For McEwan that is what a novelist does, at least since Samuel Richardson wrote Clarissa, or perhaps since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet: he gives you a full sense of what it is to be someone else. What he is in effect doing, is milking the human instinct for what psychologists call a theory of mind, which explores our inane tendency to construct an understanding of what others are thinking. In a good novel not only does the reader know what the character is thinking; the reader knows what the character thinks that another character is thinking.
His work has earned him worldwide critical acclaim and many awards, among them the Somerset Maugham Award (1976) for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany 's Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction three times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), the National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (2003), the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Saturday.
[McEwan's] prose is carefully crafted but not designed to be relished in the manner that some of his more self-consciously literary contemporaries’ writing is; occasionally he lets pass a sentence that Amis or Julian Barnes would commit hara-kiri rather than see in print under their names. He appeals to readers who want more matter and less art. For the same reason, his books are particularly attractive to film-makers; nearly all of his novels have been adapted for film and television, notably Atonement, which Joe Wright turned into a mesmerising film worthy of its source.
McEwan is a connoisseur of dread, performing the literary equivalent of turning on the tub faucet and leaving the room; the flood is foreseeable, but it still shocks when the water rushes over the edge. That’s how it is with the hounds that descend upon a woman in the 1992 novel “Black Dogs”; the orgiastic murder in the 1981 novel “The Comfort of Strangers”; the botched sexual initiation in “On Chesil Beach.” At moments of peak intensity, McEwan slows time down—a form of torture that readers enjoy despite themselves.
[McEwan] remains fascinated with the forbidden and the taboo, which he continues to describe with non-judgmental precision. Further, he entices the reader into sharing his voyeuristic obsession with this material. As Rod Mengham observes, "The writer's and the reader's deepest pleasure consists less in their sense of ironic superiority to the benighted narrator than in the vicarious delight of identification, which is rooted in finding the scandalous secretly seductive and its apologists convincing." McEwan has explained his fascination with evil or illicit behavior by arguing that this "projected sense of evil in [his] stories [. . .] is of the kind whereby one tries to imagine the worst thing possible in order to get hold of the good."
His first attempt to break out of the "rather claustrophobic fiction" he had been writing in the 70s and early 80s was his 1985 screenplay, The Ploughman's Lunch, which featured a journalist writing about Suez at the time of the Falklands war. That led "pretty directly" to The Child in Time (1987) in which the story of a missing child is refracted through both science and domestic politics.
McEwan started writing and publishing fiction in the mid-1970s, on the threshold of a period of particular dynamism in the development of the novel in Britain. His short stories and novels were written and published in the context of the changes, both perceived and real, that shaped British fiction in the last twenty or so years of the twentieth century.
Having become infamous in his short stories and novels of the 1970s for his goryplots, ahistorical scenarios and fascination with sexual sado-masochism, McEwan’sswerve to a far more compassionate and politically-engaged writing is all the more striking for the clarity and directness of its articulation in the libretto
Ever since McEwan's first publications, his work has received considerable attention form critics and scholars. Malcolm claims that he is "certainly one of the most noteworthy of contemporary authors." (Malcolm, ix) The flood of reviews that welcome every one of his new publican and the number of publication about his works seem to acknowledge that most critics and scholars share the opinion.
Ian McEwan is the one literary novelist we have whose books not only win prizes but consistently sell as well as thrillers and cookbooks. It's true that in a new BookScan chart of the top authors of the past decade - inevitably headed by JK Rowling, followed by Dan Brown - McEwan doesn't appear until number 36. But [...] McEwan's books have generated a cover price revenue of precisely £24,402, 831.72 in the Noughties, in this country alone.