Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Writing's Nationality

A few years ago, if asked, I'd have said, that to all intents and purposes I was an American writer, albeit with an English accent. The writers I read were American, my influences were American, and in many ways my style was far more American than it was English. Is this about being derivative or absorbtion of influence? I'm not sure. But as no one has ever said, blood is thicker than ink; and the blood will out eventually.

Yet these days I am an English writer, most definitely, with traces of an American accent - is there a flip point?My "American" voice was derived from Burroughs, Mailer, McInerney, Acker, Easton Ellis, Roth, Fitzgerald, Faulkner...and in poetry, Williams, Eliot, Pound, Plath, Ashbery - not from any real-world America. (Though my one visit to America in 1995 let loose a torrent of American-located stories.) DeLillo, that most American of writers was a bit of a tipping point as well - I saw that "White Noise" was the kind of book I wanted to write, but having found that, I shied away from imitative style: on the one hand taking something from DeLillo, as I do from all my favourite writers, on the other, noticing the alienness of some of his earlier novels; there's a fast-speaking schtick that I could revel in, but also, fail utterly to ever raid for my own usage. Similar with Roth, as tempting as those long sentence structures in "American Pastoral" were, they sounded limp and in authentic set in Manchester or London. The kind of prose I liked wasn't necessarily the kind of prose I now wanted to write. At some point I "lost" the American accent of some of my fiction -  or maybe found that it no longer served my purpose.

Other tipping points were European and South American writers; in the late 90s I read Borges, Saramago, Houllebecq, Chamoiseau for the first time; here was a different sensibility - more philosophical, and it appealed to the kind of subject matter  I was now writing. Then again, with the internet you begin to hear a kind of globalised English prose, the first person present tense of the blogger or the Facebook commentator, and its hard to extract your brain from those rhythms, particularly when you're being - as maybe I was - a cod American writer.

So at some point my writing changed in timbre, and its maybe shed affectation, or perhaps American influence, which was so important to me during my 20s and 30s, slips away in the new world. More recently - though I still read American novels, I've seen a falling off in what I'd have once called "American style" - I find acclaimed novelists like Frantzen less brazen, more atuned to a global speech bubble; a CNN kind of world-lit lite; that crosses borders. Its rare now to have to adjust your filter to a particular American accent in prose, just as its rare to have to adjust filter to regional variations on these islands. And maybe America has changed culturally. Roth and Bellow, like Scorsese or Coppola were artists in a newish land, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants, but seeing America through their neighbourhood, their community, their city. The "new" in American letters which was a constant excitement during the 20th century, is perhaps not so obvious now - or diluted somewhat.

Perhaps it was always going to be this way; that I wrote in a kind of American-noir style because I was looking for my own style, or rather because I hadn't yet discovered the mechanics of what I was doing, though I could see the look I was trying to achieve. Poetry may be partly to blame, since, apart from brief flirtations with Ashbery, its harder, much harder, to put on a different voice in that medium: everything - voice, language, tone, style - fights against it. Yet I've also found it harder these last few years to write a longer prose, so wondering if the free style of American language was easier for me to work with than our sometimes stilted and class bound British prose? You see how difficult it is to conjure up a British avant garde, or an English vernacular that doesn't sound parochial. Thin prose is often the result of those who are attempting to avoid the cliches. Our English novelists aren't much help. Barnes and McEwan can't exactly become stylistic influences, whilst the Amisian strand, which - I guess - I was following with my Americanisms, works best for a certain heightened comedy.  My own fascination with the clear, lyrical prose of, say, Bruce Chatwin, is a difficult place to go without his gifts, but is not to be dismissed. The strange circuitry of writers like Mieville, Peace, Barker and Mantel highlights that there are other ways - however hard fought - to make your way through the wilderness. That said, I miss my old American self, fake as it was; yet hope that like a British band apeing the blues, something unique might come from the transformation.

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