‘Be brave! Tell the truth’: Ian McEwan rails against sensitivity readers

By Alexandra DEL PERAL

The acclaimed British novelist Ian McEwan is baffled by the current obsession with sensitivity in the publishing world. “Be brave,” he urged young writers.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” said the Booker-winning writer of “Atonement”, “Saturday” and “Amsterdam”, when asked about “sensitivity readers” combing through books to remove anything that might be deemed offensive.

“It’s happening among very young people who are living in societies that are relatively free, and they seem to want to bind their arms and legs in ways that are just trivial,” he told AFP.

He said he heard a young male writer talk about his fear of writing about male desire.

“I thought, ‘Poor guy!’ Because you’ve lost the desire of half the world,” he said.

His advice: “Be brave! Screw the lot of them. You’ve got to write what you feel. You must tell the truth.

“These mass hysterias, moral panics, sweep through populations every now and then. And I think this is one of them.”

McEwan, 75, insisted the trend does not apply to all young people — just “a weird thing that happens in some universities, which we got from the United States”.

He strongly supports young people fighting to combat climate change — a problem “that is going to affect every last one of us”.

And he draws a line between the world of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” from calls for racial and post-colonial reckoning, saying he backed the students who tore down a slaver’s statue in Bristol, England in 2020.

“Demanding a little more accounting of our colonial imperial past is a perfectly good demand. But saying we can’t read Nabokov or Conrad or whatever, seems beyond contempt,” he said.

– ‘Stupid, shameful episodes’ –

McEwan spoke to AFP during a trip to Paris just before the announcement of the Nobel Literature Prize, for which he has long been held up as a possible winner.

He dismissed his chances.

“You know, there are about 50 of us whose names come up every year,” he said.

“I think my son (a medical researcher) will get the Nobel Prize before me,” he added with a laugh.

McEwan’s novels have explored a wide range of complex moral topics from memory and trauma, the ethical implications of scientific progress to the darker side of love and relationships — usually with a sharply ironic humour.

Many have been adapted into films, including “On Chesil Beach”, “Enduring Love” and the highly acclaimed war romance “Atonement”.

Already halfway through his next book, he was visiting Paris for the French release of “Lessons”, which tracks a man’s life alongside the major political events of McEwan’s own lifetime, from the Suez and Cuban Missile crises right up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is Brexit that has taken the greatest toll, he said.

He sees it as symbolic of the defeat of an older version of Britain — of “teachers, doctors, librarians… people working in the public service (who) no longer count because Britain is really ruled by people who have made vast amounts of money in financial services and the social good is not of interest.”

“I think they’ll be back,” he added. “The wheel will turn again. We’ve seen too many of the stupid, shameful episodes of the populist right in our country.” — Agence France-Presse

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