Throughout the 20th century, English writers achieved success in the US by selling an elite image of the country based on Oxbridge and public schools. Can any other vision of English life strike a chord with Americans?by Benjamin Markovits / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1963, a thirtysomething Oxford-educated schoolmaster, teaching at a girls’ college in Hampstead, sold his first novel. Its hero is a butterfly-collecting young clerk named Clegg, who kidnaps and imprisons a pretty girl he picks up outside Hampstead town hall. Jonathan Cape published the book in England and Pan Books bought the American rights for £3,500: a record for an English first novel. The publishers flew the author over for a publicity tour. He had never been to America. “Somehow I have to explain how I came back a week later still a socialist (in my fashion) but also hopelessly in love” with the country, he recorded in his diary. It is not surprising he had his head turned a little. His novel had become a “sort of ‘in’ book in New York. Everywhere I went I met people who wanted to argue about it… It obsesses people because it is about power and impotence… ‘All American women want to be locked up underground,’ said one lady. ‘We’re all in love with that monster of yours.'” No doubt the fact that Clegg was English softened the cruelty of his treatment of the girl a little. The initial American print run of The Collector was to be 20,000—the biggest, John Fowles wrote in his diary, since Goodbye, Mr Chips. What Fowles felt towards the brave new world suggests both sides of the relation between Clegg and his imprisoned schoolgirl: “But I know now, deeply, that I need openness, I need space… To say that the English are living in and on their history is a cliché; but this is what I felt intensely coming back.” Fowles’s feelings have been so widely shared, and also so bitterly disagreed with, in the four decades since, that they have become a part of the “cliché” that the “English are living in.” When Martin Amis, in his 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno and other visits to America, praised Saul Bellow for his “high style,” he had in mind something of what Fowles was aiming at several decades before: “To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the 20th century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work.” Amis, in praising Bellow, was also reacting against what he considered to be the influence on English literary ambition of the empire’s decline, as he described it elsewhere in 1990: “In its current form, the typical English novel is 225 sanitised pages about the middle classes. You know, ‘well-made’ with the nice colour scheme and décor, and matching imagery.” The inferiority complex of the English literary world, which was vividly brought to light in the fuss that met the recent suggestion of opening the Booker prize to Americans, is well established; the effect of it can best be measured in the number of British novelists who have adopted American voices and settings for their work. Money, widely considered to be Amis’s best novel, takes place mostly in a brilliantly rendered New York (though its protagonist is English). Others have attempted what might be called the complete act of ventriloquism: DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little is told entirely from the point of view of a Texan teenager; Patrick Neate’s Twelve Bar Blues is set mostly in Harlem and the American south; and Christopher Wilson’s The Ballad of Lee Cotton adopts, not particularly convincingly, the voice of an albino black southerner. Zadie Smith, after her debut novel White Teeth, a successful evocation of multicultural Britain, has drifted America-wards in her settings and sensibilities—her most recent novel, On Beauty, transposed EM Forster’s England on to America’s east coast. Significantly, this new-world shift among English writers has been conspicuously rewarded by British prizes: Vernon God Little won the Booker in 2003; The Ballad of Lee Cotton was shortlisted for the Whitbread in 2005; Twelve Bar Blues won the 2001 Whitbread; and On Beauty won the 2006 Orange prize. But Americans, by and large, do not read foreign writers for their impressions of America. Cultures produce, among other goods for export, a sellable version of themselves; and the virtue of what Amis called the “225 sanitised pages about the middle classes” is that they are, at least, recognisably English. My own anecdotal sense, as an American who spent a part of his childhood in London, is that those “sanitised pages” have had, to many Americans, the same strong appeal that our native “high voice” has for English readers and writers. The novels of Austen and Trollope, and in the 20th century of Greene and Waugh, speak in what might be called their “low voice” just as seductively to us as the vaunts of Bellow and DeLillo. A society everywhere coloured and scored by its own fine grain offers to writers and readers alike the pleasures of working in modest codes, in nuance, in a sharply realised domestic sphere. Henry James, of course, is the classic example of an American who took up the challenge of writing in an English vein; no other would have allowed him to get away with quite so little, just as, one suspects, Pierre and Smith write American to get away with rather more. There are few contemporary American writers who have attempted the transatlantic leap from the other side. Yet England, and Englishness, still offer to many readers and writers in the US the attractions of refinement. There is a kind of elegance and precision that can only be attempted in a narrow culture, and the English middle classes are distinguished from their American counterparts by that narrowness. Writers who want to work in idiom tend, in the US, to turn to ethnic or working-class life. The American middle classes are created, for the most part, out of education, rather than ancestry or geography or social sets; their idioms are generally of the acquired kind. This puts a certain pressure on the social novelist: he can enliven the dialogue of his characters only by their own forced wit. The great tradition of the Jewish American novel depends, in part, on the fact that Jews at least have given to the United States a distinctive middle-class voice; and it’s striking how many young writers have adopted it, sometimes anachronistically, for their own literary purposes (Jonathan Safran Foer comes to mind). John Updike, of course, is an exception to the Jewish rule. He is the great Wasp novelist, but his work is more famous for the precision of his eye than his ear. His descriptions have to do a lot of the work that Waugh, for example, can accomplish simply by letting his characters talk. Writers like Waugh, consequently, appeal to a certain kind of American taste—for concision, for wit, for restraint—which can only be satisfied by a certain kind of English novel; a demand which, for much of the 20th century, the English have proved more than capable of supplying. The rise or fall of the English novel in America is not easily calculated, in part because the waters are muddied by so many contributing factors. In general, Americans read less than they used to. Peter Hildick-Smith, a researcher for the Codex group, has tracked a 7 per cent decline in reading rates over the past 20 years, which rises to 14 per cent in the case of literary fiction. Twentysomething Americans, once the greatest consumers of books, now read the least. While America in theory offers a much larger audience to an English writer than his or her home shores, in practice English and American reading markets are not very different in size. The task of a literary publisher is much easier in England than in the US, for the simple reason that London is central to English (and British) cultural life, while New York is not to American. All the major newspapers have their offices in London, and a publisher can expect to know personally, and see socially, the editors, journalists, publicists, book-buyers and writers he depends on to review and publicise his list. Any English novelist who hopes to make it in America, by contrast, has to make it again and again, in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and so on. Have they made it? A glance at the Publisher’s Weekly annual bestseller lists through the past few decades confirms a few dispiriting truths. Among the top ten fiction titles of 1970, for example, we find novels by John Fowles (at number two) and Graham Greene. It isn’t only the presence of two Englishmen that is conspicuous, it is the kind and quality of their books: The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Travels with my Aunt. In the next few years, a number of other English books became bestsellers. Greene reappeared in 1973 with The Honorary Consul, and Alistair Cooke, for predictable reasons, hit the top ten in hardback and paperback with his account of America. In 1974, James Herriot’s memoir of veterinary escapades, All Things Bright and Beautiful, reached number eight; Agatha Christie’s Curtain hit number three in 1975, and the following year her Sleeping Murder got to number two. The bestselling work of fiction of 1977 was JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion—a fact that will seem remarkable to anyone who has read it—in an edition brought out by his son Christopher. John le Carré also reached number four that year with The Honourable Schoolboy and Fowles was back with Daniel Martin. Before the decade was out, Herriot had reached number three with All Things Wise and Wonderful; Greene had cracked the list with The Human Factor; Le Carré’s Smiley’s People had got to number ten; and Herriot had had another success, in non-fiction, with a guide to Yorkshire. What is striking about these books, with a few exceptions, is how consistently they portray, or proceed from, a certain kind of Englishness—the same kind memorialised by James Hilton in 1934 in Goodbye, Mr Chips. England, as it appears in the American bestseller charts, is the country of Oxbridge and public schools. Tolkien was a don, whose fantasy world played out, in the battles between schools of wizards and their scout-like underlings, the academic skirmishes between Oxford colleges. Daniel Martin is set, in part, at Oxford; Agatha Christie describes the trials of the upper-middle classes, and if her characters live, to a discerning eye, in a world far removed from the conscience-stricken heroes of Graham Greene, an American reader could hardly be expected to appreciate fully the fact that among the things Greene’s everymen have to overcome is their education at minor public schools. James Herriot’s Yorkshire tales are an exception; they play, if anything, to the American appetite for the English rural idyll, but his class and education, and the contrasts these afford among the scenes he travels through, are a part of his charm. England, evidently, had found a cultural export that worked, that sold, that had been selling for much of the 20th century. Of course, both countries look rather different than they did in Agatha Christie’s day, and the American bestseller charts of the 1990s reflect a greatly changed literary landscape. Bellow, Hemingway, Greene, Fowles are gone; the kind of novels between which they had always been sandwiched have become, as it were, the whole loaf: Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon. Two English writers routinely make the list: Jackie Collins and Barbara Taylor Bradford. Their works are set mostly in London, New York, Hollywood, Connecticut and so on: a hybrid world in which the distinctions between the English and the Americans count for less than the shared qualities of the transatlantic rich. Certain writers have managed to survive the shift, in cultural terms, to the popular: James Michener can still be found in the middle of the bestseller charts; and James Herriot’s Yorkshire tales and anthologies repeatedly appeared, in the 1990s, among the non-fiction bestsellers. The late 1990s are also notable for the appearance of a new British face among the ranks of the American bestsellers: JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the joint bestselling novel of 1997. The extraordinary success of Rowling’s children’s novels is most remarkable, perhaps, for the fact of their conventionality: her fantasies have a distinctly retro look, and belong not only to the traditions of Tolkien and CS Lewis, but also to those of James Hilton. The English boarding school has become so successful an international commodity that the English are buying it back themselves, repackaging it, and selling it off again. Harry Potter is a world (and several wars) removed from Goodbye, Mr Chips, but both Rowling and Hilton exploit the appeal and recognisability of what had once been the pride of the English gentleman: the Victorian public schools. Of course, Rowling has no intention of working out, as Greene and Le Carré attempted to, how its traditions had begun to fail their heroes. The English boarding school has achieved the solidity of a symbol, even if it has sacrificed, along the way, the nuances of a reality. What it hasn’t failed, though, is the English writer abroad: a certain kind of school life is still associated with the English, and has the useful and rare quality of being both familiar and intriguing. If Americans have been selling internationally, for almost a century now, the troubles of their political experiment and the struggles of the individual within it, the English have been exporting the social subtleties of a culture that is shaped by class and schooling. Whether or not English life still is shaped by class and schooling remains up for debate. It’s telling that the most recent English novel to top the New York Times bestseller charts, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, is a Gothic romance that draws on the 19th-century stars of Brit lit, Brontë and Dickens. It has done much better in New York than in London, suggesting that the English may begin to export a culture, like airport deli food, which they no longer consume at home. Setterfield’s success says nothing about the difficulties a writer can expect to face in selling a more contemporary vision of English life across the pond. Despite the triumph of commercial fiction over the last two decades, English literary novels do sometimes break through to a kind of popular success, and it is worth reflecting on the character of the books that make it. Ian McEwan has been able to establish a readership in America which has largely eluded Amis; and the contrast between the styles of the two writers suggests something of the qualities that Americans look for in their imported English fiction. Amis’s verbal pyrotechnics approach the high style he praises in Bellow. McEwan’s voice is at the lower end of the scale: discreet, eloquent, self-effacing. Atonement, which was a bestseller in both Britain and the US (selling well over a million copies in Britain and close to a million in the US) opens with an English period drama: it is set in a country house, and occupies an upper-class world, not far removed from Hilton’s Chips, or Christie’s murderers, or Waugh’s debutantes. His latest novel, Saturday, has an obvious appeal to the post-9/11 American readership: it is a reflection on war and terror, but it is worth remembering that McEwan has dressed it up in the “225 sanitised pages about the middle classes.” Amis himself belongs to the public school and Oxbridge-educated upper-middle classes, but his books present a style of Englishness deliberately at odds with the exportable version: violent, florid, seamy and loud, rather than quiet and ironic. His problem in finding an American market may have something to do with the narrowing readership. If literary fiction has become less popular in the culture at large, that fact has also had an effect on the culture of literary fiction. The novels that succeed seem increasingly to be set among the class of people who might pay to read them. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is an example, famously, of a highbrow novel that achieved a sizeable audience. Its characters belong, more or less, to the class of Ivy League educated east-coast elites who composed it. Literary fiction, in any case, has an aspirational appeal; and books that offer, among other things, a description of the class aspired to, have a double attraction. It is no coincidence that, in New York, two of the most talked-about books of 2006—Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty—are set among the east-coast intellectual elite who do most of the talking. Smith’s success in America does point, however, to a new image of Britain that has managed to make the transition to cultural export. In 1989, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses reached number six in the annual bestseller charts. The circumstances of the book’s publication were exceptional enough to suggest that the novel’s success was itself exceptional; but Smith’s White Teeth, published in 2000, managed to sell a picture of multicultural Britain to America and earned its author considerable American acclaim—which has persisted, it should be said, even though her subsequent novels have departed a little from the picture of working and middle-class life in northwest London on which she made her name. Still, ethnic diversity and tension, both in America and Britain, remain central to her work, and her England is clearly to be distinguished from the England of Hilton, Waugh and Greene. A new British culture has begun to establish itself among American readers, but it isn’t by any means the whole culture that has made the breakthrough. The few green shoots come from the ground being worked by writers like Smith and Monica Ali. Hilton, Waugh and Greene, however, have their own descendants. Kazuo Ishiguro, like McEwan, is an example of an English novelist who has taken the culture of upper-middle-class Britain and served it up as a rich pastiche for his own literary purposes. The Remains of the Day, like Atonement, adopts the costumes and customs of the period drama, and it has been by far the most successful of Ishiguro’s novels in America—in part because the version of English life it traded on was so beautifully filmable. But the real inheritor of the tradition of Evelyn Waugh may be Helen Fielding, the creator of Bridget Jones. Zoe Pagnamenta, an agent for Peters Fraser & Dunlop, an old British literary agency which has recently set up an office in New York, describes the difficulty an agent can face in placing literary fiction with American publishers, who tend to believe, rightly or wrongly, that their readers won’t be very interested, say, in a novel about Scottish working-class life. Some US agents say that English chick lit, on the other hand, has never been easier to sell; presumably not least because it deals, mostly, in upper-middle-class life, its parties, codes, privileges and aspirations. These have been exported to US readers for the best part of the 20th century. Whether or not a sharper contemporary vision of British life can make the grade as cultural export remains to be seen. Even slight deviations from the traditional can create difficulties. Alan Holling-hurst’s The Line of Beauty struggled to find an American publisher, and was eventually bought by Bloomsbury, an English publishing house with an office in the US. One editor turned it down on the grounds, as Hollinghurst told me, that “an American reader in 2004 could not be expected to be interested in so remote a subject as London in 1983.” Of course, American readers have proved themselves to be interested for decades in a certain kind of London life, and that, more or less, was the kind Hollinghurst had so vividly described: privileged, Oxbridge-educated, elaborately leisured. He had, however, complicated the upper-class milieu by focusing on the gay scene, and, in particular, on the effects of a specific political climate: Thatcherism. There are times, however, when the prejudices of the publishers are narrower than the prejudices of their readers. The Line of Beauty has gone on (post-Booker, it must be said) to sell 100,000 copies, and was shortlisted for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award. Contemporary English culture is wider than the view of it offered by a postcolonial or an Oxbridge literary tradition, but English writers have struggled to sell that fact to American readers. The most conspicuous theatrical success of recent years suggests just how little the American view of the English has changed in the 20th century: Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is unashamedly, almost polemically, old-fashioned, both in subject and style. It has transferred successfully to New York, where it won six Tonys in 2006. The play, of course, is set, like Goodbye, Mr Chips, in an English boys’ school.