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.