Literary Notes: Let's read less of the American novel

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The Independent Culture
WHAT HAS happened to the British novel? From the highest level down to the run-of-the-mill it is being squeezed almost to death by a swarm of invaders from the other side of the Atlantic. And those invaders come - never forget it - from another and a different country speaking a different language, American English. So what they have to tell us cannot be as useful to us, as nourishing to the imagination, as the novels written by those who share our common assumptions.

Not everyone here sees this. The young, ears ringing with the lyrics of American music, minds filled with pictures from Hollywood movies and Channel 4 television imports, seem to feel they live in a land hovering somewhere above the heaving waters of the Atlantic. But go to the land that actually lies beyond the Atlantic and you see how very different life is there. And we have allowed over the years this different America to spread too insistently into what I have to call our cultural life.

We cannot help having lost cinema to Hollywood. But the shelves in our bookshops are too crammed with books from America. The columns of our newspapers are too filled with reviews of American novels.

So, should it be said that all American novels should be somehow banned? No. All I am asking is that only those novels written there that are of truly world stature should be made much of here. There are enough of them indeed - Bellow, Updike, Wolfe - cream of the rich society able generously to support an extraordinarily large number of fiction writers of all sorts. At a mystery-writing convention I attended in Monterey a year or so ago, for example, there were no fewer than 400 published writers present.

This is not, however, completely the fault of the books-pages' editors up and down the land for paying so much attention to so many books that are essentially foreign to us. Perhaps, in fact, we should apportion blame to the young academic lions of yesteryear who, emerging with their brightly shining PhDs, saw America as an exciting, largely untouched playground. Within a few years departments of American Studies sprang up, giving in consequence undue prominence to anything of a literary nature that had the magic of America sparkling off it. And haven't there been Popular Culture studies, too? Whose popular culture? That emanating from America.

And what are we paying attention to these days? To novels from America that are by no means bad, even if they are often strictly parochial chroniclings of the behaviour of people in that other country. It does us no great harm to follow the reviewers and read them. Except that they do not do for us what a novel should do. They cannot. The references are wrong. Their writers have been brought up from their very earliest days on nursery lore, children's stories, comic-book tales that are different from those British children experience. Let alone all the assumptions and influences writers over there have sucked in during their adult lives.

Only very, very few people in Britain will gain from such books their full value, especially since what a work of fiction has to "say" comes not directly but insidiously from the tiny details, the barely expressed thoughts. However, from books written by those who share their in-built assumptions and references, and written not in that different language, they will be able to absorb everything, or almost everything, put before them.

So let us give more attention to our own books backyard. Not all the plants in it are necessarily as well- written, as gripping, as illuminating as their American counterparts. But most of them are, and they will do their work more effectively. They were made to do so. They cannot help having been so made.

H.R.F. Keating is the author of `Bribery, Corruption Also' (Macmillan, pounds 16.99)