"My Purple Scented Novel"
by Ian McEwan
Originally published in the March 28, 2016 issue of The New Yorer.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

Ian McEwan is back in The New Yorker. I used to love McEwan’s work, but I’m part of that crowd that prefers things pre-Atonement. Yes, “typical.” I’m almost always, though, a fan of his writing and find that anything he writes goes down nicely, even when it doesn’t say much to me, as in recent years.

So, does McEwan have another novel on the horizon from which we derive this piece of fiction? It doesn’t look like it. The magazine’s “Contributors” section says, “This story was inspired by ‘L’Image Volée,’ a group art show curated by Thomas Demand, now on view at the Fondazione Prada, in Milan.” Sounds . . . well, I’ll let you fill in the blank for yourself.

I look forward to any thoughts you have in the comments below!

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By |2016-03-21T16:53:09-04:00March 21st, 2016|Categories: Ian McEwan, New Yorker Fiction|20 Comments


  1. ArleenMcCallum March 21, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    Seems as if you might be blaming McEwan for the fact that TNY has excerpted some of his novels. “My Purple Scented Novel” is a fine short story, with well-developed characters, a plot with a twist and surprise. It displays the vagaries and caprices of the modern writing life, the publishing industry — its sales and endless promotion. It is not a surprise to hear about excellent work being rejected, or the cult of personality, or public humiliation based on very little.
    For me, all this sounds a bit familiar. What I appreciated was the relationship between the two writers over a prolonged time, how they did & did not interact and the final explanation from the one who was “wronged”.

  2. Trevor Berrett March 21, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Seems as if you might be blaming McEwan for the fact that TNY has excerpted some of his novels.

    Interesting. That was not my intent, and I’m not sure how that is coming across. My comment is more to show a bit of surprise that we are getting a piece by a popular novelist and it isn’t an excerpt, as it so often is these days. It doesn’t help that McEwan’s track record with the magazine is as follows:

    -“Us or Me” from May 12, 1997; excerpt from Enduring Love
    -“The Diagnosis” from December 13, 2004; excerpt from Saturday
    -“On Chesil Beach” from December 18, 2006; excerpt from On Chesil Beach
    -“The Use of Poetry” from November 30, 2009; excerpt from Solar
    -“Hand on the Shoulder” from April 23, 2012; excerpt from Sweet Tooth

    By my research, this is the first time something of his has appeared that isn’t an excerpt from a forthcoming novel, so my surprise is genuine and not intended to blame McEwan at all.

  3. Peg March 21, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    I enjoyed listening to the author reading this while following along with the written version. It certainly kept me intriqued but I find it a bit beyond belief that Jocelyn didn’t realize what had happened, that he finally decided that their friendship and closeness over the years had caused them to “write the same novel”!

  4. Joe March 25, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    This story was delicious on every single level. McEwan performed the Henry Jamesian thing to do when writing fiction – Keep the reader entertained.

    I smiled the smile of a cat who’d just devoured a fat pigeon in a sunny field.

    My oh my does Mr. McEwan know what he’s doing.

  5. Greg March 29, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    I share your feelings Joe. Also, I liked your self-comparison to the pigeon-feasting cat!

    In addition, Mr. McEwan finds the perfect words to describe a fulfilling read:

    “I experienced only the glow of an extraordinary reading experience, a form of profound gratitude familiar to all who love literature.”

  6. Ken March 31, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    I guess I’m becoming a bit too “snobby” but this sort of writing seems like perfectly adequate best-seller type stuff but not really the sort of literary fiction I’d expect in the New Yorker. Everything is all there to serve the story, is on the surface, and it has a “clever” twist or two. Is being a more literary O. Henry the standard for submission to the New Yorker these days (or a more elegant Stephen King).

  7. Greg March 31, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    I like it Ken how you have been coming in here in the NYR space a little later……you are our “sober second thought”.

  8. Sean H April 2, 2016 at 2:18 am

    I’m mostly with Arleen and Ken on this one. It’s sprightly and spirited but in the end a bit less than literary and quite familiar indeed. The concepts of influence and outright theft are well-worn ones in the literary arena, and the “inside baseball” writing-about-writing thing is far from original as well. It’s whimsical and a page turner. The writing certainly flows well. Overall though it felt almost entirely inconsequential, light as a feather. From Poe to Wilde to Lethem, and for scores in between, authors have been fascinated by artistic skullduggery. identity and writerly lineage, McEwan’s entry here seems footnotish at best. It’s one of the rare stories I really don’t find anything “wrong” with, and it evokes no disdain, yet somehow it is — in the end — a failure and a trifle. I have no desire to be harsh on a writer of McEwan’s gifts, and maybe sometimes one desires a praline. Me, I always found them sickly sweet and unsatisfying.

  9. Greg April 3, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    What a coincidence Sean – I ate Baskin-Robbins Pralines ‘n Cream cake last night at a birthday party…..and I loved it!

    However, on a serious note, thank you for kindly hinting that I should make sure to keep my literary tastes substantial and fulfilling.

  10. Poor Yorick April 7, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Good stuff ya’ll! I’m reminded of a comment about Puccini to the effect that it’s ok to enjoy a greasy chili dog from time to time. Still, McEwan crafts a mean villain.

  11. Greg April 8, 2016 at 11:57 pm

    Thanks Yorick for this neat sentiment from Puccini!

  12. Trevor June 23, 2016 at 2:02 am

    I finally read this and loved it! I agree that it is nothing new, but it is definitely not taking itself too seriously and I certainly had fun, in large part because of McEwan’s verve. Every time I worried that he was going to slip into seriousness or, perhaps worse, too much playful cleverness (and he skirts this when he brings up Amis and the other author with a Scotish name), he kept it fun. I’d much rather read this than a number of “New Yorker” stories.

  13. Patricia June 26, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    I’m with Trevor, and I think I I actually mentioned my love of this story in another thread. I don’t think I’ve ever read any thing by McEwan that I didn’t enjoy. I may have mentioned this in another comment too, but I don’t want to reading to become some sort of hairshirt wearing experience for me–there’s just too much on my reading list and too little time. Since I don’t HAVE to read anything, I don’t want to waste time on stories that don’t inspire me in some way. I think this one got a bit of a beating, but I’ll stand by it. In fact, I just ordered On Chesil Beach, after being reminded of how engrossing McEwan is to me.

  14. David June 26, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    Since this story is getting some new comments lately I might as well throw mine on the pile. I quite liked this story. For me the description of the “perfect (literary) crime” was both ingenious and entertaining. I agree with the comment by Peg that it was surprising that the other writer did not figure out what had happened, but without suspecting there was a motive and not knowing how he could have pulled it off makes it seem a more plausible conclusion. Sometimes we just do get two animated movies about ants or two biopics of Truman Capote at the same time by sheer coincidence, so why not this? It’s been three months since I read the story, but I remember it as a very fun read.

  15. Trevor Berrett June 27, 2016 at 12:13 am

    Your comments are always “timely,” David! Thanks!

  16. Trevor Berrett June 27, 2016 at 12:22 am

    Ah, missed your comment when I posted a reply to David, Patricia. I think you’ll love On Chesil Beach. Sadly, that’s the last McEwan I read that I really liked . . . until this story! I’m now much more hopeful about his forthcoming novel, though the premise sounds absolutely stupid.

  17. Patricia June 27, 2016 at 12:39 am

    I really enjoyed Saturday and Sweet Tooth, but I haven’t read his latest. I did read in several UK publications that his ex heckled him while promoting it. (I assumed The Children Act is the one you were referring to, unless he has another one in progress that I haven’t heard about.) The premise of that one didn’t appeal to me either, but it’s rare to find an author whose every work I adore (I think Alice Hoffman is the only one so far for me).

    I’m glad you think On Chesil Beach will be enjoyable. I live in Mexico, so I order most of my literature via Kindle these days (don’t judge, amigos, until you too have lived without English-language bookstores). On Chesil Beach will be a hardbound edition, though, so I’ll finally have something I can take to the sand dunes on my days off.

  18. David June 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

    Patricia, I am pretty sure Trevor was referring to “Nutshell”, due to be published this coming September. The premise of the book is a pregnant woman conspires to murder her husband and the story is narrated by the fetus from inside the womb. I’m more inclined to call the premise “insane” than “stupid” because while I can’t imagine how it could possibly work I’m willing to give him a chance to prove me wrong. We will have to wait to see if he can make anything of it.

  19. Patricia June 27, 2016 at 11:37 am

    Groan… how did I miss that one? The premise does, indeed, sound insane, or at least extremely daring. I guess at McEwan’s level you can take those chances. Thanks (I think, haha) for filling me in, David!

  20. Trevor Berrett June 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Yep, I was talking about Nutshell. Insane does cover it, without my prejudgment, so I’ll go with “insane” for now as well, though I doubt I’ll look at it unless there are some strong voices out there telling me it’s worth it.

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