I’m about to make sweeping generalizations. I do so knowing that there are often just as many exceptions to a generalization as there are patterns. It is however, sometimes interesting to step back and look at patterns to see if they reflect anything about us as individuals. I’m going to start with a basic statement that I think has some merit, culture influences what and how an author writes.
Canada shares a three thousand mile broader with a super power. Americans out number us ten to one. Their publishing industry is massive. Unable to compete with such a large entertainment industry, Canadian publishing houses tended to focus instead on writing as an art form. For a small nation, Canada has produced some great authors. It has also denied many authors, who don’t fit the worldview of Canada’s arts community, with a chance to excel.
Canadian writing like all northern peoples is influenced by a cold, harsh environment. Who has ever read an uplifting Russian novel? Canadians write beautifully but their work can often leave the reader feeling beaten up. Nature/fate are prevailing themes in our writing. And try as we might, nature and fate always wins. As a result there is a vein of futility in Canadian writing. Our humour tends to be satirical or ironical and often self-deprecated. We struggle with establishing who we are other than not American. Like a younger sibling we have a love/hate relationship with our big brother neighbor. We take great pleasure in being mildly anti-American and yet come to America’s defense if we feel they are threatened. Certainly multiculturalism appears frequently in Canadian writing. We are proud of our diversity and tolerance.
Canada has a long tradition of outstanding writers and I’m proud to say that right from the beginning many were women from the pioneer writings of Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, to the classic story of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Mard Montgomery to the hard hitting modern works of Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shield, and Alice Munro.
So how does American writing differ? There is a rugged individualism and self-reliance in American writing that doesn’t appear as often in Canadian works. Where Canadians see strength in co-operation, Americans see the strong rising to the top through grim determination and hard work. Nature plays a large part in their work too but in the US nature is a vast area of beauty and untapped opportunity. Faced with conflict the protagonists tends to reject authority and do things his/her way showing the belief that democracy is really about the freedom of the individual. Where Canadian humour tends to be subtle, humour in American literature tends to be bold and in your face. Violence occurs more often in their work both on the part of the antagonist and the protagonist and works often are high action. The American will succeed through American know how and hard work. Even if there is a fall from grace, it’s understood that the protagonist will get back on his/her feet and meet with success again. Like the individuals they are, American writing is diverse and changing and hard to categorize.
It is difficult to define European writing as it deals with both northern and southern cultures and many different and distinct cultural areas. It is also a writing tradition that goes back to oral traditions thousands of years old. Lastly, we tend to read English translations and not the work in its original language. No matter how good the translation something is lost. However, I think some broad statements can be made. First, in the last few hundred years European writing has been dominated by four main influences Romanticism, with its heroic protagonists and intense emotions, Gothic, a combination of romanticism and horror, Realism that sought to express the world and society as it was even though an individual could change his/her lot on life and Naturalism which looked at life too in a harsh, detailed and neutral manner but saw the individual as a prisoner of his/her environment. Having suffered through two world wars, their work often is fatalistic in nature and the high personal cost of living life and/or meeting with success is often stressed.
In that I’m dealing primarily with English speaking cultures, a special note has to be made of the writing of British novelists. For an island often mocked for its conservative up tight nature, it produces an amazing array of creative literature. Can one imagine having J.R.R. Tolkien, Jasper Fforde, J.K. Rowling and Douglas Adams in the same room together? The shear creative energy would make the walls explode. When you can produce Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Kipling, Austen, Bronte, Woolf, Orwell and many others you have the right to the corner post in literature in the English speaking world.
Like the Americans, Australia has a literary tradition of the rugged individual. In their case, however, the individual doesn’t oppose authority but spearheads the concepts of egalitarianism and democracy if with a certain disregard for social norms. Nature again is a reoccurring theme but in Australian writing the individual has to prove their worth against an environment that is seen as both beautiful and deadly. Aboriginal themes often are a backdrop in Australian writing. Again there is a duality of theme where the aboriginal’s problems are examined as well as their rich cultural heritage. Lastly, the Australians have a unique concept of “mate” which is a deep and loyal friendship. This concept often forms the basis of their plots.
New Zealand too has this strong concept of “mateship” in their writing but there the similarities end. New Zealanders love their land. There is no battle of human against nature with them, rather like the Maori the western New Zealander embraces the natural environment and it becomes an extension of who they are in their writing. New Zealanders in literature are often portrayed as easy going individuals who seek to resolve issues through dialogue rather than conflict. The exception to this is the many references to competitive sport which is a reoccurring theme in their literature and lives. Interestingly, New Zealand writing is dominated by masculine terms of expression even by female writers far more so than in Australian literature. Both countries have had strong female writers but the profession is still dominated by men and to some extent male attitudes.
I can’t possible deal with all the countries that have English as an official language. There are close to eighty of them. Instead, I’ll use South Africa as an example. Literature written in English in such countries tends to run a broad spectrum as such areas often have multiple languages and cultures within their political areas. The impact of colonialism, poverty and traditional beliefs often appears in such writings. As does the emotional conflict with faith, tribalism and political identity. Such works are often raw and passionate and learn towards Naturalism in style. Sadly, few of these novels reach the larger world market but those that do are well worth the read.
This then is a generalization of who we are world wide as writers in the English language. I’m a Canadian not by birth but by immigration. That puts me in a special group by definition. I tend to see things as an outsider looking in and I’m more likely to be sympathetic and aware of the struggles of other cultures and immigrants. My writing is influenced both by my English upbringing and my Canadian experience. This is particularly clear in my novel Gold Mountain. The bottom line is I think we can make a strong argument that there are cultural patterns in our writings that give the English speaking world a rich tapestry of worldviews and traditions from which to pull.
Learn more about Anne and her work.