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For years many of us have wondered if there is a difference between American and English letters. The evidence is now in. There is, and it seems the English are lacking in emotion whilst the American cousins are brimming with it.

The University of Bristol examined 4% of all books ever published and discovered that the use of emotive words in the English language declined over the last century. The trend started in the 1960s. So, British writers became more reserved. On the other side of the Atlantic, American writers were more emotive.

Such a quantitative analysis may have some virtue, though it is hard to discern what exactly, as the reason given for why this dichotomy might have occurred is offered by temporal events – the war, the boom years after, consequently leading to inferences on well-being feeding emotional fluency.

The first thing to note is that writers do not live in such a way. Moravia wrote in boom time Italy and his work is not full of positive emotion, rather, it despairs at the vapid narcissism of his time (as did Antonioni in cinema), so searching for clues in empirical evidence is a waste of time.

Writers themselves may have a different view on such emotional variances.

In the 1930s, broke and hating England, Samuel Beckett read his way through the canon of great English books. This was at the time he planned, but never completed, a biography of Dr Johnson. He read George Eliot, Jane Austen, naturally, and Dickens too. They were all nineteenth century books and supposedly more emotional than twentieth century books. Beckett concluded that all English literature could be characterized by banality, typification and simplification. Ultimately Eng. Lit. was nothing more than a list of vices and virtues. That is not an endearing list of adjectives which purport to convey strong characters and emotions. His view may seem harsh, inaccurate or just too reductive.

In my own opinion I revisited some Austen, and her writing is like a solicitor’s. It’s very dull and very bourgeois. There is a statement of character, domestic position, income, and social status. The rest of the books are gossip of well born people but gossip without the insights of a Proust. The chief form of rhetoric is metonymic euphemism, there is little or no simile or metaphor, and there is certainly no emotion.

That stanch English writer Peter Ackroyd would disagree, and greatly. In 1981 he published the essay, The English Novel Now in which he looked at American and English writing. He characterized American writing then as deracinated, self-conscious, self-aware, and most of all, abstract. Its abstraction made it less human – less emotional – which was a real weakness as Ackroyd saw it. In his view the native English writer was rooted to the soil, the people, and consequently the language was direct and tangible.

The abstraction may be real and it’s an allegation leveled at Faulkner often enough. Last month I read parts of Absolam Absolam! again. It is one of the greatest novels ever, (American or not) and Faulkner leans to abstraction even when his register is very high emotion. That book has a crazy potboiler plot of stark emotional craving but the abstraction takes it out of the dime novel book stand and elevates it into something else.

One thing is real from reading a range of books from many different eras and that is our own era is awkward about emotion. In old novels the way people talked, and certainly in Shakespeare’s plays, people used language more overtly. They said what they loved and hated, whereas now, we substitute that language with weasel words like managers with risk minimization agendas. The published works reflect the society. Perhaps if we spoke the language to its capacity we might live better.

Guy Cranswick
21st March 2013