D J Taylor

The American Delusion

ONE OF THE incidental diversions of judging the Man Booker Prize – a task that occupied me, on and off, from early June to mid-October – is the chance to inspect what gets written about the prize. Little of this torrent of material, alas, was calculated to enhance one’s self-esteem. One was a hopeless elitist. One was a closet middlebrow. One was shamelessly biased against anything emanating from the worthy margins of our literary culture. One was using the worthy margins of our literary culture as a stick with which to beat the established talents, of whom one was pathologically envious. One felt, in fact, rather as Iain Duncan Smith must feel whenever he reads a leading article in The Independent: whatever you do will be found fault with, so there is no real need to alarm yourself about it.

As for what got written, leaving aside the knockabout effusions of journalists not generally known for their interventions in the world of polite literature, what might be called the Broadsheet Newspaper Booker articles ad two main angles. There his the usual bleating about making the prize more ‘popular’, or as some character in the Evening Standard put it, plumping for ‘the books we want to read’. (Which books, exactly? Last year’s winner, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, sold a million  copies. Is that not enough for you?) And, above all, there was the suggestion – advanced this year with particular relish by Robert McCrum of The Observer – that it was about time the scope of the prize was extended and that the brave boys and girls from the far side of the Atlantic were shipped in to swell the throng.

The idea of an Anglo -American Man Booker Prize has been gathering votes for several years now, so much so as to have been seriously considered (though for the moment rejected) by the prize’s management committee. The argument in its favour goes something like this. British (or rather Commonwealth) literature is, oh dear me, a rather pallid and timorous beast when set against its red-blooded American cousin. John Updike! Philip Roth! Toni Morrison! Dave Eggers! David Foster Wallace! (to lower the age-range a bit). Wouldn’t it be just wonderful, you guys, if we could have all these glamour ridden Stateside hot-shots brought in to revitalise an institution that just lately has begun to look a little, ah, provincial?

Wouldn’t it, eh? The tendency to disparage home- – – grown talents in the face of transatlantic competition is, U of course, one of the signal traits of postwar literary culture. Back in the 1950s the exemplars were Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, next to whom ~ingsle~ Amis and CO seemed the dowdiest backwater makeweights. A decade later, US experimentalism – as represented by Barth, Pynchon and Gass – was presumed to beat the shit out of introverted little locals like B S Johnson. A decade and a bit after that, loudly supported by influential American expats such as Granta’s Bill Buford, Dirty Realism arrived to canter all over the soft English greensward. Watching Channel Four’s otherwise excellent The Story 4 the Novel over the summer I was struck by how often this tocsin was sounded. According to the row of talking heads on display there, the only postwar English novelist of any significance was Evelyn Waugh, most of whose achievements were apparently cancelled out by snobbishness, Catholicism and general upper-class delinquency. Uncle Saul Bellow, though – well, the boy was a genius, no question.

Dubious when applied to Kerouac or Mailer, this view becomes altogether Marious when one contemplates the gaunt landscapes of the early twenty-first century. One of the worst books it has been my misfortune to read this year was a slim compilation entitled The Burned Children of America, or rather – such is the lure of this lady’s authenticating thumbprint – Zadie Smith Introduces the Burned Children of America. There they all were, those names so regularly trumpeted by impressionable English critics: Eggers, Foster Wallace, A M Homes, Rick Moody – all indulging themselves in the most desperate narrative conceits about the journeys of paperclips, or children born with fingers shaped like keys, while the smell of the creative-writing class – where much of this stuff, you feel, was originally conceived – rose in the air like wood smoke.

Doubtless it is the most terrific heresy to say so, but the enormous respect with which anything American gets treated in this country stems in the great majority of cases from the sheer novelty of scene, the fact that it takes place in Nowhere, Nebraska, rather than Chertsey, Surrey. Of course a sentence like ‘They rode up the main street and into America’ (from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses) will have the average British critic scrabbling for superlatives: the stream has been flowing on undammed since Jack London’s wolf first howled its solitary howl. Certainly the enormous impact made on hs year’s Booker judges by DBC Pierre’s Hrnon God Little had something to do with the sheer strangeness of its locations and the fire and brimstone of its Southern Gothic extremism. Never mind the ahnistrative confusions that some hnd of transatlantic prize would promote or the nonsense it would make of cultural integrities: &er all, if David Foster Wallace is eligible for the Booker, then why not Monica Ali for the Pulitzer? The Man Booker Prize undoubtedly needs a great many dung: one of them might be a &ngne& in the media to discuss books as books rather than as a hnd of upper-brow fashion accessory. What it manifestly doesn’t need is an injection of suppositious American talent.

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