Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Will Ian McEwan ever get over Brexit?

Ian McEwan (Credit: Getty images)

‘Screw the lot of them.’ Ian McEwan’s blunt advice to young authors having to deal with ‘sensitivity readers’ had me punching the air. At last, a bona fide national treasure prepared to take on the performative offence-taking that has Britain’s publishing industry in its censorious grip. Speaking in Paris ahead of the publication of the French edition of his latest novel, Lessons, McEwan urged authors to ‘be brave’.

Sensitivity readers, unheard of a decade ago, are now all the rage. Individuals with a superior capacity to detect offence comb through an author’s manuscript highlighting anything they consider dodgy. Whether their attention is caught by a two-word description of a character or an entire subplot, authors are expected to humbly acquiesce and remove offending material.

Ultimately, McEwan’s confusion leads him to blame the rise of woke publishing on Brexit

The process hit the headlines back in 2021 when author Kate Clanchy objected to her award-winning memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me being subjected to post-publication sensitivity-reading. But not even death offers authors protection from the perma-offended word-butchers: Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie have all been posthumously sensitised.

McEwan suggests that the demand for sensitivity readers comes largely from ‘very young people who are living in societies that are relatively free’ although, he notes, not all young people think alike. He criticises young authors for subjecting themselves to this editing process, accusing them of wanting ‘to bind their arms and legs in ways that are just trivial’. ‘You’ve got to write what you feel. You must tell the truth,’ he advises.

Anyone familiar with McEwan’s writing – most famously, Atonement and On Chesil Beach – knows that he writes what he feels. And whether he’s writing from the perspective of a fetus (Nutshell), a cat (Daydreamer) or a middle-aged childless woman (The Children Act) the emotions McEwan conveys are authentic. And yet, despite my every urge to cheer on his tirade against sensitivity readers, there are problems with McEwan’s latest comments that suggest he has not truly walked in the shoes of a young author. 

McEwan describes hyper-sensitivity to offence as ‘a weird thing that happens in some universities, which we got from the United States’. He’s right, but only in part. But the danger with this argument is that us Brits are absolved of responsibility. It’s the mad Yanks who are to blame for the ‘mass hysterias’ that ‘sweep through populations every now and then’. This might be a comforting thought – after all, what blows in from abroad can soon blow back out again – but it denies reality. The truth is that overly-sensitive, censorious publishers, literary agents and book sellers are endemic right here in the UK.

It seems that in the book industry, the bar for triggering offence is now set so low that any author wanting to write outside of their own lived experience or argue a point that veers even slightly from that of a Guardian editorial is likely to be rejected. Highly regarded scholars struggle to get their work accepted for publication or find themselves dropped after final manuscripts have been submitted. In this context, if I was a young author who had been repeatedly knocked back by literary agents for not meeting a diversity quota, I might think the fault lay less with me being over-sensitive and more with the industry. McEwan’s rush to blame young authors for the rise of sensitivity readers suggests the 75-year old Booker Prize winner’s own prejudices might just be shaping his views.

McEwan’s failure to grasp the scale and the extent of the problems in publishing means he inadvertently lends weight to some of the key arguments used in support of sensitivity readers. He suggests, for example, that it is possible to draw a line between demands for ‘safe spaces’ on the one hand and calls for ‘a racial reckoning’ on the other. More plainly: he thinks trigger warnings are bad but he backs the removal of statues. Yet the same assumptions about trauma, mental vulnerability, the need for emotional safety and the power of words and images to inflict psychic harm drive both demands.

Ultimately, McEwan’s confusion leads him to blame the rise of woke publishing on Brexit. Brexit, he maintains, represented the end of an old order where power lay with teachers, librarians – and, presumably publishers. Now, in contrast, it lies with rich people who are blithely unconcerned with the social good. But surely he doesn’t think it is hedge fund managers who are hiring sensitivity readers? It is precisely because publishers and book sellers have such power that young authors need to be told to be brave simply to write fiction – and this has nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit.

The suspicion is that when McEwan bemoans the end of an old order, what he really means is he is unhappy that a majority of the great British public ignored people like him and voted to leave the EU. But then, that’s the thing about both free speech and bravery. There’s no knowing where they might lead.

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