It’s nice that three UK authors have just won awards in the US. But that’s not going to bring back the Empire, says Robert McCrum
Can there be a more copper-bottomed guarantee of a non-event than a newspaper report containing the phrase “the British are coming”?
Last week I happened to be in America when three excellent British writers (Hilary Mantel, Diana Athill and the biographer Richard Holmes) scooped some of the top prizes at the literary Oscars, the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony. Three is a trend. Sure enough, the next day there was a rash of fevered commentary about the new sovereignty of British writers.
Absolute rot, of course. Athill, Holmes and Mantel are terrific writers but their well-deserved success proves nothing more remarkable than the excellence of The Age of Wonder, Somewhere Towards the End and Wolf Hall. Paradoxically, the news of this success emphasises how overshadowed we have become by our American cousins. That, of course, is no longer news, which is just as it should be.
In the same week, novelists Lorrie Moore and Barbara Kingsolver were longlisted for the Orange prize for The Gate at the Stairs and The Lacuna, both strong contenders following the distinguished transatlantic passage of last year’s winner Marilynne Robinson. There was plenty of commentary about “misery fiction”, but, so far as I am aware, no one wrote an agitated “the Americans are coming” column.
Of course not. Where Britain is a small, foggy archipelago off the north-west coast of Europe with a population of about 60 million, America remains a world power, despite its debts and its disabling internal neuroses. Its literature, correspondingly, enjoys instant stature and added consequence. President Obama’s brilliant impromptu speech to the congressional democrats on the eve of the healthcare vote seems more important than the vacuous witterings of any British or European leader. The ghosted memoirs of Sarah Palin will inevitably outshine anything written by Tony Blair.
It’s all about being the top story. When Britain hogged the headlines, throughout much of the 19th century, its novelists (Dickens, Disraeli, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope et al) were an integral part of a going concern. What they wrote mattered. American publishers pirated Dickens’s work, to his fury. Famously, it was said that the New York longshoremen would ask after the fate of Little Nell from the transatlantic liners docking in the Hudson.
That was in another time and another place. America has been the top story for some generations. As long ago as 1949 Cyril Connolly, contrasting the work of Waugh and Greene with Kipling and Conrad, noted how difficult it would be “to name any major English writers who were not deeply influenced by America”. That still holds good. US prose writers command automatic interest.
A first novel from the East coast seems more important than a first novel from the West Country. The death of JD Salinger, for example, or David Foster Wallace, inspired a much greater response than, say, the passing of JG Ballard or John Mortimer. A new novel by Richard Ford or Don deLillo will generate more column inches than one by any British counterpart.
Part of this is simply a matter of scale. America offers an immeasurably larger market. Add in the influence of Hollywood, and it’s obvious why readers and writers are dazzled by the megawattage of the American story.
The origins of British amour propre are not so hard to fathom. With the French, we were the first New Worlders, weren’t we? America continues to develop our language, reinterpret our traditions, import our Shakespeare and colonise our heritage. But we are the source.
No one puts it this way any more, but unconsciously we believe we are Greece to their Rome. Once upon a time it was different. It’s hard to suppress the nostalgia for the memory of things past. The cry “the British are coming” may allude to the revolutionary wars. It is also the batsqueak of a defunct imperial instinct.
And anyway, it is almost certainly redundant. The new and interesting cultural power in America comes, via the English language, imported from India and the Far East. It’s not so much a case of “the British are coming” as “the empire strikes back”.