Other Literary Forms

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Ian McEwan turned to longer forms after beginning his career as a writer of short fiction, publishing his first novel, The Cement Garden, in 1978; a play, The Imitation Game, in 1981; a screenplay for the film The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983); and subsequent novels, including The Child in Time (1987), Enduring Love (1997), and the Booker McConnell Prize-winning Amsterdam (1998). He also wrote the children’s literature work The Daydreamer (1994).


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Ian McEwan’s first collection of short fiction, First Love, Last Rites, won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976, and many of his other works have been recognized for their excellence. The Comfort of Strangers (1981) and Black Dogs (1992) were finalists for the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize, which was awarded to Amsterdam (1998). The Child in Time won the 1987 Whitbread Novel of the Year award, and The Ploughman’s Lunch won the Evening Standard Award for best screenplay. McEwan was also awarded an honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Sussex in 1989.

Other literary forms

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Ian McEwan’s first two collections of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets, and Other Stories (1978), featuring grotesque characters, violence, and sexual perversion, earned him a reputation as a writer of shocking originality. McEwan finds the challenge of writing in the economical style needed for short fiction similar to that involved in screenwriting, at which he has tried his hand intermittently. Both the screenplays The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), set against the backdrop of the 1982 Falklands War, and Soursweet (1988), based on Timothy Mo’s novel—about Chinese immigrants living in London in the 1960’s—were made into respected films; The Good Son (1993), an adaptation of Joseph Ruben’s novel, was made into a critically panned, though lucrative, film starring Macauley Culkin.

McEwan also wrote television plays, published together as The Imitation Game: Three Plays for Television (1981), with the eponymous play, set during World War II, anticipating the turn toward historical and political themes in his later fiction. While McEwan’s writing for the screen reveals the dramatic aspects of his work, he also demonstrates an affinity for music through the libretto Or Shall We Die? (pr., pb. 1983; music by Michael Berkeley), a choral lament of the threat of nuclear devastation, and through the operatic libretto For You (pr., pb. 2008; music by Berkeley). His two forays into children’s literature, Rose Blanche (1985; rewritten from translation of original by Roberto Innocenti) and The Daydreamer (1994), reflect his fascination with childhood and the transformative power of the imagination. His occasional journalistic pieces, such as those about climate change and terrorism, have established him as a leading public intellectual.


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Having outgrown his early nickname Ian Macabre, prompted by the dark subject matter of his early work, Ian McEwan is considered one of the world’s best writers of contemporary fiction. Recognition of his work began with the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for First Love, Last Rites, and continued with the Whitbread Novel Award in 1987 and the Prix Femina Étranger in 1993, both for The Child in Time. Despite numerous nominations, the prestigious Booker Prize eluded him until 1998, when he won for Amsterdam, setting the stage for the enormous critical and commercial success of his next novels. Atonement earned him the W. H. Smith Literary Award (2002), the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award (2003), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004); yet the book is undoubtedly best known for its adaptation as a highly successful, Oscar-winning film, released in 2007.

Saturday, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 2006, was already a best seller when its popularity was increased by its seemingly prescient anticipation of the 2005 terrorist bombings in London. McEwan’s novels are eagerly awaited by critics and readers around the world, as witnessed by the positive reception of the short novel On Chesil Beach, which was named book of the year at the 2008 Galaxy British Book Awards. McEwan was named Reader’s Digest Author of the Year in 2008. He also served as editor of the literary supplement to The Guardian Review.

Discussion Topics

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How is time both a technical and thematic concern in Ian McEwan’s Atonement and On Chesil Beach?

How do Enduring Love, Amsterdam, and Saturday demonstrate that the “moment” can have long-range consequences?

What are Atonement and Saturday saying about the irruption of violence into our lives?

In what ways are Atonement and On Chesil Beach exploring the implications of innocence?

How are Atonement, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach dependent upon historical contexts?

What is the role of sexuality in Amsterdam, Atonement, and On Chesil Beach?


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Broughton, Lynda, “Portrait of the Subject as a Young Man: The Construction of Masculinity Ironized in ‘Male’ Fiction.” Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day. New York: Pinter, 1991. After a general discussion of “feminist critical practice,” Broughton presents an intellectually powerful and provocative discussion of the male narrator in “Homemade” as an exemplar of contemporary masculine concerns.

Byrnes, Christina. “Ian McEwan: Pornographer or Prophet?” Contemporary Review 266, no. 1553 (June, 1995): 320-323. Succinct appraisal of McEwan’s work up to The Daydreamer, with particular emphasis on countering the stereotype of the author’s immorality.

Cochran, Angus R. B. “Ian McEwan.” In British Writers: Supplement IV, edited by George Stade. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996. Brief summary of the writer’s life followed by a discussion of his works up to The Daydreamer. Noted scholar Cochran emphasizes the recurring themes in McEwan’s work and places the author in the broader context of British and European twentieth century fiction. Discussion enhanced by quotations from interviews and nonfictional writings by McEwan.

Hanson, Claire. Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Examines several of McEwan’s short stories in terms of their explorations of the creative process, especially McEwan’s innovative uses of form and structure.

Ricks, Christopher. “Adolesence and After: An Interview with Ian McEwan,” Listener (April 12, 1979): 527. A characteristically candid and revealing conversation, with McEwan touching on many important aspects of his short fiction.

Ryan, Kiernan. Ian McEwan. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1994. Discussion of McEwan’s works up to Black Dogs. Ryan counters the stereotypical portrayal of McEwan’s evolution from the introspective master of the perverse to the socially responsible male feminist, emphasizing instead McEwan’s consistent preoccupation with unsettling certainties.

Slay, Jack. Ian McEwan. New York: Twayne, 1996. An excellent overview of McEwan’s writing life, with detailed, incisive discussions of the short fiction.

Vannatta, Dennis. The English Short Story, 1945-1980: A Critical History. New York: Twayne, 1985. Identifies and explains the aesthetic strategies underlying McEwan’s use of unconventional situations, which Vannatta claims are ultimately connected to concerns that are “determinedly traditional, unrelentingly moral,” focusing on “Homemade,” “Butterflies,” “Disguises,” “Dead as They Come,” and “In Between the Sheets.”

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Critical Essays