Does America have a literary inferiority complex?

Does America have a literary inferiority complex?

USA! USA!

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

chart at Box Office Mojo

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

Wikipedia list of best-selling music artists

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?

Authors.

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?

However…

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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8 Responses to “Does America have a literary inferiority complex?”

  1. Lady Galaxy Says:

    As an English major in college, I’ve read a lot of classics by American and English writers, and I prefer the Americans. I think some of the best fiction by American writers is fiction that tells about the American experience. Works like “The Grapes of Wrath,” by Steinbeck; “Oh, Pioneers,” by Willa Cather; “The Sun Also Rises,” by Hemingway; “The Great Gatsby,” by Fitzgerald; “The Scarlet Letter” by Hawthorne; “The Call of the Wild,” by London; “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Lee; “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” by McCullers; “Little Men” by Alcott; “Tobacco Road” by Caldwell. I could go on and on and on and not run out of great American Classics!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      I think we can safely say that you aren’t the typical American, when it comes to literary appreciation.😉 I was using the term “best” in quotations, but I think there were some places that “important” might have better communicated my point.

      Let’s say we polled Americans (and it might be interesting to poll other countries, too) with an A/B on who was a more important writer:

      Dickens/Twain
      Kipling/London
      Austen/Fitzgerald

      My guess is that people would tend to go for the British writers as important…although they might enjoy the American writers more, in some cases.

      Me? I like ’em all…😉

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I can’t say I “like ’em all” though I can say I appreciate them all. I will never like Moby Dick, but I appreciate the theme of the destructive nature of obsession.

        My preference still lies with the American writers, especially the “regional” writers. Even though I don’t live in the south, my lineage goes through Virginia to Kentucky, so I tend to favor the southern writers. My second favorite college course was “American Regionalism: The South.” My first favorite was “Advanced Children’s Literature.”

        Which leads me to children’s literature, and I think that perhaps the Brit’s would have the advantage there. The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter, Black Beauty, Lassie would all probably win out over Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, or Uncle Remus. Wizard of Oz might at least tie.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        Sounds like you had a great education! It was in high school, but I really appreciated a class I took in science fiction.

        I’m a big Oz fan, but the first one is probably my least favorite in the bunch. The real “land of Oz”, as we come to know it, doesn’t really appear until the second book…for one thing, there is an awful lot of death in that first one. It’s not as much fun, and to me, the characters feel stiffer.

        The children’s literature question is an interesting one. You can certainly include Mark Twain in that…and if we move away from “chapter books”, America gets points for Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein…

  2. tuxgirl Says:

    Herman Melville instead of henry?

    I think that the age thing is an issue. At least when I think of classic literature, I usually think of old books. In the days when classic literature was written, america was still very young and undeveloped. Perhaps people were more likely to write literature if they were living in a big city like London with easy distribution than if they were in salt lake city where distributing past the immediate region would be expensive and take a long time. Or, perhaps people did write good literature in those situations but it was lost because of how limited distribution was. Or, maybe it still exists, but it didn’t get the recognition in those days that the big English books did because the distribution channels were more limited, so it didn’tget recognized as a classic.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, tuxgirl!

      D’oh! My brain, of course, totally knows the difference between Herman Melville and “Henry Melville”, but apparently, my fingers don’t. I hereby coin a new term for that problem “digitmentia”, when you are typing and you type something that you would never get wrong if you were speaking.😉 I’ve corrected it and credited you! Thanks again!

      I do agree with you that distribution may have been part of it. I was in Australia a couple of decades ago (just on vacation), and chatted with shopkeepers. No question, many of them wanted to break into the American market, because that’s where the money was (in part because of population, in part because of distribution). 19th Century American authors may have felt that way, but with wanting to break into the English (or European) markets.

      I would even venture to say that until e-books took off with the Kindle in 2007, writers outside of New York or L.A. (and maybe Chicago) may have also felt that they were severely disadvantaged being outside of those geographical centers.

  3. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now. I went to high school in Switzerland (our family was living in India and my father’s employers paid for the education of his children) where most of my teachers were British. I remember asking my English teacher about Hemingway. He said he was a good second rank writer😦.

    In college, I was an English major for a short while (a very short while — less than a year) but I did take a two course sequence on the novel in English from its beginnings — I recall “Robinson Crusoe” being the first book we had to read. The take away I had from this was that the novel as we know it in English isn’t all that old — dating from the early 18th century, and I can tell you from my bitter experience that the first 100 years were pretty bad, and frankly: Boring!

    In the 19th century starting with Dickens things got better (though for excess length he could put Tom Clancy to shame :grin). Along the way there were many improvements in plotting, structure, and just good story telling. And Americans were significant contributors to this evolution in the 20’s and thirties (Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, etc). But my own impression that this evolution reached its peak in the fifties, and that the novel as a significant cultural marker has run it’s course.

    That’s not to say that good stuff isn’t being written, much by Americans, much of it very entertaining, but nothing seems to be all that new or radical — the existing literary prizes such as they are seem to be awarded to a never ending stream of not very interesting blather.

    My own personal take was that the novel in English reached it’s peak with Joseph Conrad — and English wasn’t even his native language (:lol).

    OTOH think of all those oh so popular movies you spoke of, and how many of them got their source material from the works of American authors. To answer your original question: no, I don’t think Americans are second raters in the literary realm — I just think that the world (and tastes, and technology) have passed it by.

    And for just a final bit of heresy to drive English profs round the bend — what about comic books? Arguably a quintessential American literary art form (not to take anything away from Japanese Manga and Anime) (:grin)!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Fascinating perspective!

      To be clear, I didn’t suggest that America was “second raters”…just asking if it perceived itself that way in terms of literature.

      I think the form of the novel was largely driven by technology and distribution optimization…e-books may massively change it, with books that resemble late 20th Century novels becoming rare.

      The comic books argument is an interesting one…and again, I think that aligns with my suggestion that America may see be seen as the greatest purveyor of pop culture, but not necessarily of highbrow. That said, you can’t (as you point out) ignore manga, and Tintin was, I believe, the first real comic book outside of comic strips…and that was in Belgium, if I’m right. The British also have a significant comic history, but I would argue it is the same thing…percentage-wise, a lot more people in Britain read American comic books than vice versa.

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