Monday, February 23, 2009

The Background Hum

For fans of his writing, the Ian McEwan profile in the Feb 23rd New Yorker, “The Background Hum,” is something of a belated Valentine.
The author of the piece, Daniel Zalewski, had the altogether enviable assignment of tagging along with McEwan in assorted pleasant settings: rambling with McEwan through fields of wildflowers (likely sharing a cup of the “very good wine” with which it is reportedly McEwan’s habit to hike); celebrating the writer’s 60th birthday at the London Zoo with Martin Amis, Michael Frayn, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, and 200 or so others of McEwan’s closest literary confreres; and asking all manner of serious, insightful, prying questions about the author’s approach to writing, personal history, and almost “scandalous” popularity.

I was particularly interested to note that in the interview

“McEwan twice cited Henry James’ dictum that the ‘only obligation of the novel is that it be interesting. ’ Later McEwan declared that he finds “most novels incredibly boring. It’s amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge.”

Although I can’t imagine that his birthday guests--many of whom are novelists--much appreciated the sentiment, his is a good point, of which his success seems illustrative. McEwan is an astute, observant, idea-driven writer, but he is also a shameless supporter of un-boring, dramatic plotlines. I‘m not among those who believe that a literary page-turner is an oxymoron, and it was pleasure to read an article in which the old-fashioned virtue of storytelling acquired so elegant a champion.