TLS Online November 21, 2017
Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan

Reading Ian McEwan’s correspondence


For a researcher, getting access to emails is much more complicated than getting access to letters. For example, the archive of the poetry publisher Carcanet in Manchester contains hundreds of thousands of emails, but it is currently treated as a black archive closed to researchers. There are three main reasons for closing email archives: privacy concerns, copyright and technical issues. British archives need to comply with the 1998 Data Protection Act, and often prefer to restrict access, instead of sharing potentially confidential and sensitive information. Archival work is much more fun in the US, a country with a completely different approach to privacy. American archivists will bring you a bunch of documents, and assume that if you find anything sensitive, you will refrain from publishing it without permission. Researchers are treated as responsible adults. And yet, getting access to email archives in the US is still not easy. Even when an institution wants to share digital files, it cannot put everything online for copyright reasons. Researchers still need to travel to the archival repository to consult documents. And few institutions have solved all the technical issues specific to digital archives, including designing an appropriate interface to make these documents available to researchers.

Take the example of the new Ian McEwan archive. When McEwan sold his archive to the Harry Ransom Center, he included seventeen years of emails, from 1997 to 2014. Not many people know about these emails: they are not listed in the Finding Aid that describes the collection. What the Finding Aid does tell us is that there are “email printouts” available to researchers. These printouts are a small selection of McEwan’s 80,000 emails. Ironically, literary archives still rely on print at a time when most records are born digital. A couple of years ago, Stephen Enniss, the Director of the Harry Ransom Center, travelled to McEwan’s home in London to discuss the acquisition of the collection. Enniss asked McEwan if he would include his email correspondence with Salman Rushdie, which would make the archive extremely valuable to researchers. McEwan agreed.

McEwan’s email archive is an amazing resource, which I discovered when I went to Texas. In the early 1970s, the young McEwan drew a lot of encouragement from established figures of the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic: Malcolm Bradbury, Angus Wilson, Philip Roth and Ted Solotaroff. As the editor of the New American Review, Solotaroff published several of his short stories between 1972 and 1975. More than three decades later, Solotaroff wrote him an email to congratulate him on his recent novels. McEwan replied: “I glowed in the face of your praise, and the experience rather took me back to the early 70s when a letter (ah those were the days) from you appeared to me in my little flat in Norwich to have been sent from an Olympian realm”.

The American editor Nan Talese was another major figure in McEwan’s career. Their longstanding relationship dates back to 1977, when McEwan was spending a semester at the University of Iowa. Talese was a fan of his short stories, and she had heard he had just finished his first novel. She asked to read it, but McEwan initially refused. “I can’t imagine what I was doing”, he later said. Talese insisted, and she flew down to Iowa City especially to read this novel (The Cement Garden), which she bought along with his second collection of short stories (In Between the Sheets). After the publication of Amsterdam two decades later, Talese emailed McEwan: “it brings me back to the thrill of walking near the river (what is its name?) in Iowa City, having finished The Cement Garden, while you were far away in New Orleans and I was so eager to meet you and talk about the book”. The Iowa episode keeps reappearing in later emails. In a 2002 email, for example, McEwan thanked Talese for twenty-five years of support and enthusiasm for his writing. And in 2014, McEwan reminded a journalist that Talese was still his US editor.

What difference does it make for a researcher to work with emails rather than letters? Emails share much more with previous forms of communication than we usually imagine. Email-writing was initially modelled on letter-writing after all; business memos were another source of inspiration, as the subject line reminds us. Publishers’ archives are full of letters that mix private and professional matters. Even the speed of emails is not a radical innovation, as letters were delivered several times a day in the early twentieth century. The main difference is the materiality of letters. As Jacques Derrida and others have noted, we continue to fetishize physical documents in archives. The handwriting and signature of the writer carry an aura that emails lack. But there are other ways to inspire this sense in readers – such as emulation. At Emory University, researchers use an emulated system that seeks to bring back to life the look and feel of Salman Rushdie’s original Macintosh Performa. Everybody will soon be able to access McEwan’s emails – even though a trip to Texas will still be necessary. Literary correspondence today is largely born-digital, and the preservation, access and use of these born-digital records is central to our heritage.

Lise Jaillant has received a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award for her project on born-digital records, After the Digital Revolution