Does America have a literary inferiority complex?
There’s no question that America, as a nation, has a lot of pride in its creative works.
When it comes to movies, we are the dominant force. If you look at the international box office
the number one movie in the vast majority of countries is an American release (which specific one it is varies). If it wasn’t for the juggernaut which is Kung Fu Jungle, we’d probably have even more territories.
That’s not to say that other countries don’t have powerful movie industries…they do. But worldwide, a list of popular movies would pretty much always include American works…after all, we do have Hollywood.
That would also include not only movies based on popularity, but based on that more elusive scale of quality. The gold standard would likely include movies from the Weinstein Company, an American studio.
What about television?
It’s a little harder to figure that out, but American television series certainly get a lot of screen time abroad…and respect as well. Oh, we Americans do have British TV series we respect, certainly, but I would bet you that a higher percentage of Britons watch American TV series than the other way around.
Our moving image exports are some of the most powerful influences we have around the world.
The UK may rival us for the most popular music acts (no one beats the Beatles), but on this
three of the seven with 250 million sales or more are listed as being from the USA (Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Madonna).
We also claim jazz (while this wasn’t always the case, it is respected internationally now) and the musical as American art forms.
If you were to put together a poster of what represented American culture, I think you’d see movie stars, TV stars, and musicians.
You know what I’m not sure you would see?
Maybe…maybe Mark Twain.
Now, that’s not to say that we don’t have super popular authors, like Stephen King.
I’m just not sure that if you asked the average American to name classic books (or the “best books’) and authors that very many Americans would make the list.
My intuition (and that’s all it is) is that you would hear a lot more British names, and other European ones as well.
That’s what got me thinking.
Do we, as Americans, believe that we have the “best” writers, as many of us tend to believe we have the “best” in other creative fields?
We definitely have popular writers, as I mentioned. I think we may tend to see ourselves as “populist”, as mastering genre writing…but not necessarily literary writing.
I’m not at all sure this is true…just putting it out there.
Carl Jung referred to America as “…the land of superlatives and science fiction”. Is that how we see ourselves…and if so, why?
One thought I had was that it may be harder for any book to transcend borders than it is for a movie.
The visual components are more easily understood by people who don’t speak the same language (and movies can be dubbed or subtitled). The same might be true of music…you don’t have to understand all the words to enjoy an Elvis song. After all, lots of people enjoy music when they can’t understand the lyrics. 😉
Books can be translated…but that’s a difficult task, and I would think that English is especially difficult. Our language is a complex one, with a lot of origins, borrowed words, and idioms. We are a big country with a lot of sub-cultures, and are relatively heterogeneous. How do you communicate a Southern accent and how that might be perceived when you are translating the book to French or Japanese, for example?
I think we tend to respect British literary works more than American ones…and it is the same language, albeit with a lot of differences.
Maybe it just has to do with age? We’re not even 250 years old yet, and you can go a lot farther back than that with England.
Arguing against that for me, though, is that I don’t think a lot of people read books which are more than 250 years old (outside of Shakespeare, perhaps).
I would say that Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are two of the most respected mystery writers…and neither of them were writing before the American Declaration of Independence.
A lot of what we consider to be the great Russian writers are 19th Century.
Yes, we do have Herman Melville and Moby Dick…but even that is arguably a pop culture book (after all, isn’t it at least on the surface a monster story?).
I don’t have the evidence to back this up, and I’m curious about what you have to say.
My basic postulate is that Americans think that the best literary works come from countries other than our own.
What do you think? Is that true? Are we seen as a country of dominant pop culture, but not necessarily “true culture”? What about classical music…where do we fall there? Is it not a matter of books versus other media, but of populist versus “highbrow”? Will this change in another century or so? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.
Thanks to regular reader and commenter tuxgirl for a comment which greatly improved this post!
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