Same Language, Different Worlds


Reading Francine Prose’s excellent ‘Reading Like A Writer’, I’m once again struck by the gulf that exists between British and American writing. Prose reminds me of all the great American writers I’ve forgotten, and has sent me back into the stacks to reacquaint myself with them. The other day I went to the film critic Kim Newman’s annual party, and some of us found ourselves discussing the mystifying gap between US and UK styles. Generalisations are never a good idea, unless you’ve been drinking. Here are the minutes of the impromptu meeting;

British authors are often self-taught, and start out in small press. Their styles vary wildly and their books can be poorly structured, with wonderful ideas flying about like errant fireworks. They don’t do enough physical research. They’re usually fairly left-wing. They take leaps of surreal logic. Even non-fiction volumes show non-conformism. Jason Goodwin’s ‘Lord of the Horizons’, for example, is not a history of the Ottoman empire (as Amazon readers have complained) but a dazzling series of sideways thoughts and ideas about its reign.

US authors are far more controlled. They’re very aware of the effects they’re producing. They research meticulously and follow guidelines set down in writing courses. They’re more conservative. They’re careful, and aren’t afraid of showing warmth or personality. Their non-fiction can be overworked and wearying. Judith Walkowitz’s ‘Nights Out’, a history of Soho, is a tightly-wound, exhaustive treatise on the area that somehow misses having any sense of it.

But there are areas in which one side excels over the other. US crime novels are far better than ours. But most social comedies suffer in translation as they cross the Atlantic. We’re closer to the French in our humour than we ever appreciate, dry and bleak, whereas American comic novels are warmer, happier affairs.

In her book, Prose explains that she fell out of love with certain aspects of teaching because her students had been encouraged to prosecute authors for their racial and cultural attitudes instead of celebrating the joy of the written word, to the point where they didn’t seem to like reading at all. She advocates close-reading to understand writing, and I agree with her; I’m not interested in the life of the person behind the words. As a result, I read both UK and US novels – and as many European books as exist in translation (woefully few still), because the word is king, and how you arrive at it isn’t important.

3 comments on “Same Language, Different Worlds”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Isn’t the English language a great playground? And this is a really good piece, which I happen to agree with having come to much the same conclusion.
    My wife is always telling me to not read a British book right before I start to write as the British approach may bleed into what I’m writing.)
    I think a balance of the two writing worlds would be great. I like a slowish beginning, character development, complexity, local color/colour, clever dialogue – a degrees or so off Noel Coward – interesting facts, and a satisfying possible ending. And not overly controlled writing.
    Read, read, read me thinks. Not creative writing classes where everyone batters the writer into a form. I can almost always spot a book written by the graduate of a writing class. Construct a novel, don’t whittle it; let the Chinese ivory carver construct the lacy balls within balls with in…. More-expansive Walt Whitman, please,less T.S. Eliott, for me poetry-wise.
    There indeed are too few European novels translated, but I reread Ivo Andric and Georges Simenon’s “hard” novels. Also enjoy Andrea Camilleau detective novels.
    Since you read the NYT, may I suggest you check out the Opinionator pieces. Particularly Ben Yagoda, who wrote “About Town: The New Yorker And The World It Made” as well as his blog Not One-Off Britishisms and glance at his Facebook page. Constance Hale is also good in the Times and wrote Sin and Syntax.
    Helen have you seen the postman yet?

  2. Helen Martin says:

    (Dan, the door is singularly quiet, but we had a holiday yesterday and that may slow things down. or up?) I’m not sure how much I agree with Chris up there since I like British crime novels for the details (but I read PD James and Chris Fowler, so what does that say?) I just finished Giles Tremlett’s biography of Catherine of Aragon and found tremendous detail in the writing but a great deal of getting into a scene and letting you feel the dynamics of the action. By the end you certainly know how he felt about what happened – clearly enough for Henry to have thrown him into the Tower before hanging, drawing & quartering. Are you sure the descriptions are national and not writing course vs self taught? Writing must be one of the few professions where formal learning is not recommended.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    @Helen. Nothing delivered here either and August 6th was not a Civic holiday here. A few more days and I’ll have to have a talk with Bob the Postal Person. Seriously.

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