generous, but they are witty."
On critical accusations of slumming: "My big dose of working-class life was when I was really
young." His best friend for years was always in prison. "I'm drawn to
extremes. The class that's absent from my fiction is the middle class."
On younger novelists: "I don't read the younger ones. I only read the
Martin Amis: Why I Quit
New Statesman, 9 August 2013
Martin Amis recalls why he quit
as New Statesman literary editor in 1979:
"I had to give it up because
I didn't write a word of fiction once I was editor.
It gave me so much
satisfaction to open the paper on Friday when it was all done
thought I'd better give this up because I won't write another word."
The Rub Of Time
The Guardian, September 16, 2017
lives with his wife Isabel Fonseca in Brooklyn. At 68, he is still very much
"I miss the English. I miss Londoners. I miss the wit."
terms of success in America are narrower, with a greater emphasis on
individual responsibility. Amis says it is undoubtedly an easier place in
which to be a successful novelist. Being the writer son of a famous novelist
father was always going to play both ways for Amis.
Among his British
critics, Amis excites a peculiarly angry commentary, partly on matters of
substance and partly for reasons of style. When he moved to America, it was
speculated with some glee that he was fleeing the press. American novelists,
he says, are less feverish about pecking order than the British.
Christopher Hitchens died in 2011, much sooner than Amis expected. At the
hospital in Houston, Amis spoke on the phone to Ian McEwan, who brought up
something caustic Amis had written in a draft essay about Hitchens. Amis is
adamant about the absurdity of losing old friends over politics: "As Hitch
said, you can't make old friends."
After the demise of his first
marriage to Antonia Phillips in 1993, his own family life has been low
in drama. He says he and Isabel have been lucky in all sorts of ways. Amis
The Rub Of Time
A novel by Martin Amis, September 2020
More on or by Martin Amis
The awful opinions of Martin Amis
The absurd world of Martin Amis
Has Martin Amis lost his marbles?
House of Meetings
The Second Plane
Amis the Gynocrat
Agony of the Ayatollahs
Amis on Loss
Amis To Edit Larkin
From Rachel to Asbo
By Jason Cowley
New Statesman, June 4, 2001
Dale Peck, the talented young American critic-novelist, in the
New Republic, suggested that
the elite of British fiction - McEwan, Amis, Rushdie and so on - had
systematically "ruined" the British novel. As for Ian McEwan: "His novels smell
worse than the newspaper wrapped around old fish."
Peck continued: "I do not mean to suggest that there are not any good writers in
Britain . . . merely that the writers who have been anointed as the propagators
of the great tradition of British fiction seem to be intent upon destroying all
that is good in that tradition."
By Christopher Hitchens
The Atlantic, July/August 2007
Nan A. Talese recent article in the London Sunday Times made the
matter-of-fact statement that Ian McEwan had emerged in Britain as "our national
writer." I at once understood the justice of this opinion, but without at first
being able to say what commanded my assent. A reading of
McEwan's latest novella allows one to be fractionally less vague. The
"national" character of this literary fragment is to be found in its
simultaneous evocations of time and place, which allow the reader — at any rate
the reader of a certain age who is of English provenance — to locate himself with
satisfaction in an identifiable geography at a given date.
But it's not absolutely necessary to enjoy this shared relationship with either
the story or the setting, for the subject is universal. It is sex — or, to be more
precise, sex and the loss of innocence.
Ian McEwan Receives Stellfox Prize
College, Carlisle, PA, September 26-28, 2005
Renowned British novelist and Booker Prize winner
became the first recipient of the college's Stellfox Prize and Residency for
Literary Excellence, funded by the Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting
Scholars and Writers Program.
A Sinner's Tale
Interview with Deborah Solomon
The New York Times, December 2, 2007
Atonement has been made into a film.
Most novelists run from film, afraid
that the care they lavished on their prose
will be squandered.
I know. Well, it will be squandered whether they run or not.
So why are you the executive producer?
So I could stay involved but not write the screenplay. I refused to write the
The film is bleaker than the novel.
I hope it's not entirely bleak. It's a love story.
It seems the impulse to atone is a religious one, and
yet you are a self-declared atheist.
Yes, I am an atheist. Atheists still have the same problem of how they reconcile
themselves to a bad deed in the past. It’s a little easier if you’ve got a god
to forgive you.
You have two grown sons.
They're much nicer to me than I was to my parents. I was managed as a child.
You were probably already a nonbeliever.
No, I was just beginning to see through it all, but not quite.
Martin Amis is being shredded in the British press
after criticizing various aspects of Islam.
He was attacked in The Guardian, in a shrill manner. All religions make very big
claims about the world, and it should be possible in an open society to dispute
them. It should be possible to say,
"I find some ideas in Islam questionable"
without being called a racist.
Which ideas do you mean?
Well, the idea that any apostate should be punished is revolting. This is
completely hostile to the notion of free thought and everything we hope to stand
for. I think Martin has suffered terribly at the hands of The Guardian.
The Brilliant Friend
The Guardian, December 16, 2011
"The next morning,
at Christopher's request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a
window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room,
arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking
and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to
produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker's biography of Chesterton. Whenever people
talk of Christopher's journalism, I will always think of this moment."
Darwin and Einstein
The Guardian, March 23, 2012
In June 1858, Charles
Darwin read an essay sent to him by Alfred Wallace. It covered all the ideas
that Darwin had been working on for decades. Darwin was surprised at the
depth of his own feelings about priority. He had delved far deeper and
certainly deserved priority. Quickly, he wrote
On the Origin of Species.
When Albert Einstein generalized his special theory of relativity, he
had the idea that gravity arises from the curvature of space-time. Two
complementary processes, how matter is affected by a gravitational field and
how matter causes spacetime to curve, eventually found expression in the
geometry of tensors.
In conversations with David Hilbert, Einstein
explained what he was attempting to achieve. Hilbert, the superior
mathematician, seemed to understand all the details. In fact, Hilbert was
soon working hard to formulate his own general theory. Quickly, Einstein
presented his ideas to the Prussian Academy in 1915. Just days before his
final lecture, Hilbert submitted his theory to a journal.
Wallace and Hilbert conceded priority to Darwin and Einstein. As the true
Darwin and Einstein were overwhelmed by celebrity and became
icons in the culture.
Lunch with the FT: Ian McEwan
By Caroline Daniel
Financial Times, August 24, 2012
The last time
novelist Ian McEwan was interviewed by an FT journalist he married her.
She is the writer and former literary editor Annalena McAfee.
McEwan has just published his 13th novel,
Sweet Tooth. His Scottish father
was in the army, and lived in Germany as a retired officer for 20
years. Ian describes a childhood
of longing to escape. He read English at
the University of Sussex before graduating from the
University of East
Anglia in 1971.
McEwan is surprisingly at ease talking about
emotional issues. His father was sometimes
violent to his mother,
although he never saw it. This sense of something aloof and emotionally
detached is evident in McEwan's early short stories, First Love, Last
Rights. They have no sense
of place or community.
In the early
1970s, McEwan entered a buoyant literary scene, embracing Ian Hamilton
the New Review, and writers Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, and Julian
"The conversation was hilarious and quick, the company
irresistible. In a way it was like
finding a home, a world in a set of
This era forms the backdrop for Sweet Tooth. McEwan
worries that people will dislike it
because he has "put some of my chums
in. It's very self-indulgent." It is ostensibly about MI5
but is also a
forensically plotted novel about fiction.
His work has spawned dozens
of theses. His novels also appear on the school curriculum.
It is hard to
find any topic that riles him. But at home he can get very irritated by
"Annalena's parody of it is me muttering 'Fucking piece of
shit' to some bit of telephone."
The New Yorker, October 29, 2012
I believe the
novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter
of a rambling, bloated giant. Long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or
a consciousness, short enough to be read in a sitting or two, the
architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures. Often one
reads a full-length novel and thinks it would have worked out better at half
or a third the length.
To sit with a novella is analogous to watching
a movie. There’s a strong resemblance between the screenplay and the
novella, both operating within the same economy. There is an element of
performance in the novella. The novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly,
and personal for perfection. Great novels are not perfect novels. But I
could at least conceive of the perfect novella.
Faith In Fiction
The Guardian, February 16, 2013
Like a late Victorian clergyman doubting in the dark, I have moments
when my faith in fiction falters. I don't know how or where to suspend my
disbelief. I don't believe a word of it.
When the god of fiction
deserts you, everything must go. The book-lined church, the respectful
congregation, the reviewer's blessing or curse. My doubter's heart fails
when I wander into a bookstore and see the towers on the tables, the
taglines above the cover art, the earnest plot summaries.
I'm 64. If
I'm lucky, I might have 20 good reading years left. Teach me about the
world! Bring me the cosmologists, the annalists, the philosopher, the
neuroscientist, the mathematician, the historian. A few widely spaced
pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel?
Such apostasy creeps into the wide gap that separates finishing one
novel and starting the next. Months can go by. Then there comes a shift. I
have a memory of myself as a child, caressing a detail in a novel. The
experience showed me how the worlds of fact and fiction can interpenetrate.
Things that never happened can tangle with things that did. The atheist
may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem. You can put
everything to use when you return to the faith.
"Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!"
Ian McEwan, The Guardian, April 9, 2013
Maggie Thatcher forced us to dislike her. She seemed intent on
monetizing human value and famously cared little for the impulses that bind
individuals into a society.
But before her reign TV schedules were a
state secret not shared with daily newspapers. A special license was granted
exclusively to the Radio Times. It was illegal to put an extension lead on
your phone — you had to wait six weeks for an engineer. There was only one
state-approved answering machine available. Electricity was a state
monopoly. Thatcher swept all this away.
We live in a world that is
harder and more competitive, and certainly more intently aware of the lure
of cash. It is doubtful that we will ever undo her legacy.
Janan Ganesh, Financial Times, April 16, 2016
During a lecture on identity in London two weeks ago, Ian McEwan said: "It makes a difference whether you have an X or Y chromosome." This upset many transgender people and campaigners. He later clarified his remarks with the weariness of someone who has endured such squalls before.
McEwan does not seem built for controversy. The comments that provoke usually flow from his interest in science. His novels are known more for set pieces and narrative control than didactic politics. That scientific bent grounds him in doubt, evidence and other scourges of ideology.
His personal background is a classic postwar arc from the lower middle class. His friend Martin Amis once professed an interest in low life, the scandalous rich and nothing in between.
McEwan knows the in-between.
Machines Like Me
Ian McEwan, Edge, April 16, 2019
Adam was not a sex toy, but he was capable of sex. This highly advanced model of artificial human was advertised as a companion, an intellectual sparring partner, friend and factotum who could wash dishes, make beds, and think. In every moment of his existence, everything he heard and saw he recorded and could retrieve.
What I wanted to pursue was the idea of a creature who was morally superior to ourselves. My ambition was to create a set of circumstances in which Adam would make decisions that we would see as severe and antihuman, but in many senses were both logical and ethically pure. Novelists throughout time have pursued the field of play within a love triangle, in which moral certainties and doubts can run against each other.
The situation in which I imagine an artificial creature would give us great trouble would be one in which someone we love takes an act of revenge, and that revenge is righteous. It seems inevitable and has a distinct and decent moral cause. The question is how to punish that person when you oppose the notion of revenge with the rule of law. Adam takes the view that the rule of law must always be followed, and that any act of revenge is the beginning of social breakdown.
Our own lack of self-knowledge will make it very difficult to encode a being that is good in the sense that we would find good. It might make ruthless logical decisions that we would find inhuman even though we in a sense might agree with them. I think we will run into enormous but fascinating problems.
Peter Kemp, The Times, 4 September 2022
Ian McEwan's 18th novel ranges widely across place and period, propelled by the memories and meditations of its central figure, Roland. Opening in 1986, it zigzags from WW2 to 2021, unrolling a panorama of momentous global happenings against which Roland's personal life is silhouetted, such as the Cuban missile crisis, the Chernobyl disaster, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Lessons traces the full cavalcade of Roland's life, from a childhood in Libya where his father was stationed; relocation from Tripoli to London and a boarding school in Suffolk; and later, the slow decline of his mother, as Roland drifts through such occupations as photographer, tennis coach, poet, researcher of quotations for greetings cards, and pianist in a Mayfair hotel.
McEwan shares a fascination with German politics as Roland sees reunification as the start of unstoppable liberal democratic progress to European unity. Toward the end, a clownish circus of "right-wing cranks determined on the fantastical project" of taking Britain out of Europe brings about what he views as a national tragedy of unreason.
The novel is far from dispiriting.
Lisa Allardice, The Guardian, 7 September 2022
Ian McEwan's latest novel Lessons includes a look at postwar British history. He aims to show how global events penetrate our lives and calls Lessons "a sort of post-Brexit novel."
The genial man in linen shirt and jumper, who might just as easily be an eminent scientist, has a reputation as fiction's prince of darkness. He won the Booker in 1998, wrote the novel of the 2007 movie Atonement, and features on school reading lists.
McEwan: "We had our time. My generation, when we were first publishing in the 70s, it was very boyish. It was a tight world. We're all in our 70s now. We can't complain .. We got the prizes and some money, and we had the writing life."
He started writing Lessons in 2019. All he wanted to do was stay at home and write in 2020: "I really wanted to write a long novel .. I thought, now I'm going to plunder my own life, I'm going to be shameless.".
Tom Gatti, New Statesman, 8 September 2022
Ian McEwan is 74. In February 2020, he and his wife Annalena McAfee cancelled a holiday and retreated to their manor house in the Cotswolds.
On the last evening of August 2022, McEwan brings back from his kitchen two glasses of red wine and recalls his past. His family history is mirrored in Lessons.
McEwan was a prominent member of a literary scene that included his friends Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Christopher Hitchens. He travelled with the group to Russia in 1987: "We spent a lot of time on the 15th floor of sad apartment blocks on the edge of Moscow, having the most exhilarating conversations with Russian writers, activists, intellectuals."
The year 1989 was notable for the fatwa issued against his friend Salman Rushdie. And the Berlin Wall fell in November. McEwan flew out to Berlin and followed the surging crowds.
On Liz Truss as prime minister: "She's intellectually so vapid. I think her worldview is so tiny, so shrivelled, so ungenerous, so dry .. Or maybe she's just a highly ambitious politician who's playing a very cynical game."
On letting politics into his fiction: "We can't retreat inside the whale, but to stay outside the whale, you've got to have one foot in its mouth."
Adam Begley, The Atlantic, October 2022
Ian McEwan wrote Lessons during lockdown: "It was one of the most pleasant writing experiences I've ever had. The stillness here, the long walks, writing every day, seven days a week, 10 hours a day."
Lessons thrives on the interplay between seismic global events and private lives. Roland is an alter ego whose parents, siblings, childhood, and early education are all minutely modeled on McEwan's own. On the brink of adolescence, their paths diverge. The alter ego suffers a trauma that knocks him off course.
McEwan carries himself with the easy confidence of a writer who is both a serial best seller and a darling of the critics. Calm, rational, unhurried, he fixes you with a steady eye, his gaze the physiological equivalent of his lucid, neat, economical prose. His wry good humor suggests that he's a stranger to disappointment and difficulty.
Julian Barnes on Lessons: "It's a summing up of Ian's life .. I won't say Lessons feels like a Last Novel, but it wouldn't be the worst thing if it were."
More on or by Ian McEwan
October 10, 2006
The row over Muslim women's dress codes reignited today after
author Salman Rushdie declared that "veils suck". Rushdie, whose book
The Satanic Verses triggered death threats from Islamic clerics, gave his
full backing to Leader of the Commons Jack Straw for raising the issue.
Rushdie was forced into hiding for 10 years after Iranian cleric Ayatollah
Khomeini served a "fatwah" on him over his book's alleged slight on the prophet
Mohammed. He had round-the-clock police protection costing nearly £1 million a
year, although that has been downgraded in recent years after Iran indicated the
death sentence no longer applied.
But Rushdie has always insisted he was right to publish
The Satanic Verses and
today he risked fresh Muslim anger with a savage attack on the wearing of veils.
"I think the battle against the veil has been a long and continuing battle
against the limitation of women, so in that sense I'm completely on [Straw's]
side. He was expressing an important opinion, which is that veils suck, which
they do. I think the veil is a way of taking power away from women."
Slate, June 20, 2007
Salman Rushdie was
"thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my
work has been recognised in this way," while others saw a belated endorsement or
In the House of Islam, the reaction was all too predictable. "Salman Rushdie has
turned into a hated corpse, which cannot be resurrected by any action," Mohammad
Reza Bahonar told the parliament in Tehran, where the knighthood was angrily
denounced as a further provocation. Iran was, of course, the country where the
fatwa was pronounced on Rushdie by the ayatollahs in 1989. In Islamabad, Robert
Brinkley, the British representative, was summoned to be rebuked for the "utter
lack of sensitivity" in knighting Rushdie.
All this was familiar from the eruption over Rushdie's novel
The Satanic Verses
18 years ago, but the response in England was also painfully familiar.
By Andrew Anthony
The Observer, April 6, 2008
Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Enchantress
of Florence, is a hymn to the creative and destructive power of female beauty.
'Ridiculously beautiful, comically beautiful' was how he once described Padma
Lakshmi, the woman who became his fourth wife. But in fact, Rushdie insists, he
had the concept of the novel before he met her.
According to Rushdie, the irony is that not only did she not inspire the book,
she was very nearly the cause of its demise: 'To put it bluntly, I had to write
it in spite of her. Because what happened to me last year when I was writing
this book was a colossal calamity.' In January of 2007,
Lakshmi asked for a
We meet in the Bloomsbury offices of his agent, Andrew Wylie. He's pleased with
the novel, a fabulous interweaving of fiction and history across two continents,
though his critics would say this is nothing new.
He says there was a period, after Lakshmi left him, that he worked eight or nine
hours a day for six weeks and produced 'about three pages'. But at the end of
this block, he refound the story.
Indeed one of the pleasures of the book is the sense of delight that the prose
takes in conjuring seductive myths from the solid foundations of history: 'One
of the things that I came to feel more than before, while writing the book, and
it's not a very complicated truth, is the idea that human nature really is
He is pessimistic about the future of East-West relations: 'I hope I'm wrong but
the best-case optimistic argument I can make is that if you look at the
phenomenon of Islamic extremism, the places where it's most hated are the places
where it's most powerful.'
Having graduated from Cambridge in 1968, his politics were not untypical of his
generation and class. In The Satanic Verses, he writes of 'the Coca-Colonization
of the planet' and refers to New York as the 'transatlantic New Rome with its
Nazified architectural gigantism, which employed the oppressions of size to make
its human occupants feel like worms'.
Rushdie still has his criticisms of America, where he lives for much of the time
in the architectural gigantism of New York. He remains a committed
multiculturalist. 'I couldn't exist were it not for that transcultural movement.
So obviously I'm biased.'
Rushdie would argue that he was never a proponent of cultural relativism. The
event that made him an outspoken opponent was the fatwa on his life issued by
the Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine's Day in 1989. It was a defining moment in
the cultural wars that have grown dramatically more political in recent years.
Rushdie found himself in the strange position of having to rely on the support
of Margaret Thatcher: 'I only met Margaret Thatcher twice. The thing that I
thought about meeting her was how extraordinarily intelligent she was.'
He developed not just an admiration, but a fondness for many people he came to
know within the security and intelligence services: 'I've met a lot of Special
Branch officers both at the everyday and higher levels and, with one or two
exceptions, I liked all of them.'
It's been a decade since the Iranian government withdrew their support for the
fatwa, effectively allowing Rushdie back into civilian life. He says it now
feels like something that happened to him in the past.
There was a brief reprise last year when Rushdie was awarded a knighthood. A few
opportunists in Pakistan tried to generate a firestorm of protest, but it came
Since 2001, he's been joined in the political arena by a number of fellow
authors, some of whom have taken up a more controversial position than Rushdie:
'It's a big subject that everybody's thinking about. I don't agree with all
Christopher Hitchens's views but that doesn't stop him being my friend. And I
don't agree with everything Martin [Amis] said, but he's entirely entitled to
say it without being abused in the way that he was.'
The point for Rushdie is that he and his friends remain on the progressive side
of the argument. 'My instincts are completely liberal, but I do think we live in
a very weird world and we do need to realise that the world has changed. And
when Martin, Ian [McEwan] and I say that we get called conservative. But we're
We discuss politics but Rushdie resents being recruited to positions he does not
a legacy of the fatwa.
The Satanic Verses, 20 years on
By Kenan Malik
Spiked, November 2008
The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, it had been expected to
set the world alight.
Salman Rushdie was
then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. Almost five
years in the making, there was something mythical about the novel even before it
had been published. Within a month
The Satanic Verses had been banned in Rushdie's native India. And then on 14
February 1989 came the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. The fatwa transformed the
Rushdie affair into a global conflict with historic repercussions.
To see how much the ground has shifted in the past 20 years, we only have to
compare the response to
The Satanic Verses to that to
The Jewel of Medina. Written by an American journalist, Sherry Jones,
The Jewel of Medina is a tale about
Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad's youngest wife. It had originally been bought
by the American publishers Random House. Then an American academic, Denise
Spellberg, condemned the book as offensive. Random House immediately dropped it.
No other major American publishing house would touch it.
In 1989 even the Ayatollah's death sentence could not stop the publication of
The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade.
Translators and publishers were killed, bookshops bombed and Penguin staff
forced to wear bomb-proof vests. Yet Penguin never wavered in its commitment to
keep it published. Today, all it takes for a publisher to run for cover is a
letter from an outraged academic. In the 20 years between the publication of
The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of
The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised.
Twenty years ago, most liberals defended Rushdie's right to publish
The Satanic Verses despite the offence it caused many Muslims. Today, many
argue that in practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities. By
accepting the fiction that hostility to
The Satanic Verses was driven by theology, that all Muslims were offended by
the novel and that in a plural society speech must necessarily be less free,
liberals have helped create a culture of grievance in which being offended has
become a badge of identity.
By Christopher Hitchens
Vanity Fair, February 2009
Salman Rushdie, raised a Muslim, concluded that the Koran was a book made by
the hands of men and was thus a fit subject for literary criticism and
fictional borrowing. Various intellectualoids argued that Rushdie got what
he deserved for insulting a great religion. Others remarked darkly that
Rushdie knew what he was doing. He certainly did know what he was doing. He
had studied Islamic scripture at Cambridge University. We live now in a
climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in
advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal. Though I can think of
many circumstances in which I would take a life, the crime of writing a work
of fiction is not a justification.
On Amis and the Arab Spring
The Times, June 25, 2011
Salman Rushdie laughs about his friend
Martin Amis' scathing dismissal of children's fiction. A few months ago Amis
said, "If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's
Rushdie says, "I wrote to him and said I thought that was wrong."
He is critical of what he calls the cultural relativist mistake in
Britain regarding the tolerance of religious extremism. "One of the lessons
we should learn from the Arab Spring is that the spirit behind all these
uprisings is not religious. It's an old-fashioned revolution: it's about
jobs and freedom. What it shows is that people everywhere want the same
Interview with Salman Rushdie
By Gidi Weitz
Haaretz, October 20, 2011
Why is it
There is a widespread difficulty in the Muslim
world, which has to do with how the people are taught about examining their
own history. A whole range of stuff has been placed off limits. The meaning
of that material is dictated by religious people, not historians and
What did you mean when you wrote that Islam needs
to be reformed?
It's not so much about reforming Islam as it is
about reforming Islamic societies.
You can't have modern states based on
ideas which have been out of date for a thousand years.
If they don't
start to adapt to the new world, they will continue to be economically poor
and incompetent and authoritarian.
Why is the revolutionary
wave bypassing Iran?
The uprisings are not happening in Iran
because there is greater repression in Iran.
It is not the mullahs
anymore, it is the Revolutionary Guard.
Will Iran collapse in
I'm not a prophet, but I always thought it was natural
for dictatorships to fall.
What happened to India?
All of us who love India are concerned. The level of corruption is
Isn't the economic miracle meant to create a
It used to be that 10% of the population were
wealthy and 90% were destitute. Now you have the same 10% of super rich,
then a 10% middle class, which is doing fine, and finally 80% destitute.
So it has trickled down a little bit.
The New Yorker, September 17, 2012
reporter called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she
got the number: "How does it feel to know that you have just been sentenced
to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?"
This is what he said, without really
knowing what he was saying: "It doesn't feel good."
This is what he
thought: I'm a dead man.
He could focus only on the
immediate, and the immediate was the memorial service for Bruce Chatwin.
Marianne arrived, a faintly deranged look on her face, upset about
having been mobbed by photographers when she left the house. She didn't say
much. Neither of them did.
They got into their car.
and Marianne were seated next to Martin Amis and his wife, Antonia Phillips.
"We're worried about you," Martin said, embracing him.
"I'm worried about
me," he replied.
Paul Theroux was sitting in the pew behind him.
"I suppose we’ll be here for you next week, Salman."
By Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian, September 17, 2012
Salman Rushdie gave his new memoir the name he used while in fear for his
life. Now 65, he spent 13 years as Joseph Anton following the fatwa declared
upon him by Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine's Day 1989. Over 636 pages he
recalls how his first wife died, his second and third marriages broke up and
his fourth broke up later, his Japanese editor was murdered, his Norwegian
publisher shot, his Italian translator stabbed, hundreds died in riots
protesting against his novel, his books were burned from Bradford to
Islamabad, and he did things that still make him burn with shame.
Christmas Eve 1990, at the behest of six Muslim scholars, he signed a paper
saying he had intended no offense to Islam. He even
wrote an article called "Why I am a Muslim" for The Times: "I am certainly
not a good Muslim. But I am able now to say that I am Muslim; in fact it is
a source of happiness to say that I am now inside, and a part of, the
community whose values have always been closest to my heart."
repudiated his supposed faith. Now he calls himself "a profoundly
irreligious man" of "the Hitchens camp" (Christopher Hitchens
†) and says blasphemy is a weapon.
"The Satanic Verses isn't
— or is not only — about Islam. It deals with the origin story of religion,
closely following Islam. It's about the nature of revelation, about the
seeing of visions. There are close parallels between Joan of Arc and St John
the Divine's revelations and Muhammad's descriptions of seeing the Angel
Gabriel. It seems to me that's a subjective reality, not an objective one.
If you'd been standing with Muhammad would you have seen this big angel?
Probably not, but at the same time Muhammad was not making up what he saw.
For him it's not a fiction. That's interesting to write about."
the movie Innocence of Muslims: "The film is clearly a malevolent piece of
garbage. The civilized response would be to say of the director: 'Fuck him.
Let's get on with our day.' What's not civilized is to hold America
responsible for everything that happens in its borders. That's crap. Even if
that were true, to respond with physical attacks and believe it's OK to
attack people because you're upset at this thing, that's an improper
reaction. The Muslim world needs to get out of that mindset."
past decade Rushdie has lived in New York. He says both he and Martin Amis
live there because they love it. He adds that Ian McEwan is feeling lonely
By Nicholas Shakespeare
The Telegraph, 20 September 2012
Rushdie is a writer of prodigious if uneven talent. Joseph Anton begins on
St Valentine's Day 1989. The fatwa was no idle threat. Condemned to hell
by a dying imam, he swiftly found himself already there.
Many find it
easy to misrepresent Rushdie as a once-great writer who has allowed the
mercury of fame to spread into his prose, a party monster and celebrity
victim who has immatured with age, whose greatest thrill these days is to
swap sunglasses with Bono on stage at Wembley.
Joseph Anton narrates
a truth far greater, far more relevant. Rushdie has dared to go on and on,
ceaselessly reminding us of the barbaric and unacceptable response to his
imaginative fiction. Though awfully long, solipsistic, and self-serving,
Joseph Anton is a painfully moving book you need to read.
Daily Mail, September 22, 2012
Extracts edited by Andy Ross
In August 1999 the millenarian illusion that would overpower him (JA) and
change his life presented itself to him as Padma Lakshmi. They talked for a
few minutes and exchanges phone numbers. A week later, in a suite at the
Mark Hotel, she said to him, "There's a bad me inside me and when she comes
out she just takes whatever she wants."
He flew to Los Angeles
to see Padma in Paris. He was in the wrong place with the wrong woman in the
wrong city on the wrong continent at the wrong time. He moved out of her
apartment into the Bel-Air Hotel, booked an earlier flight back to London,
and called Padma to say that the spell had been broken, he had come to his
senses and he was going back to his wife. He called Elizabeth.
He had lunch with Christopher Hitchens and Warren Beatty at the Beverly
Hills Hotel. "Can I say," Warren Beatty said to him, "that when I saw you at
dinner at Mr Chow the other day you were with a woman so beautiful that it
made me want to faint?" He replied, "I'll call her. Maybe she can join us."
Padma did join them, and deliberately did nothing to doll herself up,
arriving in sweatpants and tank top. Warren Beatty looked faint and said to
him, "You’ll excuse me if I make a fool of myself over your lady for five
minutes. After that we can go on having lunch."
Joseph Anton Reviewed
By Margaret Drabble
The Observer, 23 September 2012
memoir is more gripping than any spy story. He has attempted to tell his own
truth. It cannot have been easy. He turns himself into an almost Falstaffian
figure, shabby and overweight, letting himself go, smoking, at times
drinking too much and quarrelling with a succession of wives. This tells us
more perhaps than we need to know. The disclosures make for powerful
reading. Wife after wife told him she did not like living under his shadow.
This memoir is full both of telling trivia and profound insights. The
sections that describe Rushdie's family background, the death of his father
and his schooldays are excellent. It is at once a personal history, an
account of a butterfly's wing called The Satanic Verses and an analysis of
the catastrophic chaos that the flapping of those pages unleashed. Rushdie
appears to take a gloomy view about the chaos. His book, as he puts it, was
but the prologue and we are still grappling with the main event. He can't
know what would have happened if he hadn't published that novel, if the old
imam on his deathbed hadn't issued a fatwa against the author of a book he
had never read.
My first reaction to the news of the fatwa was
outrage. I was happy to help by offering my house as sanctuary. I would have
been more than happy to offer evidence in court for the literary merit of
The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie Versus Mullocracy
By Colin MacCabe
New Statesman, September 2012
At the age of 42,
Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton is part of a
history of what happened after the author was condemned to death by
Rushdie writes in the third person. This device
pays off once Khomeini has pronounced his sentence. For at that moment
Rushdie becomes a world-historical figure. The distancing device works
brilliantly. It is the formal analog of the extraordinary psychic adjustment
that he had to make in order to cope with events that would have driven many
The story Rushdie tells is gripping. When he first told me of
the novel he was writing, which had as its center Koranic verses accepting
other gods that the Prophet then disowned, he was emphatic that what he
wanted to do was to create a space in which one could pay one's respects to
Islamic culture without believing in God. This was his unforgivable sin.
Rushdie attempted to appropriate the Islamic tradition for unbelievers,
to take it out of the hands of the clerics. He has now given up this
struggle. Islam is as the Islamophobes would have it.
I Insist on the right to freedom of expression
Der Spiegel, September 22, 2012
recalls Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. My security people loved the name.
From then on I was Joe, for ten years. Hey Joe. I hated it. But I always
knew that I would eventually write about it.
On the day the fatwa was
published, February 14, 1989, I left my house in London and didn't know that
I wouldn't be able to return for years. Operation Malachite, the name the
Special Branch of the London Police gave to my case, began the next day.
They moved me around in the first few months, to hotels, strange bed and
breakfasts run by retired police officers, apartments of friends and, later,
apartments and houses that were rented at the last minute. I always had two
bodyguards with me around the clock. There were also two drivers and two
When I met my bodyguards the day after the fatwa was
announced, they were still saying that they were going to keep me hidden and
protected at a hotel for a few days. Later on, there were incidents that
made the threat palpable. A man in a cheap hotel in Paddington blew himself
up while attempting to assemble a bomb. It turned out that it was meant for
me. Then there were serious attacks on two of my translators and my
Norwegian publisher. These attacks were coming from professional killers.
It was crazy. There was a huge gulf between public perception and my own
private truth. There was a danger of becoming solipsistic. That's why I
tried to break out of the security bubble in which I was caught. But I
wasn't allowed to do so in England, which is why America became so important
for me. There I was allowed to make my own decisions about how I wished to
live. I was overjoyed.
I wasn't famous for the content of The Satanic
Verses, but for the scandal around it. I think the dream passages about the
Prophet are among the best bits of the book. The wives of the Prophet were
very famous at the time, but no other men could see them, because they were
locked away in the Prophet's harem. There were brothels in which women
assumed the name or even adopted the persona of a wife of the Prophet. This
made them accessible as an erotic fantasy. The purpose of that chapter isn't
to insult the Prophet, but to address the phenomenon of women with power and
the nature of male sexuality and how it is turned on by what men can't have.
These passages are serious.
I've realized that there will always be
people who are not going to like what I do. Too bad.
This is the story of
my life, and I'm not going to let anyone stop me from telling it.
Salman Rushdie at 65
By Boyd Tonkin
The Independent, September 22, 2012
Rushdie began taking notes for his memoir Joseph Anton almost as soon as the
Ayatollah Khomeini delivered his Valentine on 14 February 1989. The UK
Special Branch operation to protect him stood down long ago and he has lived
entirely in the open for over a decade, mostly in New York.
Salman, now 65, looks relaxed and speaks warmly. As violent protests against
an apparently blasphemous video convulse the Mideast, he says, "We see these
storms of birds at the slightest provocation all over the world ... When it
happened to The Satanic Verses, it was kind of an early harbinger of what
later became a storm."
Joseph Anton exerts a mesmeric hold with its
high-octane storytelling and the car-crash fascination of its content. It
tells the story of four marriages, of two children, and of bereavement. It
hands out bouquets, to campaigners, champions, sentinels, and even
tight-lipped London builders. And it flings the odd curse too. For him, free
expression ranks as "the right without which all the other rights disappear
... If you compromise on that, you lose everything else."
endeavors to keep his cause afloat. "One of things that has been very
effective, and has probably done the greatest long-term damage ... is the
campaign inside the Muslim world to demonize me, and to make me out to be an
archenemy of Islam."
Joseph Anton reveals not only political secrets
but also personal ones. "Whatever people make of the book, I hope that they
will see that it's written by somebody who's really trying to tell the
The Atlantic, December 2012
In his memoir
Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie defines the fatwa as the hinge moment of his
life. He offers readers the opportunity to examine his work through the same
Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote two great books,
Midnight's Children (1980) and Shame (1983). Since the fatwa, he has not
written any. Before the fatwa, Rushdie brilliantly exposed the corrupt
dynasties and pathologies of two sundered societies (India and Pakistan).
Since the fatwa, Rushdie has allowed flamboyant language and narrative
trickery to overshadow biting political satire and acute characterization.
Before the fatwa, Rushdie lived a relatively modest life in London. Now, as
Joseph Anton drearily attests, Rushdie has become a New York socialite
obsessed with name-dropping every celebrity he meets, lauding his own work
with shameless abandon, and pointlessly denigrating his ex-wives. Joseph
Anton shows both the resolve with which Rushdie confronted the threats to
his life, and the sad degree to which the unhinged words of a
demented ayatollah helped ruin a superb writer.
From Shalimar the
Clown: "That innocent-uninnocent city was a prostitute, was a gigolo, was
sophisticated infidelity in the guilty-unguilty afternoons."
Fury: "My name amuses you? So laugh. The chentleman, Mr. Simon, calls me
Kitchen Schlink, to his Mrs. Ada I'm also Bathroom Schlink, let zem call me
Schlink the Bismarck, it von't bother me, it's a free country, but in my
business I haff no use for humor."
From Joseph Anton: "India was not
cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it
needed a language to match that and he would try to find that language."
From Shame: "By now, if I had been writing a book of this nature, it
would have done me no good to protest that I was writing universally, not
only about Pakistan. The book would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish
The Rushdie Case
The New York Review of Books
December 20, 2012
On February 15, 1989, a day after the Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa
condemning him to death for his authorship of The Satanic Verses, Salman
Rushdie appeared on British television and announced that he wished his book
had been "more critical" of Islam. In Joseph Anton, Rushdie argues in his
"Anyway, his Prophet was not called Muhammad, lived in a
city not called Mecca, and created a religion not (or not quite) called
Islam. And he appeared only in the dream sequences of a man being driven
insane by his loss of faith. These many distancing devices were, in their
creator's opinion, indicators of the fictive nature of his project."
Five years before the fatwa, Rushdie claimed that novels could not be
excused from criticism on grounds that they were just fiction: all art was
inescapably political. Now Rushdie seems tired of defending the special
rights of fiction and moves on to advocating the extra-special rights of
serious, or important, fiction. By the end of Joseph Anton, Rushdie seems
The Art of Bravery
LA Review of Books, April 2013
If you know where to look, it is easy to find
forbidden work online. But artists are in increasing danger, and not just
artists. Rising numbers of journalists are being killed in pursuit of their
Violent and authoritarian regimes don't like the glare of
negative publicity. If you can make them sufficiently uncomfortable, they
frequently respond by setting people free or ceasing arrests.
Authoritarian rulers have an inflated sense of themselves and don't like
being deflated. It is all the more important to continue to deflate them.
Courageous people poke fun from inside these societies.
for story is very deep in human beings. We are the only creature in the
world that tells stories. Sometimes those are true stories and sometimes
those are made up stories. The larger stories, the grand narratives that we
live in, are part of the way in which we conduct the discourse of our lives.
Free expression is the right
from which all other rights are derived. If you can't articulate ideas and
if you can't articulate critiques of other peoples' ideas, then you're
powerless. Authoritarian regimes increase their power by preventing people
from expressing themselves.
The Golden House
The Guardian, September 16, 2017
has written a tale involving great wealth and a great downfall, through a
narrator who is peripheral to the action, but who lives in the same New York
garden square as Nero Golden and his three sons and watches their world with
The book begins with the election of Barack
Obama and ends eight years later on the eve of an election in which the lead
contender refers to himself as the Joker. Nero is a man of fabulous wealth,
with a beautiful Russian wife, and a fortune thought to be in part built on
real estate. The Goldens are immigrants who have abandoned their ties to
their natal country and chosen new names for themselves.
sees New York from the inside and the outside, as only a writer of multiple
selves such as Rushdie could do. There is no escaping destiny, Rushdie seems
to be saying, because character creates destiny. Nero is the architect of
his own downfall.
The Golden House
Born 1947 in Mumbai, read History at King's College, Cambridge
1981 Midnight's Children, won Booker Prize and 1993 Booker of Bookers prize
1988 The Satanic Verses, earned a fatwa by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini
1995 The Moor's Last Sigh, won Whitbread prize
June 2007 Awarded a knighthood
The iPod Moment
By Robert McCrum
The Observer, May 25, 2008
When I joined The Observer in 1996, the world
of books was in limbo between hot metal and cool word processing. The business
of books was run by anonymous men in suits whose judgments were largely ignored.
Trade was trade. Literature was another calling.
Now that world is more or less extinct. But the appetite for print is growing.
In 1996, there were between 60 000 and 100 000 new titles in the UK each year.
By 2007, it was pushing 200 000. That's the biggest annual output of any country
in the Western world, turning over some £4 billion a year.
All this has been fuelled by an explosive mixture of global commerce and
technology. In simple terms, you could say that Amazon plus Microsoft equals a
new literary stratosphere.
Zadie Smith, the author of White Teeth, was
first noticed in 1997 when she landed
an unheard-of advance for her work in
progress. When publication came in 2000,
there were plenty of envious critics to
pronounce her book dead on arrival.
But White Teeth was exhilaratingly and
With worldwide sales of more than 2 million, the effect was almost instantaneous.
London, Sydney, Delhi and New York, publishers were now on the alert for
next Zadie Smith."
In the excitement of the dotcom boom, from
which Amazon emerged as a survivor, the most visible symbol of change was a
marriage between the 600-year-old printed book and the high-tech world of online
selling. By 2007, sales had soared to $3.58 billion in 200 countries. Without
Amazon, there would have been no "long tail" and no online bookselling.
Across the English-speaking world, Amazon united the market. Previously, new
editions of books had been confined to territories like North America,
Australasia or the West Indies. Now books could be accessed by and sold to
customers across the world. Almost as revolutionary, Amazon put the customer
New writers who found a readership in the global marketplace began to command
substantial advances. By the end of the 1990s, a new generation of market-savvy
literary entrepreneurs was beginning to emerge. The headline news was that the
book trade was now bestowing extraordinary riches on a privileged and talented
I began to grasp the true dimensions of the
Harry Potter phenomenon on the morning of July 8, 2000. Harry Potter and the
Philosopher's Stone had been published with a tiny first printing of 500 in
1997, to modest but enthusiastic reviews, swiftly followed by Harry Potter and
the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Bloomsbury
took the unusual step of releasing the new book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of
Fire, to the literary media at 6 am on a Saturday morning. As I drove at dawn to
Bloomsbury's central London offices for my copy, I passed a long line of Harry
Potter fans, all waiting to devour the latest volume.
Ms Rowling has now sold some 400 million copies of her books and is worth £545
Jonathan Franzen spoilt his publisher's lunch
by refusing to allow The Corrections, his "sweeping account of a dysfunctional
American family" and the surprise literary bestseller of the stricken 9/11 season, to be selected for Oprah's Book Club.
What Franzen objected to was that in order to join "Oprah's authors" he had to
allow the chat-show queen to label The Corrections with her garish orange book
club logo. Just in case his message had been misunderstood, he added: "I feel
like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition."
The Franzen episode illustrates the paradox of this decade that the more golden
the opportunities available to the book, the more marginal it has seemed to
become. Behind the brilliant façade of new technology, new money, and new
markets, there has been a massive interior renovation in the house of books.
When Peter Florence and his father launched the
first Hay-on-Wye literary festival in 1988, the experience was distinctly
unpromising. Hay's tipping point came in 2001 with the visit of ex-US President
Bill Clinton. With his genius for infectious slogans, Clinton declared Hay "the
Woodstock of the mind." Literary festivals became the new rock'n'roll.
Traditionally, the special joy of the book was that you communed with it in the
one place that no one else can trespass: your head. Not any more. The novelist
had become a cross between a commercial traveller, a rock musician and a jobbing
preacher. In just over a generation, the novel had gone public in the most
In 2002, the Booker administrators moved their
prize-giving dinner from the Guildhall to the British Museum and appointed the
witty and provocative Lisa Jardine as the chair. Professor Jardine immediately
set the tone by declaring that the shortlist for 2002 marked
"the beginning of a
Some of her fellow judges then waded in with snippy comments about the novels
they had been required to read. "It's like a formula," complained David Baddiel.
"They attempt to grab a big theme, and have a vulgar, obvious seriousness, even
a kind of pompous pretentiousness, about them."
Next, in another defining moment of literary prize marketing, Jardine took her
panel for an impromptu ride on the London Eye. Jardine also steered her
committee to choose a novel that the reading public actually enjoyed.
Book prizes now began to play a new and important role, one previously played by
reviews. In 2008, the literary prize has become one of the most reliable guides
to the literary landscape.
Kate Mosse, founder of the Orange Prize, says: "Prizes, far more than star
reviews, are what make books succeed now and it's also prizes that give readers
the confidence to trust a new writer."
Saturday is probably not McEwan's best book,
but when it was published in 2005, it enjoyed the kind of success that can only
be explained by the new worldwide market for English literature.
After its first week of publication, Saturday was doing so well that it actually
became a news item on the ITN evening news. The conventional reviews had been
far from ecstatic but there it was, piled up in the supermarkets and reported on
After a decade of change, many of the old, elite signposts through the
contemporary jungle of books and writing had become smothered in a profusion of
comment, from blogs to book clubs. It became harder and harder to achieve a
serious-minded consensus. The dictates of commerce seemed to threaten the
traditional authority of the critic.
American democratic instincts have transformed
its literary landscape as surely as its colossal market has revolutionised
bookselling. Anyone can review books, and now, in America, everyone does.
Book blogs now have such power and influence that a publisher's editor in
Manhattan is likely to advise a new novelist not that they will be reviewed in
the New York Times but that they will be covered on curledup.com. This,
according to Trish Todd of Simon & Schuster,
"is the wave of the future."
Readers had been posting reviews on Amazon for year. Now these book blogs could
take over and hand the power back to the common reader.
Lynne Truss's plea for proper English usage
touched a nerve. Eats, Shoots and Leaves spoke to an anxiety about usage and
standards in an age of cultural upheaval. Word of mouth on a worldwide scale
made the book a bestseller in Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.
This spring may be the tipping point in the
innovative commercial development of e-reading. While the market expanded, and
more and more readers were enfranchised by the English language, the technology
was racing to keep up.
In November 2007, these two forces finally converged with the American launch of
the Kindle. The Kindle, in direct competition with the Sony Reader, is a
handheld, wireless reading device that can hold all manner of digital text
The Kindle is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. It has many of the
features of its e-book predecessor, the Sony Reader. What sets the Kindle apart
is wireless connectivity via a system called Whispernet. As a result, says
Bezos: "This isn't a device, it's a service."
The marriage of Amazon with the world of internet technology may herald the
"iPod moment" for books, the moment when electronic technology finally swept six
centuries of ink and paper aside.
For five years and more, there had been a steady trend towards the digitization
of the world's copyright material, pioneered by the Google Print Initiative. To
Google's alliance with some of the world's greatest libraries, including the
Bodleian, all the major publishers had responded by digitizing their back lists.
The iPod moment in the book world is expected to happen this year. It's an
awesome prospect. The indexed part of the world wide web is around 40 billion
pages. The deep web is much bigger.
Universal access to this virtual library is an enthralling prospect.
the birth pangs of a golden age.
By Robert McCrum
The Observer, January 29, 2012
like a boom time for Anglo-American fiction: more readers, attention and
ever before, and in more formats. Never has the human appetite
for stories been gratified on such
a global scale. Yet below this
headline all is not well.
In the beginning, when the novel was young,
telling a story was all it had to do. In the words of
Jane Austen in
Northanger Abbey: a novel is a work "in which the most thorough knowledge of
human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest
effusions of wit and humour,
are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen
Overcoming its origins as entertainment, the novel
inspired the greatest imaginations of the day. The novel became the art form
to which the best and the brightest aspired. For most of the twentieth
century, the novel sponsored a unique kind of critical and commercial
devotion. It was
the dominant genre and it rewarded its authors with
money and status.
Then the IT revolution opened up new vistas of
entertainment for the consumer.
Yet words remain cool. Words organised in
narrative form are even cooler.
In the age of the internet, such
distinction guarantees a future.