This post, from British writer Stuart Evers, originally appeared on the Guardian.co.uk Books Blog on 2/11/09.
I have begun to wonder why I have quite so many books by American authors.
Spanning a period of some three decades, the autobiographical pieces that make up Poe Ballantine‘s Things I Like About America are warm-hearted, witty and tender. Pinballing around the country, Ballantine describes a patchwork quilt of small town Americana, along the way meeting a rich cast of drunks, headcases and deadbeats. He is an engaging and endearing narrator, but it’s his vision of the US – of swap meets and boarding houses, fast food and battered cars – that is the real hero of his book.
I devoured Things I Like About America in one sitting, and, hungry for more, went to my bookshelves for Denis Johnson‘s Angels – a novel that captures that windswept, Hopper-esque America better than any other I know. Looking up and down the shelves, I realised that a good three-quarters of the books I owned were written by Americans. I’d always known that I preferred American writing: I didn’t, however, realise that this had meant the exclusion of writing from everywhere else in the world.
So why so many American books? It can’t just be that Americans are better at fiction than everyone else. After all, writing isn’t swimming or professional basketball, is it?
The reasons, I suppose, are ones of personal taste and individual prejudice. The fact is, I prefer American English: I like the way it sounds; its rhythms and its cadences. Give me a diner over a café, a sidewalk over a pavement, a bar over a pub and definitely a gas station over a petrol forecourt. Take that "gas station", for example. Because of its sibilance, it’s almost as though you can hear someone inflating their tyres. Not only that, but when I read those words, I have a very exact picture in my mind. Compare these two sentences:
Mary fills up at the gas station, then drives her Chevy Impala to Roy’s Diner.
Mary fills up at the petrol station, then drives her Nissan Micra to Roy’s Rolls.
The first could be the beginning of a heartbreaking tale of small-town American disappointment; the second a script instruction from Coronation Street. A petrol station is functional, a place to pick up charcoal briquettes and wilting cellophane-wrapped flowers; a gas station is a place to pick up a packet of smokes and a hitchhiker with a gun in his waistband.