After the early success of the Concrete Garden, I’ve always thought that Ian McEwan has gone downhill as a novelist – which seems to be a Britishy thing of his generation. Perhaps I should say, his generation of male alpha novelists, led by Martin Amis. In Amis’s case, there is a serious mismatch between his sense of what is important and his sensibility, which is at its best with what is unimportant. McEwan is another who longs to let the pundit out of the novelist’s cage. This, at least, is the upshot of his unintentionally funny piece in the Guardian about losing “faith” in novels (a piece which, to be fair, has a nice homage to The Go Between, a novel I am very fond of, appended to McEwan’s wandering and pondering beginning). And the award for fave graf goes to!
“This is when I think I will go to my grave and not read Anna Karenina a fifth time, or Madame Bovary a fourth. I'm 64. If I'm lucky, I might have 20 good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauty of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires' rise and fall, the adepts of the English civil war. A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel beyond Henry's remorse or triumph? Will a novelist please tell me why the Industrial Revolution began, or how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved or what Salieri thought of the young Schubert in his choir. If I cared just a little about Henry's gripes, I could read a John Berryman 'Dream Song' in less than four minutes. And with the 15 hours saved, linger over some case law (real events!), as good a primer as any on the strangeness and savagery of the human heart.”
Left out of this highminded collection is anything so vulgar as Kim Kardashian’s divorce, Wall Street fraudsters, newspapers stealing emails from celebrities, fad diets, bloody murders, sex tapes, etc. – the whole gritty panoply of lowlife, which reaches out a twitching hand and pulls the chair out from under the whole question of how morality evolved, and asks how Justin Timberlake thought of the young Justin Bieber on his first Youtube tape. From the lowlife angle, the mire of banality in which the novel gambols, there is something irresistibly funny in McEwan losing faith in Pere Goriot and Leopold Bloom and wanting to contemplate (with true Bloomian ardor!) the Higgs boson particle in the port and cheese golden years.
Faith here is being used in a strange way, as a synonym for the suspension of disbelief. But the guy who coined that phrase, Coleridge, would point out that faith is not the suspension of disbelief, but the belief in things unseen – and a ruler across your knuckles, McEwan. You have lost your privilege to read James Gleick for tonight, and must copy a hundred tag lines of Latin verse and turn it in tomorrow!
Actually, I don’t think either term characterizes the reader’s relationship to fiction. I don’t think the experience of reading changes much between reading case law (my God, McEwan does push the highbrow into the depth of absurdity!) and reading Crime and Punishment. The reader looks at words and transforms that vision into reading in both cases. Outside the reading experience, the reader may know that the Higgs Boson particle is real (or as real as the mathematics it is built on) and that Jack the Ripper shed actual blood, and Raskolnikov shed none. But that knowledge does not so much change the material out of which the experience is built as charge it differently.
However, the writer who is using the material in a different way than the reader – for the material isn’t yet given – does have to believe in a thing unseen – that is, the future text. At a certain point, of course, the thing unseen can be discarded, as the text is ended. But even here, the writer doesn’t wholly enter the reader’s zone in regard to his or her own text, any more than you can experience another person’s face – that quasi-intentional addition to the body’s physiognomy. There are writers who claim they never reread what they wrote and there are people who never look at their photographs - both are guarding a certain painful spot in their consciousness, one that they don’t want pressed.
The reader who doesn’t like novels may well say that he or she ( it is mostly he nowadays) prefers the real to fiction, but that is unlikely. Usually one finds they want an affirmation of a belief without the messy necessity of running it through the difference which characterizes human reality. In other words, they want the social irreality you can get, as well, in a video game – where you don’t have to worry about the monster or the enemy’s feelings. Feelings, in this ontology, far from being the portals through which we receive all information about the world within the world, are somehow secondary to cold hard facts. Cold hard facts, let it be noted, are cold and hard – feeling words. Elementary contradictions surround the urge to know without the expertise to check. The latter, of course, leads blissfully onward to the moral entrepreneur’s career, until one day you wake up and you find that you have been transformed into something even more loathsome than the cockroach that was Gregor Samsa’s fate – you’ve become an op ed writer. God save you then.