o’ britishness. zadie smith. martin amis. et al.
Every literature or creative writing course I’ve ever taken has addressed this topic: Britishness. What does it mean to be British? Do we do the same thing in The States? I don’t think so. (I never did.) But I’ve never taken a literature/writing course on U.S. soil. So, maybe…
Zadie Smith was the first writer I explored with this particular question in mind: What does it mean to be British? In my view, she answers it fantastically. But I’m a Yank. So what do I know? I’ll tell you what, this – Smith is a brilliant comic novelist (you will especially agree with me if you’ve ever heard her read aloud her work.) And I think Amis does a disservice by not pointing it out. But again, who am I to question the son of Sir Kingsley?
According to Professor of Creative Writing Martin Amis, he and fellow ‘Literature and Britishness’ panellist Howard Jacobson are the last remaining British comic novelists. If successful humour hinges on implied superiority over other groups we have become a nation terrified of referring to people collectively at all, let alone to any kind of grudge or rivalry based on national identity.
Jacobson claimed to be uncertain whether Britishness actually exists, and certainly not to believe in multiculturalism. In his view, the concept is a device of the English intelligentsia, which would hate its own country’s culture if it couldn’t dismiss the English aspects and embrace those from elsewhere. Yet he spoke of an appealing English quality in the voices of novelists like George Eliot, which he described as simultaneously satirical, tolerant, aloof, and aware of its own absurdity.
He agreed with comments by Amis about the effective tradition of sexual symbolism in British writing, going so far as to say that “…the best sex in an English novel has no mention of sex”. In Amis’s view this is again related to British writing being unusually grounded in sanity, with a median, middle class world its traditional subject matter.