- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

As a best-selling literary novelist, Ian McEwan will never be short of acquaintances and hangers-on — as long as the sales figures hold up, that is. But I can’t help wondering how his social life is likely to develop in the coming months. If he finds himself being dropped from the guest-list when old friends organize dinner parties, he may well find that there is a simple reason: He said the wrong thing about Iraq.

In his youthful days as a writer of short stories and novellas, Mr. McEwan won no end of praise for saying the wrong thing. Every one of his books had its share of transgressive deeds: To get through one of his tales without encountering incest, murder or mutilation — sometimes on the same page — was a very rare experience indeed. Since then his work has mellowed, but only a little, while his reputation has edged towards the heavens. Just as Margaret Drabble was every high-minded reader’s favorite writer back in the Seventies, so he now reigns as Britain’s equivalent of John Updike, less flashy than Martin Amis, more intense than Nick Hornby.

He is, to all intents and purposes, a member of the Great and the Good. I may be wrong but I do not recall hearing him utter a public pronouncement that would not have fitted neatly into a Guardian editorial. Imagine my surprise, then, at reading his observations in a newspaper interview promoting his new book, “Saturday” — a novel set on the day of the huge anti-war march held in London two years ago. Mr. McEwan revealed that he had started out, conventionally enough, as an opponent of the invasion, but had changed his mind once the military campaign began. From that point onwards, what mattered most to him was the overthrow of a detestable regime.

Most of the anti-war camp on the left, obviously, did not share that view. Wandering the streets on the day of the big march, Mr. McEwan was irritated by the peace movement’s prim slogan Not In My Name: “Its cloying self-importance suggests a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumer of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice.”

It was not just the banners that irked him. There was something profoundly unsettling about the mood of the marchers too: “I was troubled by the sheer level of happiness on the street,” he explained in the interview. “I did think whatever the reasoning of America for going in, history has offered us this chance to get rid of Saddam. If you decide you don’t want that, it is probably a very reasonable view, but it is a vote for more torture, more genocide. It’s a sombre, grave choice.”

I wonder what will happen next? It’s always possible that Mr. McEwan will be forgiven. More likely, the literary classes will try to forget he ever made those comments. After all, they have had lots of practice lately at adjusting reality to suit their own prejudices. No matter how much evidence you pile in front of them, they still believe in Michael Moore, even if the Oscar Awards big-wigs have dumped him.

They still tell themselves that George W. Bush lost in 2000, and that he only won last year because Republicans organized Ku Klux Klan rallies across the South. They still think Howard Dean would have won the White House if only the Democrats had been sensible enough to choose him instead of John Kerry (who would have won anyway if it hadn’t been for all the vote-rigging in Ohio). And even if they don’t say it out loud all that much, they still think Iraq would be better off if Saddam were still in power.

Worse still, they cling to the arrogant assumption that they are the only people to have given the issue any serious thought. They may cherish complexity in a work of art, yet they picture their opponents as one-dimensional boobs and bigots. It rarely seems to cross their mind that it is possible to be a supporter of the war and still be a sentient human being. The fantasy opponent is much more comforting.

Conservatives are guilty of this too. These are partisan times. Is there any solution? When I started reading weblogs and then began writing my own, I tended to think that the sheer variety of serious opinions wafting around the Internet would produce a debate on a global scale.

Sometimes, it does. But in my more despondent moments, I’m not sure it happens as much as it should: Right-wing people stick to right-wing sites, left-wingers stick to theirs, and both occasionally fire blasts over the parapets. Perhaps it is naive to expect life to be any different.

In any case, I’m as guilty as everyone else. When you can announce your views to the world with the click of a mouse, it is always tempting to shoot first and think later. In a sense, we are back in the age of the pamphleteer, which is no bad thing at all. But that makes the role of writers such as Ian McEwan all the more precious. Novelists — good ones, anyway — have to think; everyone else can simply have an opinion.

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London and keeps a weblog at clivedavis.blogspot.com.


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