A Nobel committee member has said that American literature tends to be “insular,” and I think the statement has some merit. Not that we don’t have excellent American novelists. We do, and I could name many of them, but when I compare American novelists with those of other countries I have to admit there’s a subtle difference, and the difference is often not in our favor.
The difference is in the use of language. American novelists tend to approach language in a servile way, fearfully, hat in our hands, not wanting to break any of its rules. Our stories are carefully constructed within the boundaries of proper syntax, correct grammar, rules-keeping punctuation. And just as language itself determines what we can write about — if a word for an emotion or color or experience doesn’t exist, we can’t tell about it — how we use language determines its impact on readers. Authors from other countries, at least the good ones, use language to surprise, rattle, engage readers. American writers are more apt to stay so carefully within the boundaries of syntactical rules that the writing takes on a sameness and predictability.
Take this passage from Per Petterson’s To Siberia, for example: “When the street is empty again I walk towards the door, but Jesper bends over the sink where the milk bottles stand in water with only their necks sticking up and takes out a half liter bottle. A ray of light falls through the window, it drips and sparkles, he pulls down the cap and takes a long gulp, like a man in the Sahara.” An American writer — or copyeditor — would probably make several sentences out of that passage, and rearrange the syntax. Same information, but the words would plod along without requiring any involvement from the reader.
These aren’t differences wrought by translation, but by a prissiness we have brought to our use of language, a fear of breaking some rule we learned in high school. American novelists are afraid of objective pronouns. We’re afraid of dangling participles and sentences that end in prepositions. We’re afraid of sentences in which more than one verb tense is used, afraid of commas which aren’t placed in some rigid order according to rules that nobody knows. And if we’re not fearful enough, some copyeditor will fear for us. Too often, rules that are appropriate for journalism or nonfiction are applied to fiction, and the result is a stultifying sameness to sentence structure.
There are notable exceptions, past and present, like Faulkner, Gaines, Gurganus, Morrison. But I wonder if we would have more exceptions if we were not so obsessed with hewing to the laws of language rather than rising to its inherent spirit.