The Ocean Between Us and It

A. S. Byatt was coming out of the Folio Prize ceremony and I was going in. Was I imagining it or did the author of Possession look perturbed? Was she leaving in disgust? I’d missed the announcement of the winner because I was busy knotting my tie. Now I noticed that very few people were wearing ties but once a tie is on it stays on. After eating two mini-cheeseburgers, I found somebody I know and asked: “Who won?” He said: “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Like funerals, literary prize parties celebrate human endeavour at the same time as making your own seem trivial. “Books”, Alan Bennett said of childhood visits to the library, “were like a cocktail party where everybody had their back to me.” Books parties are cocktail parties where everybody has their back to me, but who cares? Martin Amis’s recent observations about the British class system, and women who want to be ravished, were unedifying but he sounded spot on when he said: “You don’t know anybody who isn’t insecure.” And if I really felt so insecure would I have been able to eat so many mini-cheeseburgers? No. I had a nice time, drinking, watching authors being led around like racehorses, and forgot about A. S. Byatt.

Post-Folio, however, Byatt told the Evening Standard that American writers are edging out British talent. When Byatt speaks it’s worth listening. Asked a few years ago if she believes in God, Byatt answered: “I believe in Wallace Stevens.” In her novels, and in her reviews and interviews, a bracing creative intelligence is palpable. Byatt regretted that there was only one English author, Jane Gardam, on the Folio shortlist while five of the eight nominees came from America. She identified a lack of energy in contemporary British writing. The same week, only four of twenty Baileys Prize nominees were British. Now that the Booker Prize is open to Americans, will they dominate this year?

Perhaps I read too many American books. It started with music, Nirvana laying the disaffected ground for J. D. Salinger who in turn turned me on to the Great Gatsby, which led to everything, in a way that Oasis just didn’t point through Orwell to Middlemarch. Americans felt subversive. It’s twenty years this month since Kurt Cobain’s death. You can read an excellent account of the Seattle sound in Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town but I remember one afternoon during Blair’s first term, listening to a tape of Bleach, asking a friend: “Do you ever forget Kurt Cobain was American?” Neither of us had crossed the Atlantic at this point. “Yes,” he replied. That music felt relevant, spoke so directly to our anxieties and dreams, that it was hard to imagine an ocean between us and it. That’s true of books too, from Life Studies to Open City. If that directness is part of the energy Byatt talks about, I know what she means.

In 2000, having belatedly read a few English texts, I interviewed Martin Amis. He was considering moving to New York to “become an American writer”. What did he mean? “I’ll always be an English novelist because that’s my tradition but America appeals to me. There’s nobody queuing up to succeed Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, John Updike.” By the time Amis arrived in Cobble Hill, the late David Foster Wallace was considered one of the most influential writers of the last half-century; Jennifer Egan had won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for the same novel; Jonathan Franzen had graced the cover of Time. Urgent, assured, form-bending books were being produced by a new generation of global, American-based artists, some of them writing in their second, even third, languages: Teju Cole, Junot Diaz, Aleksandar Hemon, Jhumpa Lahiri. “Life changes fast,” wrote Joan Didion and the same is true of literature, in America, Britain and beyond.

Byatt’s fears for our future amount to more than bookish UKIPism – British literary journalism occasionally feels in thrall to NYC and sometimes it reads like LRB stands for London Review of Brooklyn – but who in America today writes fiction as interesting as Kazuo Ishiguro? In the last year, Irish world-beaters Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright have hailed the emergence of Eimear McBride, Donal Ryan and Colin Barrett. Every 12 months, Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction opens the door to beguiling literature in translation from this continent.

All this is out there and sometimes you needn’t look far to find it: this month, the line-up for the Faber Social on April 14th, where Stuart Evers, Sarah Hall, Jon McGregor and Evie Wyld will read alongside the American Ben Marcus, demonstrates the strength and breadth of new British writing.

At the Folio Prize, I asked the Texan-British author Benjamin Markovits about his next novel, which is set in Detroit. It’s finished, he revealed, and might be published next Spring. “I’ll look forward to that,” I said, through a mouthful of beef and it occurred to me then that mini-cheeseburgers were popularised by another Texan, George W. Bush, and that maybe there are some upsides to American imperialism. We beat on.

Max Liu

Max Liu is a writer, journalist and reviewer for a number of publications including the Independent on Sunday, TLS and 3AM Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @maxjliu.


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