God Bless (Cliche-Ridden) America

Could folks living in the U.K. please make up their mind about how they feel about American writers? Just the other day, Joseph O’Neill was all but dismissing American fiction as a spent force, but this morning the Guardian‘s Stuart Evers writes about realizing that most of his shelf space is filled with books by Yanks:

American fiction fascinates because of the country it seeks to depict: its vastness, its extremes of landscape and temperatures, its hundreds of races, its gulfs between wealth and poverty. When permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl called American fiction “insular” he was right: when you’ve got so many stories to tell at home, why would you look abroad?

Fair enough. But as much as I support Evers’ enthusiasm, I get the feeling he’s got a wrong, or at least narrow, idea of what American writing is. To show how much he prefers American English over British English, he comes up with a representative sentence from each:

Mary fills up at the gas station, then drives her Chevy Impala to Roy’s Diner.

Mary fills up at the petrol station, then drives her Nissan Micra to Roy’s Rolls.

Sure, the British sentence is a little drab, but the American one is a cavalcade of cliches. Gas stations, Chevys, and diners might be nice to work with if it’s 1932 and your name is James M. Cain, but Evers’ sentence doesn’t prove that American English is somehow better—only that we pulled off noir a lot better than his countrymen did. The notion that American stories are all about the open road and some troublesome dame is a deeply ingrained one; foreigners believe it the same way they believe that Chicago is an interesting city because it’s where Michael Jordan played basketball. Reducing the country’s fictional product to a handful of notions risks marginalizing it—and validating O’Neill’s argument. Not that either writer has the power to wreck an entire country’s literary output. Perhaps it’s enough to be thankful that the British are still concerned about it.

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