The other week I took a slim volume out of the library; it was a list of 100 great American novels everyone should read before they die (or go to Kansas), and I was unsurprised to discover that I’d only read about a third of them. I think we tend to neglect American novels over here. It’s partly because we’ve got plenty of our own to be going on with; partly that it’s a bit of an effort coming to terms with another culture that has its own assumptions and frame of reference; but also – if we’re honest – a slice of prejudice. There’s a feeling that the American novel, however great, cannot possibly measure up to the best of British fiction.
So for all these reasons – and also because I need to try more new writers – when I went to the library yesterday I picked up Don de Lillo. People are always talking about Don de Lillo and for some reason I resisted reading him, but the book I picked up, ‘Underworld’, is utterly brilliant! I’ve only read a few pages but I am already convinced that this is a major writer. This is the great American novel. I’ll keep you posted when I’ve read more.
But there is one thing I don’t like about US writers and it is this: the tendency to run together words which would otherwise be hyphenated. Words like neoconservative, antifascist, coattails and nonviolent are shoved together without so much as a byyourleave. It seems that American writers have declared war on the hyphen – and my objection to this is that it makes the reader work unnecessarily hard. For example, in the first pages of ‘Underworld’ I came across the word ‘pregame’. When you stop and think about it, it is obviously ‘pre-game’ – but there’s the rub: I had to stop and think about it, and this interrupted the enjoyable and engaging flow of the narrative while I wondered what the hell this new word was and whether it might be a conflation of the Italian ‘prego’ and the Spanish ‘digame’. Since both those words are equivalent to ‘Yes?’ – meaning what would you like? in a restaurant context – this is not beyond the bounds of possibility. So I wasted time and energy and interrupted my reading in order to figure that out. NOT NECESSARY!
When I’ve not been reading or writing, I’ve been having a think about the art of sitcom: I’ve just finished a run-through (not, please, a runthrough) of Black Books and I couldn’t help noticing that the scripts became more surreal as the series progressed. That set me off thinking about the writers of ‘Dad’s Army’ and how their stuff degenerated as their careers went on – but I’ll have to save that for another post as it’s already nine o’clock and I have to write my memoir and prepare for Spanish.