September 3, 2014

Ian McEwan publishes short novel, insults long ones


Ian McEwan: fan of the novella (Image via Wikipedia)

Ian McEwan: fan of the novella (Image via Wikipedia)

Ahh September. In his ode “To Autumn”, John Keats wrote of a season full of “mists and mellow fruitfulness”, a sleepy, gently passing of time after summer’s energy. Keats, clearly, never worked in publishing.

For in the publishing calendar September is actually the cruelest month (T.S. Eliot, who did work in publishing, should have known better), with publishers going into overdrive to publish their most important fiction and major authors jostling for space, shouting above each other to be heard. During this time any murmuring of discontent or rivalry, any tiny suggestion of controversy earns you an extra point in your climb up the Bestsellers list. It all so makes light work for journalists.

Ian McEwan has always seemed perfectly harmless. In an interview in The Observer printed on 31st August, to promote his new book The Children’s Act, journalist Robert McCrum describes him as “in a reflective, autumnal mood.” How could he cause any damage? But only a day later, the Telegraph has him violently lashing out against long novels: ‘Ban Long Novels’ runs the headline; ‘Burn War and Peace’; ‘Arrest Jonathan Franzen’…or actually maybe the headline was ‘Author Ian McEwan: ‘Very few novels earn their length’’.

The Children’s Act comes in at “barely 55,000 words”, making it a short novel so, coincidentally, runs no risk of not earning its length. McEwan told the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

If we can make this fine distinction, it’s a short novel rather than a novella. But I do love this form, the idea that we are sitting down to a book that you could read at one sitting, or within three hours much as you might go to a movie or opera or long play.

“Do you hate American novels then?” the interview jibed, “Do you detest that Americans have been allowed into the Booker?” “Should we arrest Franzen?”, or something like that. McEwan responded:

Yes, the Americans especially love a really huge novel. I think they still pursue a notion of a great American novel and it has to be a real brick of an object. Very few really long novels earn their length.

But in The Observer interview McCrum hints that short novels perhaps suit McEwan better as a writer, which might explain his philosophy:

It’s often said – even McEwan’s friends have said this – that he is, au fond, a brilliant story writer, a sprinter not a marathon runner. According to the New Yorker, when Martin Amis was asked to name McEwan’s greatest achievement, he replied: “The first 200 pages of Atonement.” In the same piece, philosopher Galen Strawson characterised McEwan’s books as “stories pushed into a novel”.

McEwan, of course, thinks this is nonsense. And we’re not going to refute his appreciation of the novella form.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.