Friday, 6 May 2011

Provinciality in English fiction

Reflecting on my reading interests, I have realised that I don't prioritise English fiction all that much. The English writers I do read aren't quintessentially English but approach the writing craft differently. On the whole, I find that English fiction is saturated by provincialism and parochialism, which is something I will explore in this blog post.

Perhaps England was at the forefront of literary advancements during the 18th and 19th centuries - we have, after all, Sterne, Fielding, the Brontes, Dickens, etc. - but 20th century fiction has seen little innovation. Many innovative authors who are classified as 'English' were in fact expatriates: T. S. Eliot was American and Joseph Conrad was a Pole who learnt to speak English at the late age of twenty-one.

Many writers who have brought something new to English fiction have in fact grown up in foreign soil. This to me is indicative of the type of impact England has on the creative mind, that perhaps something in its psychology doesn't nurture a creative mentality. Personally, I don't think that all the hallmarks of J. G. Ballard's writing - psychological despair, extremes, desolate surroundings - could have come to life had he not spent his childhood in China during the second world war. Had he grown up in a middle-class suburb in Britain, there is no doubt that his writing would have leant onto a different direction, or maybe he would not have felt inclined to write at all.

There can be no doubt that Britain is an insular little island, with little contact with the rest of the world. Many of its academic institutions still practice and teach the same syllabuses that were taught decades ago, a system many budding authors go through, and it often shapes their writing and world-view. If writers are to go through the same decadent lectures, seminars and education isn't this going to limit their horizons?

Ballard railed against the realist 'Hampstead novel' that was prevalent in the early 20th century, and this type of fiction is often representative of a lot of English writing: an enclosed world with a limited set of characters, the same situations and the same writing style.

Often for an English writer to break out of this creatively sterile community, he often receives a lot of scorn and animosity. A writer like Anthony Burgess, who wrote prolifically in every conceivable genre, had to peregrinate through Europe for much of his life because the British press was unappreciative of him and his work. The similar can be said of Lawrence Durrell, an Anglo-Indian who was out of sorts with the British literary community, and he sought for inspiration through travelling and experiencing different cultures.

U. S. A. seems to be a breeding ground of creativity. Its sheer size, its multifarious and varied landscape, affects the human mind differently. Its fiction seems to be far more cosmopolitan, and a wealth of important concepts and ideas are developed. One only has to look at the ideas of De Lillo, the density and complexity of Pynchon and the alluring meta-fiction by Auster and one can sense something far more exciting. These authors have been brought up in a vast communication landscapes that has instilled in them a more inventive and creative streak often lacking in English fiction.

From a personal point of view, I am an aspiring writer and - I can't say that the fiction I have written is remotely capable of changing the world or anything along those lines - I am Anglo-Chilean. I think that my writing is a synthesis of Latin-American (my favourite writers are from this part of the world) and British writing, and I really do think that my perspective and world-view is incompatible with English writing traditions. I do sense provinciality in its fiction and I think that a way of remedying this is by looking at world literature, by trying out foreign writing styles and looking into foreign writers - be they canonical, long-forgotten writers who never broke through or contemporary.

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