Cynthia Crossen of the Wall Street Journal explains why she likes British writers:
“Maybe the British seem especially adept at fiction because they’ve been writing it for so long—”Beowulf” was written before the 11th century, and Chaucer wrote “The Canterbury Tales” in the 14th century. Daniel Defoe, sometimes called the father of the English novel, published “Robinson Crusoe” in 1719.
“Early Americans brought many British traditions with them to the U.S., but fiction wasn’t one of them. The first American novel is said to be “The Power of Sympathy” by William Hill Brown (1789), a morality tale of incest, seduction and suicide. Perhaps because of their centuries of practice, British writers often seem more confident and less showy. To me, a lot of modern American literary fiction reads as though it’s spent too much time being workshopped.
“While it’s folly to generalize about the literature of an entire nation, I think British novelists tend to be more ironic, and I like irony. I enjoy the suspicion that a writer may be pulling my leg. The British are also good at wit—the art of “thinking in fun while feeling in earnest,” as J.B. Priestley put it. American wit sometimes seems like what Mr. Priestley described as ‘men sitting on pats of butter or smelly cheeses’.”
It’s interesting to note that when Ms. Crossen listed her 50 favorite modern authors in 2002, more than half were of American origin, including T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, Ann Patchett, Anne Tyler, and Richard Russo, among others.
See Cynthia Crossen’s full article here.
Mary Miley Theobald, author of The Impersonator, has this to offer on the subject:
“I do prefer British writing to American, but am hard pressed to explain why. I’ll try. (This all, of course, falls under the heading of ‘generally speaking’).
“British children seem to study English literature and writing more thoroughly in their schools than Americans do, which leads to adults who have a body of literary knowledge that permeates their work and inevitably makes it better.
“British writing seems more elegant to me, the sentences more carefully crafted, the words more carefully chosen for precise meaning. British writers bring their very dry, understated sense of humor to their work, an ironic, self-deprecating sort of wit that turns up in the most unexpected places.”
From the blog posting “English Humour vs. American Humor – Is There a Difference?” on Lexiophiles.com:
“One of the major differences seems to be how often both nations use irony. Brits use irony on a daily basis, whereas it is not the foundation of American humour. I think Americans understand British irony (most of the time anyway!), what they don’t understand is the need to use it so frequently. When Americans use irony they tend to state that they were “only kidding”. They feel the need to make a joke more obvious than Brits do, maybe this stems from a fear of offending people.”
See the full posting here.
As you can see, irony is a common thread through any discussion of the differences between American and British artistic expression.
What do I think? I’ll sit on the fence and say that I enjoy it all. When I review my lifelong reading log (yes, I’ve kept a log) I see that the majority of titles were penned by Americans: John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Atwood (Canadian), Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, Ellen Glasgow, John Irving, Raymond Chandler, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Lee, Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter, Maile Meloy, Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Smith, and so on. And too many mysteries to list here.
The British classics of the 19th century are beyond compare. I count Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner as favorite 20th century writers. As for mysteries, I’ve devoured the works of Agatha Christie and enjoyed Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, and Joan Smith. I so wish that Ms. Smith had continued with her Loretta Lawson series.
So, even though I mostly read American fiction, I fully enjoy the offerings of the British, Australians, French, Russians, South Americans, etc. You get the picture.
I’m relieved that I don’t have to take sides.
What do you think? British or American? Or do you join me on the fence? Is irony important in writing?
Next question: Is British TV better than American?
Let’s leave that question for an upcoming blog.