The plot thickens... Why are British novels becoming less emotional, and US ones more so?
John Walsh discovers a whole new chapter of scientific research
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Thursday 21 March 2013
Do American writers express more emotion than their British counterparts? A scientific paper, just published, has concluded that Stateside writers are champions at emotional incontinence, streets ahead of glacial, buttoned-up, clenched-buttock Limeys.
The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books, is the promising title of the study by four academics at Bristol, Stockholm, Sheffield and Durham universities. The quartet reached their conclusion by taking a number of “mood-words”, expressive of strong feelings, in six categories – Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness and Surprise – and seeing how often they appeared in “roughly 4 per cent of all books published” between 1900 and 2008.
This is a head-spinningly vast area of enquiry, a Pacific Ocean of books and words, from which the authors dredged up some intriguing generalisations.
The high or low incidence of certain “mood words” (like Joy or Sadness) during the 20th century meant the authors could distinguish “happy” or “sad” periods and plot a graph of historic trends: they can tell us the century started miserably (death of Queen Victoria,) rose to a high point in the 1920s (jazz and flappers) and plummeted to a nadir in the early 1940s (war, Blitz, rationing) before climbing back to a period of stability in the 1960s. But we knew that. More interesting is the finding that, since the 1960s, American books have increased their “mood content” by comparison with the Brits. You can guess why, can’t you? Words expressive of personal ego (“independent,” “individual,” “self”, “solitary,” “personal”) increased while words that evoke community (“team”, “village,” “group,” “union”) declined. Egocentric phrases like “I get what I want,” or “It’s all about me” galloped off in US writing, while old-fashioned communal sentiments (“united we stand”) languished unwanted. The egomania of 1970s America right to the end of the century and now shows up in this research, a trend discernible from space.
Should we worry about expressing less emotion in novels than our American friends, as a subset of the research implies? Shall we try harder? Must we strive to emulate the palpitations of Stephenie (Twilight) Meyer, the frantic onomatopoeic mugging of Tom (“Me Decade”) Wolfe, the grand guignol extremism of Stephen (The Shining) King and the bogus, oo-er mysticism of Dan (Da Vinci) Brown?
Did you see this research, Ms Mantel and Mr McEwan? Just knock it off with the perfectly judged prose and the elegant cadencing, will you, and give us some flipping emotion, okay?
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 2 The awkward moment Sarah Palin raised $25,000 for Hillary Clinton's election campaign
- 3 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 Baldness could soon be treated using stem cells, scientists hope
The Jump 2015 line-up: Joey Essex, Mike Tindall, Jodie Kidd and co take to the slopes
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Game of Thrones, season 5: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as he can keep his clothes on
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Martin Scorsese 'in shock' after death on set of new film Silence
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures