Ian McEwan: On making love work in fiction


If you watch one thing today, let it be this:

On making love work in fiction

Some quotations:

novelists struggle constantly with trying to portray the concept of sustained happiness. There’s always the danger that it will seem sentimental, or smug. Unreal. And I think only Tolstoy has truly achieved this

“Anyway, literature loves difficulty, it thrives on conflict and generally I think we are right in literature to leave the best expression of love to the poets or two short scenes in novels.”

I waited twenty-seven years to write a love-making scene, the library scene in Atonement.

“Unlike footballers, novelists don’t have to retire at the age of 31, they accumulate more life, more love, more disappointments, more of everything. What they lose [maybe] is the fabulous energy of the late 20s and early 30s to pursue something and the thought richness perhaps sometimes declines…”

the shadowline between late childhood and early adulthood is still marked for many of us, by the act of making love for the first time

“I’ve fallen out of love with things. There was a kind of writing in the ’70s that I adored and tried to imitate, it had a kind of existential quality. I thought you broke your own rules if you ever thought you could describe someone’s thoughts. I just had what someone said and what they did and some physical description to generate a mood, a penumbra of consciousness but never would I have ‘he turned away and thought “she’s not for me” ‘. Then I realised by the time I was 30 there’s a warmth and richness to the literary tradition, that’s given to us, especially by Joyce, access to conventions to convey the flow of consciousness, how can you deny yourself this? So I drew away (the last novel I wrote like that was The Comfort of Strangers, in 1981 or 82), I had a five-year gap and did other things, and when I came back to the novel – A Child in Time – it was much more informed by something that seemed warmer and richer, and entangled with the concept of consciousness.”

Newton talked of standing on the shoulders of giants. Well writers do too. There are many devices – free indirect style – we’re in debt to Jane Austen and Flaubert  for a technique everybody now takes for granted. Those lovely conventions of the traditional novel, where you have dialogue and in between a line of dialogue you might have a page of analysis, or a paragraph… in which you bring to the moment the full weight of historical or sensual [missed word]. So I resist the notion that art doesn’t progress, the novel as a form has progressed… resilience of the novel, the question ‘is it doomed?’ We have not yet developed another art form that allows us access to the minds of others and to the nature of consciousness. Movies can’t do it, even theatre can’t do it. That’s why we gather [at literary festivals etc]. I don’t think it’ll go away. The media might change…

3 thoughts on “Ian McEwan: On making love work in fiction

    1. And how was it? It’s good isn’t it? Isn’t it? I thought it was lovely and spent almost the entire time writing down what he was saying. I would love to study at his feet actually. Wonder if he ever does classes, I get the sense he’d be a pretty good teacher. Maybe.

      1. I get the same feeling. I loved his calm assurance. I took great comfort from that. I enjoyed hearing about his journey as a writer.
        Thanks for putting it up, I love stuff like this.

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