Solar and Anus: the Middlebrow Literature of Ian McEwan

By Peter Carty, 17 November 2010

Does Ian McEwan's mass appeal rely upon his tacit celebration of middle class and anti-intellectual values? Peter Carty ponders the great British novelist

Ian McEwan is Britain's leading literary novelist. Last year a survey of best-selling authors showed him ranking well ahead of any other literary writer, with sales of more than four million books generating revenues of nearly £30 million over the previous decade. He's far outstripped any of his rivals: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro have all been left behind.

To go with his enormous sales he has a massive media profile; he's a one-man brand that often pops up in the press, and it is a brand that is attractive to others wishing to stake a claim to the cultural high ground. David Cameron, for one, has been spotted reading On Chesil Beach on the London underground. As for any celebrity, the press coverage McEwan receives is mixed. Around the time of the Cameron sighting, the Daily Mail attacked McEwan for taking a few pebbles from the real-life Chesil Beach to decorate his study at home and McEwan, duly chastised, returned them. More recently, when he mentioned at a literary festival that his new novel was to be about climate change, it was all over the Guardian's front pages by the following day.

Solar was launched earlier this year in a blizzard of interviews and critical acclaim, which guaranteed its insertion into lists of recommended summer reading and helped cement it into the best-seller tables. It is a satire dealing with global warming, freighted with black comedy around mankind's woeful inability to stop destroying the planet; a theme personified by the central character, a disastrously greedy and selfish scientist called Michael Beard.


Image: A more marginal McEwan?

Yet simultaneously, and unwittingly, McEwan has penned a commentary on the social values that underpin contemporary literary fiction and, by extension, the norms that characterise the British establishment in the early 21st century. More specifically, scrutiny of Solar and earlier novels by McEwan reveals an alarming range of social prejudices, prejudices which have so far mostly gone unremarked.

McEwan has published a large number of works - thirteen novels and short story collections in total - so this analysis inevitably will be partial. I can do no more than look in detail at a couple of his novels and refer to a few others in passing in order to tease out a few threads and raise a few questions. The first of my queries must be: why does McEwan arouse such hatred? A surf of the web will uncover many posts exposing a vehement dislike of his works among the reading public - the extent of the animus being vented out there is surprising. There are individuals who wish to burn his fiction on bonfires, to soil it with bodily waste, and so on. The reasons for this hatred are never articulated in terms that go much beyond abusive denigration. One factor might be simply that many readers feel cheated because they think his work does not live up to the marketing hype, while another could be straightforward distrust of the successful and worldly. But yet another could be McEwan's persistent partiality for the middle classes, a partiality which marginalises a huge proportion of the population.

Let's start scrutinising Solar by calling a spade a construction tool, because the most overt prejudice in it concerns the working classes. There is a solitary British worker in Solar, a builder called Rodney Tarpin. Tarpin is stupid and violent. Despite this, Beard's wife is sufficiently attracted to Tarpin to embark upon an extended affair with him. By implication, Beard is so appalling a person that even lumpen and thick Tarpin can compare favourably to him in the eyes of his wife. When Beard confronts Tarpin the builder assaults him, but Tarpin is guilty of more than aggression and a lack of intelligence. His limitations extend to poor taste, by implication a failing shared with other members of his tribe. The text makes patronising fun of his pre-war semi in Cricklewood, a comically unfashionable area of North London. The house doesn't accord at all with bourgeois design values:

[...] the slats of dark-stained pine bolted to the front elevations to create a sixteenth-century look ... the coach lamp on a black post by the front door, which was in the Georgian style ... the floral curtains behind the leaded panes were trimly ruched ... the little wishing well and the posse of dwarfs clustered by its handle [...]

Tarpin's violent and he has the wrong curtains: is there no end to his perfidy? McEwan's get-out here is that the novel is narrated using free indirect discourse. Free Indirect Discourse (FID) is the presentation of thoughts or speech of fictional characters which seems by various devices to combine the characters' sentiments with those of a narrator. In Solar, in other words, we are looking at events partly from Beard's perspective and partly from the narrator's perspective throughout. While it is a property of free indirect discourse that we can never be sure exactly to what extent the narrative come from either perspective, it can be argued that in the main it is Beard's prejudices that are aired here rather than those of the narrator (or even the author). Even so and logically, by the nature of FID, the narrator is responsible for a certain amount of the snobbery and prejudice on offer.

More importantly, Tarpin is not an isolated example. Let's have a look at another novel from the more recent part of McEwan's career, Saturday (2005). The book deals with a single day in the life of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. A central part of the plot concerns his confrontation by a couple of thugs when their cars collide. They are working class and - perhaps you've guessed - inarticulate, stupid and aggressive. One of them intimidates Perowne early on in the day and the novel culminates with them forcing their way into his house, intent on more violence.

The obverse of McEwan's more-than-incipient tendency to demonise the working classes is the relentless hagiography of the middle-classes. In Saturday, Perowne is presented as the paragon of a worthwhile member of society. He's a brilliantly skilled man working very long hours in a relentlessly demanding job, doing his best to help other members of society through his employment with the NHS.

Now much of the ongoing debate around the probity of medical consultants revolves around private work. Charges and counter-charges are laid and debated, batted back and forth between think-tanks and experts, occasionally emerging out into the public parts of the political arena and the media. Nonetheless, in Saturday the issue never arises at any point of how much private work Perowne carries out or, indeed, whether he does any at all.


Image: David Cameron engrossed in McEwan's On Chesil Beach

There are critics on the left and the right - this is an issue, interestingly, that isn't necessarily the property of any particular part of the political spectrum - who will say that the nasty little secret about consultants, from the inception of the NHS onwards, is that they have exploited government ineptitude to rig the system heavily in their favour, most notoriously by trying to ensure that waiting lists for free treatment are long enough to coerce the sick, often the desperately sick, into paying inflated fees for urgent operations in deeply unpleasant situations of brinkmanship.

Progress was made in regulating waiting list times under New Labour during the period McEwan was writing Saturday, but the new government has now scrapped waiting lists and given health authorities carte blanche to carry out as much private work as they like. Of contingent necessity, it is likely that limits on private work in individual consultants' NHS contracts will soon be relaxed, too.

None of this ongoing historical debate over exactly how greedy consultants are ever surfaces in Saturday. Much like Jane Austen and the Napoleonic Wars, the larger life-and-death conflicts are kept firmly at a distance. In fact Perowne's material interests never intrude directly into the narrative at any point, despite - most obviously - owning a large townhouse on Fitzroy Square in London's West End, a house worth slightly south of £4,000,000 at current values. It is noteworthy that the consultant McEwan shadowed to carry out his research has stated that he actually lives in a cheaper house in Islington (likely to be worth more than £1,000,000, even so) and commutes to work on a collapsible bicycle, rather than the Mercedes McEwan assigns to Perowne. In reality the person with the £4,000,000 house on Fitzroy Square is Ian McEwan himself. Writers are always being urged to ‘write about what you know', I suppose.

Is the prejudice embedded in Saturday reactionary? Not quite. It is more an issue of problems with characterisation. Novelists with claims to literary talents have always painted characters from all social classes in a wide variety of shades. If Dickens is famous for his flat supporting characters, his main players are more nuanced; it's a point that shouldn't really need to be made, if the societal attributes of the main players in Saturday weren't so crudely drawn.

When it comes to Solar, by contrast, Beard is not a repository of middle-class virtues. The book's underlying theme is climate change and Beard functions as a synecdoche for the way mankind is destroying the planet, and so he is the embodiment of moral turpitude - which often manifests itself as oral turpitude: as well as being an inveterate cheat and liar, he overeats, over smokes and is a womaniser. In part, the novel's satirical thrust hinges upon the way in which, nonetheless, Beard has managed to rise to the top of scientific institutions and QUANGOs, leaving a trail of waste, damage and disaster behind him.

To underpin this, however, McEwan lends Beard a solid provincial, upper-middle-class background: he is the son of a merchant banker-cum-solicitor. It is marginally curious that McEwan gives his creation a grammar school, rather than public school, education - it is as if the author wishes to offer his audience something to latch onto, a commonality of state education for his commoner readers to share in - albeit his emphasis that, while Beard is a grammar school boy, he is a grammar school boy with an allowance substantially in excess of his peers, in line with Beard's function in the novel as a symbol of waste and destruction. This leaves Tarpin, by default, as the main evidence of class prejudice in Solar, leaving the novel asymmetric in its class prejudice when compared to Saturday.

Another relatively recent novel by McEwan which can be seen to celebrate the middle classes to the exclusion of everyone else is On Chesil Beach (2007), a story which revolves around the way in which the sexual revolution of the 1960s failed to ignite for one particular bourgeois couple. Parts of the rest of McEwan's oeuvre can be made to fit this pattern too, but I cannot delve into them for reasons of length.

The ‘intentional fallacy' is trumpeted throughout university English departments, but it is pointless to pretend that McEwan's own background can't be related to his panting valorisation of the middle classes. McEwan's father was an officer in the British army, but an officer who had risen up from the ranks rather than being born into the officer class, and his mother had a similarly liminal background. McEwan has said that at the boarding school he was sent off to, he altered his working class diction, which he got from his parents, to the more acceptable vowels of his teachers and posher peers. McEwan is not, therefore, a fully paid-up member of the class he dotes upon and perhaps this lies at the root of some of his doting.

Solar can also be used to illustrate another unattractive middle-class trait: an embedded anti-intellectualism which manifests as token toying with and mockery of particular issues that exercise the intelligentsia. McEwan is lionised for the scientific and intellectual themes that are said to dominate some of his novels, but close inspection of Solar raises question marks over this. In Solar, Beard's scientific background in physics is dealt with in a workman-like fashion: there's some badinage about Heisenberg and small helpings of other parts of 20th century physics are dished out here and there, though never in substantial portions. This is not Brave New World or Neuromancer, in which the science permeates every aspect of the narrative and drives it along. Solar can be grouped more readily with recent novels which are less ambitious in scope and centre on plots based around scientific sub-cultures and communities, such as Allegra Goodman's Intuition (2009) and Jonathan Lethem's As She Climbed Across The Table (1997). McEwan's science is a flimsy backdrop for his contemporary comedy of manners, making occasional weak forays into hard science.

 Image: McEwan with Solar the pig at the Guardian Hay Festival (2010)

Elsewhere, elements of cultural theory are ridiculed. Beard is pitted against a Professor of Social Studies, one Nancy Temple, in a debate over why more men than women study science and become scientists. The encounters is dated within the novel to 2004. Temple is described as 'a postmodern social constructivist' and her latest research is described thus:

She said that she could best explain her field by outlining a recent project, a four-month in-depth study of a genetics lab in Glasgow as it set out to isolate and describe a lion's gene, Trim-5, and its function. Her purpose was to demonstrate that this gene, or any gene, was, in the strongest sense, socially constructed. Without the various 'entexting' tools the scientists used - the single-photon luminometer, the flow cytometer, immunofluorescence and so on - the gene could not be said to exist. These tools were expensive to own, expensive to learn and use, and were therefore replete with social meaning. The gene was not an objective entity, merely waiting to be revealed by scientists. It was entirely manufactured by their hypotheses, their creativity, and by their instrumentation, without which it could not be detected. And when it was finally expressed in terms of its so-called base pairs and its probable role, that description, that text, only had meaning, and only derived its reality, from within the limited network of geneticists who might read about it. Outside those networks, Trim-5 did not exist.

Temple asserts slightly later that all science is mediated by culture, but the real position thrust upon her by McEwan is that all science is entirely mediated by culture. Predictably, Beard disagrees with this (as do the other scientists at the meeting). The problem is that Temple's constructivist argument is a straw-man - perhaps that should be a straw woman - that dates back to the mid-1990s and has been endlessly refined since, rather than a position that has survived intact into the noughties in all its radical baldness. It is a stance that has roots in Berkeley via Kuhn, and not a position that any contemporary academic would present at a conference or public debate without extensive qualification. And yet we get none of this accompanying academic and intellectual hinterland from McEwan. This is a weak and misleading parody masquerading as realism.

Later on Temple and Beard engage in debate over the issue of why women haven't made more progress in science. This appears to owe much to the controversy and high-profile debate on gender differences between former Harvard president Lawrence Summers and cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Spelke in 2005, when Summers suggested that women might not have the same innate abilities as men in mathematics and science. It should be noted that Spelke did a far better job of rebutting Summers' argument than her fictional alter ego manages with Beard.

Perhaps the basic problem McEwan faces here - and let's look at it from his point of view - is that he can give his middlebrow readership some pabulum to chew upon, but not very much. If his books become too challenging, they'll stop buying them in huge numbers. Because literary novels, as opposed to McEwan's middlebrow novels with literary decoration scribed into them, do not get big sales in Britain. Over here, unlike France and Italy, philosophical and intellectual debates can make only limited incursions into mass media. In fairness, there's nothing McEwan or any other writer can do about this, because that's the terrain that writers have to inhabit here.

As a further illustration of Solar's intellectual cross-dressing let's go down to a basic level and look at vocabulary. There are a small number of words that are not part of the common lexicon which pop up early on, in Solar's first couple of dozen pages: ‘anhedonic', ‘matinal','dysmorphia', ‘douleur','lambent', but after this their frequency declines to a negligible level. It is a way for the novel to announce itself as a literary text, before becoming more reliably unchallenging in its use of language for the remainder of its length.

At a higher level of textual critique, most of Solar is prose and narrative that does not call attention to itself, within a narrative structure that remains safely in the background. McEwan is more than willing to ignore modernism. Saturday describes the events of a single day in Henry Perowne's life, but it is noticeable that its resemblance to Ulysses and other modernist works ends there, because in every other respect it is relentlessly pre-modernist. It is relevant that conventional plotting is very important to McEwan. He believes firmly in withholding information to build narrative tension. This isn't always successful - the plotting in Solar is clumsy and implausible - and it erodes his claims to occupy the literary high ground. Besides, he has stated explicitly that he is keen to dodge ‘the dead hand of modernism' (let alone post-modernism). In terms of literary form his work belongs to the early years of the 20th century rather than the 21st.

For reasons of length, I cannot go into detail on the issues surrounding the treatment of women in Solar (other than the debates between Nancy Temple and Beard dealt with under the issue of bowlderising science above). Nonetheless, Beard's consumption of women is presented on much the same level as his consumption of material resources. Having said this, the FID shifts noticeably here to more of a moralising narratorial perspective: it seems reasonably clear that Beard's relentless womanising is seen as reprehensible within Solar - though, of course, given the indeterminacy of FID it is not possible to be categorical about this.

One final area worth exploring concerns the way in which McEwan made his reputation and the direction in which his literary career then developed. Much of his initial fiction - First Love, Last Rites (1975), In Between the Sheets (1978), The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981) - dealt with themes of sexual deviance, including incest, paedophilia and sexual violence. Deviant sexuality had a transgressive power in the late 1970s and early 1980s; some of it still has (sexual violence is regarded in much the same way and paedophilia is probably regarded with more abhorrence; interestingly, incest has become marginally less of a taboo). McEwan's choice of this perverse, transgressive subject matter, which he married effectively to the curiously flat and dead tone of his writing, marked him out. (The flat tone persists, but is no longer a positive since it deadens his descriptions of the vibrant professional milieux that inhabit his fiction these days.)

Image: Still from the film adaptation of McEwan's first novel The Cement Garden (1993)

Transgression served him well. It was as if he needed to rent out a marginal social area for a while so that he could then position himself as a writer from the margins. It would be interesting to analyse whether disproportionate numbers of the darker characters in this early fiction have proletarian origins. Regardless, it is noticeable that sexual deviance plays less of a role in McEwan's later work, and it appears to have vanished altogether recently.

Perhaps after his entrée into the literary establishment, at some conscious or subconscious level of decision making he felt that he could drop his queer-noire narratorial trappings, trappings which were not rooted in any social engagement or reality. Trangression is very distinct from and shouldn't be conflated with ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and gender, so that clearly, there is no perceived onus at all, not the slightest hint of any indentitarian imperative, for a writer to be incestuous or a rapist in order to write about those subjects. So if it is easy for McEwan to write about the lifestyles of the wealthy and privileged nowadays, because he is one of the them, conversely, in order to make an impact at the start of his career it seems fair to say that he might have felt forced to follow a contrarian version of the standard dictum referred to earlier: 'write about what you don't know'.

Did his pose stand in for a lack of a more authentic marginal persona to fuel his writing? It must stand as an open question, but one worth asking. It is reasonable to say that if McEwan had stronger claims to being a member of a marginalised group in the late 1970s - female, gay, black or working class - he might have had a great deal more trouble getting fiction published back then which dealt with issues affecting those groups. Of course, no one has to be gay or Afro-Carribean, or gay or working class to write literature about those groups. Furthermore, when authenticity and ownership is questioned, very often it is the case that the questioner attempts to substitute a hierarchy of his or her own for the hierarchy under attack. Categories of ethnicity, class and sexuality can come into conflict. Is a middle class Afro-Caribbean perspective more or less authentic than a working class Afro-Caribbean perspective? Is a heterosexual working class perspective more valid than a gay working class perspective? And if we talk about particular groups being underepresented, who is to define and set equitable levels of representation?

So arguments about whether British literary writers from nominally marginal groups from McEwan's generation or approximately thereabouts should enjoy a profile like his tend to implode under the contradictions of assigning and ranking social identities. Is Irvine Welsh (his best writing days well behind him now in any case) a member of the working class or did he move into the middle class once he acquired his MBA? Should Salman Rushdie have an even higher profile because of his membership of the British Asian community or do his upper-middle-class old Harrovian and Oxbridge credentials rule him out? The late Angela Carter, for one, was an approximate contemporary of McEwan (she pre-dated him slightly) who never enjoyed anything like the sales he has notched up, and her outstanding literary prowess is accepted in more or less all critical quarters. There has to be a lingering suspicion that female literary writers, then or now, simply do not get the same promotion as their male counterparts, despite the fact that most readers of literary fiction are women. But again, inevitably however, it's possible to ask whether class and gender come into conflict here: what about working-class women and their literature? Who will be the gatekeeper of what is authentic and equitable? And yet, notwithstanding all of these sets of incommensurable binary polarities, these qualitatively distinct others, there is a certain clunking, leaden inevitability about the fact that our biggest selling literary novelist is on the right side - that's right in the sense of the historically dominating side - of every single one of them: white, public-school educated, male, heterosexual and middle-class. It might take another 20 years for this to change.


Image: A fine British romance - Kiera Knightley in Atonement (2007)

Yet it should be pointed out here that the literary marketplace has altered considerably since the mid-1970s. There is no doubt that it is more diverse in the noughties (though whether it can ever be diverse enough brings back all those competing binaries again). In this sense McEwan is a representative of an ancien regime which has passed and he can't be blamed for that. And of course this analysis of Mc Ewan's early work in terms of its relation to the conundrums of identity politics is partial; it does not take into account all of the literary aspects of the works because it looks solely at how they might have tied into a set of dominating trends in the mainstream literary market place, trends which are more apparent in retrospect. It is easier to imagine McEwan sitting down determined to write fiction that was different, regardless of social trends, rather than being determined to capitalise upon fiction that was socially marginal.

Many artists make compromises as their career progresses, of course, and McEwan is not unusual in this way, but it is insightful to note how his compromises marry up so neatly to the prejudices of his mass audience. Ultimately, whether McEwan's sales stem from his being unthreatening to a mass middlebrow readership, or from his being genuinely a writer of unusual talent, or because the accumulated marketing expenditure for his books has passed a tipping point so that a large part of his sales has become self-generating - or some combination of these and other factors - is unascertainable. Questions can be posed, but not answered, or, at least, not wholly answered.

What is undeniable is that Solar may become McEwan's biggest selling work yet. It is highly likely that, like Solar, his future fiction will continue to provide interesting fodder for social analysis because it will continue to trade in the anti-intellectual, snobbish values of the British bourgeoisie. If his writing resides in a middle-class ghetto, with all the insecurity that goes with it - most obviously manifested by the working class characters who are popping up to threaten his protagonists with fisticuffs every so often - then it is a landscape that is not going to alter any time soon. There is less mobility in the Britain of 2010 from the lowest social classes upwards than there was in the 1980s, and government spending retrenchment is likely to reduce mobility from this and every other disadvantaged social stratum further still (and that ignores the reality that not every disadvantaged person can be upwardly mobile, even in theory). It is, then, a good marketplace for literary fiction that genuflects to stereotypes and does not want to do anything more than gently rock the body politic from time to time.

Peter Carty <pc.carty AT> is a writer and journalist. He is a book reviewer for the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, among numerous other publications