Alan Bennett knows how to shock a man

The great dramatist is guilty of reverse chauvinism, the cultural crime of assuming that foreign is best

 

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For a man whose public appearances are generally confined to a crotchety diary column filed each year-end to the London Review of Books, the interview granted by Alan Bennett to BBC Four last night was unusually revealing. The great man's extended sit-down with Sir Nicholas Hytner, convened in celebration of his 80th birthday, covered such topics as his sexuality, his recovery from a late 1990s cancer diagnosis, and his sympathy with secret communists who threw over their country for the Soviet Union ("I liked the notion of the Cambridge spies betraying their class"), but one of its most fascinating disclosures took in Bennett's attitude to modern English literature.

Here, to the consternation of one or two newspapers alerted to the Radio Times preview, the author of The History Boys confessed that he favours American authors over their British counterparts, on the grounds that the down-home talent has little to say. "I like American literature more than I do contemporary English literature," he briskly informed his interviewer.

"I like Philip Roth, for instance. I don't feel any of the people writing in England can tell me very much. That may be very unfair."

Perhaps it was, but no names were mentioned, and messrs Amis, Barnes and McEwan, not to mention mesdames Byatt, Mantel and Tremain, could sleep safe in their beds. All the same, we were left with the decidedly odd spectacle of a writer frequently regarded as the embodiment of the solid English virtues getting his literary kicks from the further side of the pond.

As one who has taken an interest in literary fashions for the best part of three and a half decades, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard some arts world eminence peddling this line. It was a feature of the 1970s, when anyone with the slightest claims to intellectual credibility preferred tricksy American post-moderns of the Barth-Doctorow-Vonnegut school to such staid domestic talents as Margaret Drabble and Kingsley Amis, and a staple of those 1980s highbrow talk-shows in which the smart money was always placed on the new wave of "dirty realists" first brought to local attention by a celebrated issue of Bill Buford's Granta magazine. Martin Amis might have much to recommend him, but dear me, he was knocked into a 10-gallon hat by the latest reportage from the tumbleweed-thronged back-lanes of darkest Wyoming.

Establishing the date at which what might be called reverse chauvinism – preferring the culture of any country other than one's own – took up residence in the British bloodstream is by no means easy. Any number of patriotic Victorian scholars, for example, could be found worshipping at the altar of Hellenism, and the cult of Scandinavian literature in the UK dates from around the 1880s. By the mid-20th century, on the other hand, the apparent superiority of French culture to anything produced in England was such a fixture of up-market intellectual circles that it became a target for satirists. Stephen Potter's Some Notes on Lifemanship, published in 1950, observes how utterly "un-New Statesman-like" it was – the NS was particularly keen on Camus, Sartre and co – "to suggest that there is any branch of French literature with which you are unfamiliar", while Professor Welch and his son Bertrand, the villains of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, are likened to "Gide and Lytton Strachey, represented in waxwork form by a prentice hand".

It is not that Amis especially dislikes French books and their authors. It is not that he assumes that anyone with a name like Gide must automatically be a fraud. It is merely that, observing the intellectual life of the British 1950s, he is forced to conclude that in nine cases out of 10 an enthusiasm for Proust is sheer faddishness, an attitude adopted to impress rather than to assert a genuine cultural preference.

At the same time the irony of his own enthusiasm for a foreign culture – see in particular his liking for American jazz – would not have escaped him, and one of the amusements of Amis's well-nigh xenophobic cultural stance in later life is the sight of a man complaining about the respectful treatment given to Saul Bellow in British newspapers while listening to records by "Hot" Pee-Wee Cystitis and his Cisco Six.

On the other hand, there are substantial distinctions to be drawn in the field of reverse chauvinism, and their dividing line generally runs through the gap between mass and high culture. My father, for example, who spent the 1930s permanently in thrall to James Cagney, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller, was simply responding to a mass-cultural tide that swept away practically every British teenager who came near. But the upper-brow reader of 2014 who decides, after much careful consideration, that he prefers a work set in Nowhere, Nebraska to one set in Chertsey, Surrey, is making a deliberate cultural choice. Why does he, or she, do it?

The most plausible explanation is that American writers are somehow "better" than British ones. My own browsings amid the American masters of recent decades – Roth, Updike, Mailer, McCarthy, Morrison and so on – suggests that this is not always the case, and sometimes so emphatically not the case that you wonder why The New York Times Book Review hasn't noticed. But even if it could be demonstrated that certain American novels were superior to equivalent books produced here, much of the wider evidence suggests that there are other explanations, and that, as is quite often the norm when it comes to expressions of literary taste, they have very little to do with literature per se.

In fact, you have a suspicion that much of the fashionable trumpeting of American literature – reflected in the recent opening up of the Man Booker Prize to American competition – has its roots in sheer exoticism, the lure of dust-blown landscapes and one-eyed ranchers with names like Leecil C Lee. I can remember, as an impressionable young book-reviewer, reading a paragraph in a Cormac McCarthy novel that began "He got on his horse and rode down the wide street into America" and almost hanging my head in shame. No British writer can write a sentence like that, for the elementary reason that he, or she, lives in Rotherham or East Putney, where the view from the window is a terraced street, not the cactus-strewn outcrops of the Grand Canyon.

And so, with all due respect to Mr Bennett, the British pundit who disdains his contemporaries for American literature usually does so for the wrong reasons, in a desperate search for "otherness" and "authenticity" that subsequent information often shows to have been entirely misguided. After all, the original "dirty realist" crew were widely acclaimed for their rough-hewn realism, only for Raymond Carver to be revealed as a rambling purveyor of "fine writing" knocked into shape by his editor, and if any modern American novelist smacks of the creative writing class it is that rapt elegist of the Wyoming prairies, Annie Proulx.

As to our distinguished playwright's reading lists, has Mr B ever examined a novel by, say, Justin Cartwright, or Carol Birch, or Robert Edric? Take it from me, he doesn't know what he's missing.

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