June 8, 2012

Are the English better at English?

Greg Cochran brings up a topic that seems like it has disappeared over the last generation: reading speed. In the old days, the immense velocity at which Democratic Presidents like JFK and Jimmy Carter could read was part of political lore. Skeptics like Woody Allen joked that he had speed-read War and Peace: "It was about Russia." 

Has reading faster simply failed? Or has America just lost interest?

Cochran also asks whether different languages are read faster and slower: e.g., Mandarin versus Spanish? When I was a kid there was still some remnant of interest in the early 20th Century movement to reform the English language to make it more efficient. A century ago, for example, George Bernard Shaw, the dominant cultural intellectual of the time, campaigned hard for radical spelling reform. (Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady reflects some of GBS's numerous concerns about the English language and social equality.) The first time I ever won a prize in a Speech tournament was around 1970 for an original oratory making fun of the complexities of English grammar. Is anybody still amused by that kind of thing?

In a comment, Education Realist brings up an interesting point: based on SAT and GRE scores, 21st Century, white Americans appear to be better at Math than at Verbal relative to mid-20th Century white Americans. When the SAT was started before WWII, it was normalized based on Eastern Seaboard preppies with 500 as average for both the Verbal and the Math tests. As it expanded to a broader market of students, average Math SAT scores dropped dropped only slightly, but Verbal scores fell substantially. In 1995, the SAT was renormed to make 500 the means again, but the same process is visible again, with Math scores now notably higher than Verbal scores. (The Asian impact obviously affects this gap, but this trend is visible just among whites.)

The Graduate Record Exam has never been renormed, and today white men average 593 on the quantitative part and 508 on the verbal part of the GRE. Education Realist, who is a teacher and test tutor, then raises a number of interesting points:
Why do we appear to have fewer high verbal achievers than math achievers? I think Murray and Herrnstein were correct when they wrote that “a politically compromised curriculum is less likely to sharpen the verbal skills of students than one that hews to standards of intellectual rigor and quality” annd that “when parents demanded higher standards, their schools introduced higher standards in the math curriculum that really were higher, and higher standards in the humanities and social sciences that really were not”. (Bell Curve, page 432-433) Without question, we have lost a couple generations of cognitively able students who weren’t given the opportunity to really achieve to their fullest capability, and we stand to lose a few more. 
But I also wonder if verbal intelligence is less understood and consequently less valued. If one is “good at math”, there’s a logical progression of courses to take, problems to solve (or spend a lifetime trying to), and increasingly difficult subjects to tackle–and plenty of careers that want them. But if one has a high verbal intelligence without good spatial aptitude (which seems to be necessary for higher math) it is often described as “good at reading”, a woefully inaccurate characterization of high verbal intelligence—and then what? Apart from law, there aren’t nearly as many clearly defined career paths with a wide range of opportunities for all temperaments and interests. Most of the ones I can think of involve luck and driving ambition just to get started (journalism, tenured academia, political consultant). 
For a good twenty years or so, people with high verbal skills who were indifferent at high-level math went into technology. It’s hard to remember now in the age of Google and after the heyday of corporate computing, but IBM and mainframe shops were filled with bright people who had degrees in history and English and humanities who just “didn’t like math” but were excellent programmers. I routinely worked in shops where all the expert techies making six figures came from non-STEM majors. But that time appears to be over. 
Of course, doing anything about this lack of clearly defined career paths for smart folks with less spatial aptitude would involve acknowledging it’s a problem, and I might be the only one who thinks it’s a problem.

As Education Realist points out, we have lots of prestigious national science and math fairs for high school students (which are now dominated by Asians), but little of the same fame for the reading and writing set. Everybody who is anybody in America seems far more obsessed with cultivating Math and Science than with raising our verbal ability. Yet, a native command of English would appear to be a prime asset of Americans in a future globalized (and, thus, English-speaking) economy.

Presumably, it's easier to raise math test scores in school than reading test scores, since reading scores depend heavily on how much reading the students do out of school. Still, nobody seems all that interested in trying to figure out how to improve our children's advantages in English. It's almost like we think it's unfair to the rest of the world that we speak English, so we should have our children bash their heads in to compete with Asians on the culturally level playing field of math. That strikes me as a noble but stupid response.

But I want to go in a different direction with this topic and ask if there is any objective test evidence to support this idea I've had ever since I took American Literature in high school: historically, Americans are not as good with words on average as the British. Somehow, the Brits seem to inculcate better command of English than we Americans do. Perhaps that's not true up and down the social scale, but it would seem to me that, traditionally, Oxbridge graduates, say, had better vocabularies and better prose styles than Ivy League grads.

This notion first dawned on me in the 1980s when I noticed a London-based firm called WPP, run by a former Saatchi & Saatchi executive named Martin Sorrell, started buying up advertising agencies and other marketing services firms. While Britain seemed economically down and out back then, it struck me that they still were better at English than we were, and that had to be worth something in an increasingly English-speaking world.. Today, WPP employs 158,000 white collar workers around the world and even owns a large fraction of all the lobbying firms in Washington D.C., Democrat and Republican.

Throughout the 18th and 19th Century, American writing just wasn't very good compared to what the Brits were doing at the same time. Compare, say, The Federalist Papers or the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Life of Johnson, or even The Wealth of Nations. Compare American stinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson to his British contemporaries. Granted, we had people who were geniuses in their own way, like Poe and Lincoln and Twain, but they didn't come from a culture that was as good with words as the Brits. 

Even in the 20th Century, when Americans were catching up, the home team still seemed awkward compared to the visitors. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a fine book, but compared to the seemingly effortless clarity and fluency of Evelyn Waugh's early novels of just a few years later, its prose seems provincial and striving. 

I recently re-read Great Contemporaries, a collection of articles for Sunday newspapers that Winston Churchill wrote (or, to be precise, dictated) in the 1930s about celebrities he’d known. Allow me to express in my own crude, tongue-tied American way my reaction to the command of the English language exhibited in Churchill's commercial journalism: Holy cow! For mastery of English, for vast and precise vocabulary, I can’t imagine any major American politician of the last century coming close. Teddy Roosevelt had comparable mental energy, but few read his books for fun these days. Henry Kissinger is a very smart man who writes well in his second language, but he is more functional in style. 

Churchill was recognized as exceptional in his own day, but, still, other British politicians were pretty handy with words, too. In Britain, Churchill was the champ but compared to American politicians, he's in a league of his own. (By the way, I have a vague hunch that, from the perspective of the 21st Century, the 1930s was the peak era for English prose: it's not so far in the past that it's difficult to decipher, but it's far enough away that its superiority is noticeable.)

Another anecdote about the superiority of the English: A number of years ago, I dropped in on John Derbyshire and family in Long Island. We went to a Blockbuster to pick out a movie for everybody to watch that evening, so I suggested the documentary about the Scripps-Howard national spelling bee, Spellbound, which had been a big hit in my household. 

Now, I'd always figured that while John is obviously my superior in math and computer programming, we're fairly equal in verbal skills. But, when I watched Spellbound for the second time (with the closed captions off), I discovered that John could not only outspell me on words I'd already seen the first time I watched the movie, but he also knew the definitions of almost all the absurd words in the competition. 

I attribute this to his having the unfair advantage of being born English.

220 comments:

1 – 200 of 220   Newer›   Newest»
dearieme said...

And yet the man on the Clapham omnibus considers himself a little tongue-tied compared to his Scots, Welsh or Irish cousins.

Anonymous said...

770 verbal / 550 math SAT. I have not encountered others with this spread. Most of my career track has involved explaining political developments to techie types. They seem to appreciate my skill and yet under pay me.

wren said...

I think we may see this turn around.

Anecdotaly, I see the Harry Potter generation continue to read voraciously, and frequently write eloquent online comments. I am sometimes even surprised to see very logical, well-written, concise texts, as well.

I don't recall this facility so prevalent in the 70's 80's and 90's.

Perhaps it is my imagination.

Steve Sailer said...

"And yet the man on the Clapham omnibus considers himself a little tongue-tied compared to his Scots, Welsh or Irish cousins."

I've heard Ricky Gervais complain about how the BBC these days is prejudiced against English accents and in favor of Celtic Fringe accents. I was watching Sean Connery speak Russian with a Scottish accent in 1990s "The Hunt for Red October" recently. It seems pretty clear that a Scottish accent is now associated with plain-spoken honesty, while a traditional BBC English accent can be good (it's easy to understand what they are saying; they were on our side in The Big One) or evil (obviously, a toff who thinks he's better than us). Allan Rickman's career, from Die Hard through all seven Harry Potters, has flourished from this ambiguity in American minds about English accents.

Steve Sailer said...

"I don't recall this facility so prevalent in the 70's 80's and 90's."

The test scores suggest that the 1970s, when I went to high school and college, were the worst years for American education relative to the students' potential. Derbyshire is older than me so he also has the advantage of not coming from the Jeff Spicoli generation like I do.

wren said...

Fleshing out my earlier comment.

My young teen daughter averages over 4,000 texts a month. We limit her facebook time, but that is essentially publishing in front of peers. They know who can't write well or cleverly and judge each other on it.

Plus, keeping up with friends on the Hunger Games or Twilight or Pretty Little Liars books...

Yes, quantity, not quality at this point, but the whole cohort seems this way, and their teachers do seem to be challenging them, so perhaps we will be surprised.

Graham Asher said...

On the subject of ordinary spoken prose, I suspect 'grass is greener' syndrome. As an Englishman, when I first came in contact with Americans I envied them their ability to speak continuously, to the point, and using exactly the right words, without all the ums and ahs and ers we put in. In British middle-class speech there may also be a fear of appearing rude by seeming too direct or sure of oneself, which leads to the sort of studied diffidence parodied by actors like Hugh Grant.

Simon in London said...

The upper-middle class Home Counties English do appear to be outstanding, as you have previously noted. The old New England WASPs seem pretty good too, but it's noticeable that (eg) British journalism is not dominated by Jewish writers the way American journalism is. The same goes for the legal profession - there's no perceived (or actual, AFAICT) advantage to having a Jewish lawyer compared to having a upper-middle class Home Counties Englishman.

My subjective impression is that the upper-middle class Home Counties English have verbal IQs at least as high as New York Jews, although their style is very different, which probably puts them ahead of anyone else on the planet.

Simon in London said...

dearieme said...
"And yet the man on the Clapham omnibus considers himself a little tongue-tied compared to his Scots, Welsh or Irish cousins."

Going by the news, these days the man on the Clapham omnibus is a black rapist.

On your point, the Celtic fringe seem to have the advantage in music perhaps, but not so much in logical argument (Edinburgh is as much Saxon as Celt).

Jeff Burton said...

I've accumulated 30 years so far in the programming field - haven't yet run into many (any?) humanities majors who hate math who took up programming. Speaking as a history major who loves math.

BTW, this is another great opportunity for all the four sigma isteve readers to post their SAT scores. Can't wait to read all of them.

agnostic said...

Perhaps they have a stronger oral culture too, and the literary strengths derive from that.

It's not just on paper that they sound better -- in everyday conversation, singing pop song lyrics, or lecturing before a class.

We're more extraverted than they are, so it's not like they've just had more opportunities to speak and listen. They just have an overall stronger oral tradition, and that's the foundation for a literary or other mediated tradition.

Anonymous said...

....Provincial and striving.

Add anecdotal, and you've pretty much described my style. Too late to change now. I'll keep stiving until something better comes out. Then I'll start my own blog.

Anonymous said...

if wee swichd 2 fonetik spelin peepul wood get hi verbul sat skores cuz inglish wood b ez 2 lern

Gilbert Ratchet said...

But he's a racist, so it doesn't count.

Anonymous said...

"In 1995, the SAT was renormed to make 500 the means again"

Why stop at new mean? Go a little farther and make everyone smart.

Anonymous said...

Christopher Hitchens comes to mind.

He was wrong on some big things, like, er, Iraq, but few could have used English more eloquently than he did to try and prove his case for how 2+2=5.

To me, his legacy seems to be more rooted in how carefully people treat the English language in reference or response to the man himself, not anything he ever penned. Read people's accounts of him. They use their best English whenever he's concerned.

I guess that's worth something.

Anonymous said...

"For a good twenty years or so, people with high verbal skills who were indifferent at high-level math went into technology."

This describes me perfectly.

Anonymous said...

RE: American vs English mastery of our mother tongue,

Just an off-hand guess, but I would suggest that it has something to do with democratic sensibilities; speaking and writing eloquently has frequently carried with it a rather elitist aura, and elitism is the one thing from which Americans will always run....


RE: Fitzgerald vs Waugh,

Well, I think that you are a bit off-base here, Steve.Certainly, a case can be made that Fitzgerald's pre-GATSBY work was inferior to Waugh's (compare the risible THIS SIDE OF PARADISE to DECLINE AND FALL), but very few critics would dare to make such an argument regarding GATSBY.

Syon

sykes.1 said...

If you listen carefully to TV shows with British actors, like Game of Thrones, you might notice that their spoken English is much closer to the spelling of the spoken words than is ours.

Part of our problem might be the result of language divergence.

David said...

The internet has unleashed, and maybe birthed, scribblers in their thousands. By the law of averages, we were bound to get more talent (quality). There is an additional factor, teasable from this:

>we have lots of prestigious national science and math fairs for high school students (which are now dominated by Asians), but little of the same fame for the reading and writing set.<

The additional factor is the freedom of the internet (at least in the United States). Official "writing contests," these days, cannot be other than politically correct sermonizing, or rather the aping of sermons. That is a dry well.

The juice is here, baby.

Karen said...

I graduated high school in 1981. My SAT's were 710 verbal/590 math. (I missed "interregnum" in the vocab section.) I learned most of the grammar I know from taking Latin in college. The Brits still emphasize Classical languages in their education, but we never have and are, if anything, willfully walking away from this. Latin was cut from my son's high school in 2011 at the insistence of the school principal, who enthusiastically defended Agriculture Vocational Classes. This is Bowie High School, Austin, Texas, where "agriculture" means at most growing a tomato in the back yard. No one defends Latin classes because it's assumed only snobs of the cultural elite care about such things.

I'm too lazy to look, but I recall reading a few years ago about the one program in a terrible New York elementary school that started 4th graders with Latin. They were the only group whose test scores improved and stayed improved.

Dahinda said...

"he also has the advantage of not coming from the Jeff Spicoli generation like I do."

I went to high school in the late 70s and early 80s and all I have to say is that most of my classmates were utterly retarded! I knew people who literally could not tell me who the president was! These kids received a diploma, but that made me wonder just what my diploma was really worth? Also, on streamiling the English Language, Col. Robert McCormack tried to start a movement to spell everything phonetically in the 1920's.

Luke Lea said...

@ "For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a fine book, but compared to the seemingly effortless clarity and fluency of Evelyn Waugh's early novels of just a few years later, its prose seems provincial and striving. "

There is no disputing of taste. I prefer Fitzgerald, Hamilton, Franklin, and Emerson.

Anonymous said...

Having been a voracious reader of music magazines in my teen years, this was something I constantly noticed. Simple and pedestrian articles covering band profiles and album reviews were always so much more insightful, witty, and cogent in the British ones. Initially I chalked it up to their writers' superior knowledge of music, but eventually I understood that their writers were simply better at expressing themselves.

I wonder if the droller, drier English sense of humor helped develop their linguistic facility. High-end American humor is ironic, but you don't really see a lot of that. Most of our humor is of the "ow my balls!" variety. Maybe drier humor makes for better use of language overall.

sn said...

The English facility with English likely arises from their reading tastes and conversational habits. This small country supports a remarkable variety of publishers and the typical news stand in England is far more interesting than what one might encounter in America. Even the lesser known English-bred foreign writers express themselves remarkably well (Pico Iyer is one example).

Anonymous said...

George Beranrd Shaw once claimed that by the 'rules' of English spelling (which, as a native English speaker, I charitably admit must be an absolute nightmare for a foreigner, any foreigner to learn), that the English word 'fish' could quite legitimately, by English spelling conventions, be spelled as 'ghoti'.

You see, the 'gh' from cough.
The 'o' from 'women'
and the 'ti' from 'nation'.

harpersnotes said...

Parliamentary culture stretches back to the importation and democratization of Persian courts' debating salons into ancient Greek culture, modified by the framing of the early Olympics. Britain has been much slower to move away from classical education than the US. (Such education, although stretching back through the Renaissance, enjoyed another boom in the 1800s.) Parliamentary debates, and training for them by the upper classes, sets the tone for the rest of the society. (Well, that is my current thinking anyway.)

Anonymous said...

The trouble is, Steve, that the two predominant accents from the south of England (ie the posh 'received pronounciation' or 'BBC' as it's sometimes wrongly called, or even labelled as an 'Oxford' accent - a name I like better - spoken by the old school English establishment such as David Attenborough etc, and the well known 'Cockney' accent, strictly wprking class ie the voice of Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins), are both somehow tainted by class considerations.
Basically the oxford accent is the manner of speaking of the old Noramn aristocracy, the Cockney can never leave the stamp of mean origins behind it.
As GBS said in another context, as soon as one Englishman opens his muth, another Englishman instantly despise him.
This is true of these two 'southern' accents ie Oxford instantly denotes a well-to-do educated toff, owner and educated man, Cockney means a worker more particularly a laborer.
Needless to say, just hearing any one of these accents on radio or TV stirs up anger from one side or another.
So the BBC and modern trend is to use so-called 'regional' accents instead - particulary from the north of England or Scotland.These are held to sound 'warm' and 'welcoming' not pompous, and most importantly, they are apparently class-free. A northern laborer has the same intonations as a northern millionaire.

FredR said...

"Compare American stinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson to his British contemporaries."

I don't understand this Emerson hate. Particularly on a sentence-by-sentence level, he was an excellent writer. It's in the larger structure of his essays that he's sometimes lacking. I don't think, at least in his command of the english language, he suffers greatly in comparison to contemporaries like Carlyle.

Anonymous said...

My name is Steve Sailer and I want to say that the Marines fight like little girls.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

Speaking and writing well, I think, are also looked upon in the US as 'faggy' or effeminate, or WASPy/English.

harpersnotes said...

At the start you mention JFK's reading speed. From what I recall of the biographies, when his father was ambassador to England JFK fell in love with the debating over there. The title of his first book was a word-play on Churchill's book (While England Slept..?) but decades have passed and my memory is imperfect.

sunbeam said...

? Does this really matter to you?

What is the utility of writing in a manner that other people find aesthetically pleasing?

It's pretty hard to turn that into even personal satisfaction these days. Writing books is like buying lottery tickets for most people, and it's not like 50,000,000 other people didn't decide to blog in competition with you.

Let's pose a situation where two populations of people exist in close proximity. Both have equal resources and start out at an equal state of development.

One population produces people who write like Churchill and Shakespeare (Was Churchill really so great? I confess I've never read him. Then again I'm no anglophile.)

The other produces people like Thomas Edison and John Von Neumannn.

Care to speculate on which population will outcompete the other?

Heck since money is pretty much all that matters these days, writing like that is kind of a disadvantage. There is more money in writing "Yippie-kay-yay M#*f**" than there is in well turned phrases. You might say you can adapt verbal intelligence to other uses, but right now I'd say technology makes this ability far less valuable for a number of reasons.

I also want to say something about one of the books you mentioned, The Great Gatsby. I read the book. I think I understand the social milieu. So what? I was totally baffled as to why this book has been assigned to countless high school students to read.

Another book whose popularity I don't understand is Catcher in the Rye. Idiocracy summed up my reaction to this book, in one statement by the doctor:

"Right, kick ass. Well, don't want to sound like a dick or nothin', but, ah... it says on your chart that you're fucked up. Ah, you talk like a fag, and your shit's all retarded. What I'd do, is just like... like... you know, like, you know what I mean, like... "

I might be wrong, but it seems to me that fetishisation of this kind of verbosity is a luxury item you can only indulge in when your ticket is punched, no matter what.

That said, we certainly have the social conditions right now that could increase the value such a thing. Might have to wait for the elites to season a generation or two though.

As for the rest of us, "Live Like A Dog-If You Can't Eat It Or Screw It. Piss On It."

Karen said...

I agree with the comment referencing current YA series like "Harry Potter" and the "Hunger Games" books. (Also, a big shout-out to Texas' own Rick Riordan, whose books I cannot recommend enough.) When I was a kid, nothing like this existed. Some kids with liberal Christian parents like me got the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, or Wrinkle in Time books, and there wa always Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but the newest of those books dated to the early 1960's. The only YA books actually being published during the 70's were Susan Ccoper's wonderful and too much neglected Dark Is Rising books.) Those of us with good parents became readers but lots of kids weren't that lucky, and there wasn't much peer pressure in favor of verbal skills.

Anonymous said...

Stinkers like Emerson? I knew there ws something woefully off about your taste. Enjoy your Tom Wolfe - middlebrow literature has never been so good.

Matra said...

Somehow, the Brits seem to inculcate better command of English than we Americans do. Perhaps that's not true up and down the social scale

Based on my experience attending grade school in the UK, the Antipodes, and North America with working and middle class students I believe the standard of English in the UK is the worst in the Anglosphere. But it is different at the top of the British social scale - as always. Needless to say, in America you only get the best Brits!

pat said...

I imagine I am just the first of many who will point out to you that Winston Churchill was half American. I often praise Churchill but always wonder at the same time how much better yet he might have been if he had managed to have been 100% American.

Churchill was as American as Obama is black. It was Churchill's American half that contributed his martial and literary virues.

I also like to point out that Ella Fitzgerald was half Irish and it was the Irish half that made her such a fine vocalist.

Albertosaurus

Lucius said...

You lost me at "stinker"-- I can imagine you might not find Emerson a convivial thinker, but even the Catholics love him for his style.

Some of this problem is provincialism: David Hume wore a turban, Ben Franklin that coonskin or whachemacallit cap. Americans reveled in their own rustic eccentricities, in all departments.

Among the Founders, Jefferson is the exemplary prose stylist, in part because he succeeds, like Austen, in creating a more accessible version of Johnsonian orotundity. One is instantly pleased by his style, and impressed by its graciousness and gravity; yet he is unquestionably easier to follow than the great British prose stylists of one or two generations prior.

Fitzgerald is terrific, but admittedly there's a lot of strain in TGG, including that neat joke he makes of Franklin's Autobiography. We obeyed for too long the injunctions to be new, and define what it is to be American; these are crutches the Brits can do without.

Remember too: old Ben thought you should just study Spanish and French, and eventually Latin might come to you, though you didn't really need it.

chucho said...

That Derb/Sailer movie night is going to be a great one-act play someday.

Orthodox said...

I have a copy of Animal Farm in Chinese and English. I don't remember how much shorter the Chinese is, but it's probably more than 20%. It is a very efficient writing system, once you learn it.

slumber_j said...

I'm not sure I'd agree about Fitzgerald vs. Waugh. But otherwise, yeah: at the high end the English are generally way better verbally, and among politicians there's really no contest.

Now, Enoch Powell obviously had some sort of custom four-barrel language co-processor installed at birth, but it really is inconceivable that any American politician of the 20th Century could come close to matching him as a rhetorician. And as you say, Churchill is hard to beat too. But right down the line, their best speakers and writers seem to be shifted rightward a standard deviation or two.

Probably this is in part the result of education of course, but in the case of politicians it must also have to do with the mode of debate in the House of Commons. I once attended Prime Minister's Question Time during the Thatcher era and was astonished at the bare-knuckled wit on display. Congress really are a bunch of Little-Leaguers in comparison: the level of play in both houses is so much lower in the US as to fundamentally alter the nature of the game. Nobody has to play as hard, so nobody does.

International Jew said...

If journalism and humanities departments in academe continue to become more corrupt and illiberal, more people of good conscience will see science amd engineering as a safe haven.

SFG said...

I think it's prose style--American anti-intellectualism means politicians (and everyone else) has to be plain-speaking, whereas the Brits are allowed to dazzle each other with turns of phrase.

Historically, a frontier country is going to be more worried about engineering and science to develop the vast land than about sounding articulate while they're doing it.

Also, rappers and such have a great deal of verbal fluency, inventing rhymes on the fly. Unfortunately, it is all about forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor, consumption of exogenous cannabinoids and sympathomimetic drugs, altercations with police officers, and garden implements (or perhaps they mean something else by this last one).

RGH said...

When I think of the writers I like to read for the pure pleasure of how they string words together, I can't help but notice they are almost all British. America has never produced anyone comparable to G.K. Chesterton, P.G. Wodehouse, or Evelyn Waugh. Tom Wolfe is fun, but reading him is a pleasure of a different sort. And those guys were popular, which speaks well of the British populace of the day. How many Americans today have the capacity to enjoy Chesterton or Wodehouse?

SFG said...

Distaste for an upper-class British accent would be quite natural for a former colony.

Anonymous said...

Your comparison of American and British writers fails to take into account the assimilation of American writers by literary London. The most famous examples are Henry James and T.S. Eliot but there are many, many others.

RGH said...

The problem of careers for high verbal/indifferent math folks is vexing. I stumbled around until my late thirties and ended up in IT (as a Windows Server guy). I turned out to be fairly good at it, though I don't find it particularly interesting. Now I see my son (age 14) in the same boat. I don't know how to advise him since I never figured it out myself. He wants to create video games and is trying to teach himself C++, so maybe that will work out. I'd like to see others' thoughts on career ideas for highly verbal people.

Sideways" Anecdotaly, I see the Harry Potter generation continue to read voraciously, and frequently write eloquent online comments" Really? We're talking about people who not only think "alot" is a word (which I had teachers rant about in the 80s), but that "alittle" and "abit" and, increasingly, "aswell" are words, too. said...

" Anecdotaly, I see the Harry Potter generation continue to read voraciously, and frequently write eloquent online comments"

Really? We're talking about people who not only think "alot" is a word (which I had teachers rant about in the 80s), but that "alittle" and "abit" and, increasingly, "aswell" are words, too.

Sheila said...

Like anonymous at 2:30 AM, I had a huge spread on my SAT scores. I don't remember them precisely (I think they were 790 and 580), but I know they were higher (both verbal and math) than my GRE scores almost ten years later, which were 750 verbal and 540 math in 1983. My low math score does not reflect inability so much as it does disinterest; I don't retain various formulae (thus so many years after my final high school math class I couldn't remember how to do many of the math problems in the GRE) or have flashes of mathematical brilliance, but with clear and logical instruction, I did "A" work up until Calculus in 12th grade. While I haven't pursued any work requiring high-level math skills, my grasp of math has always exceeded that required in any job I had, and in no way hindered my success or impacted my salary.

A huge contributing factor to the decline in verbal SAT scores and American reading ability has been multiculturalism and the resultant devastation of public school reading textbooks. I think it was Diane Ravitch (a neocon and public school cheerleader, in other respects) who compared the textbooks used at the time (of her book on American schools) based on Latin and Greek root words (the basis for much of a more advanced English vocabulary) and found that the Christian texts included far more traditional (i.e. White) writers with a far higher-level vocabulary. I think this hit Britain somewhat later (and didn't involve quite so much Mexican/Native American faux literature) so their national historical treasure trove of classic literature was not so quickly and thoroughly abandoned. FWIW, my older son took Latin in private school, and the younger has at least had supplemental school English lessons on Latin and Greek root words. My own voracious reading led to my vocabulary, and I'm still surprised when my husband (no slouch himself) is unfamiliar with a word I use comfortably. I still prefer English spellings and ignore Microsoft's urging otherwise (judgement and marvellous and catalogue).

highly_adequate said...

Well, one thing that was pretty standard in preparation for English universities -- I'd certainly guess up to the 60s -- was education in Latin and Greek. Anybody with a real background in those languages is going to have a big leg up on knowledge of more arcane English words.

Rather little has been written in the HBDsphere, I think, on the impact of the decline of the Western canon in favor of multicultural alternatives. The best and the brightest no longer aspire to the heights of eloquence and craftmanship of a Shakespeare or Milton, or even of a Housman or Waugh.

Just the other day I walked into the building in which English is taught at our local HS. I encountered a mural with 5 literary lights clearly intended to inspire students. Who were they? Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. If these are the most excellent writers in American literature, well, what is excellence, exactly?

I think that it's fair to say that virtually all literary prizes have been distorted by the same forces. The standards embodied in the Western canon have simply collapsed.

Anonymous said...

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1055226.ece

Darwin’s ‘clumsy’ prose
Angelique Richardson

Paul Mendez said...

Has reading faster simply failed? Or has America just lost interest?

Now that I think about it, what DID happen to all those speed-reading courses?

In the 60's, I remember there being a lot of emphasis on speed reading as a way to improve school performance. They made sales pitches to parents through the school. My mother paid to sign up my sister for a speed reading course because she wasn't doing so well in grade school.

Today, it's clear that my sister has some form of dyslexia -- very visually oriented, bad spelling,etc.,

So maybe "slow reader" has been replaced with "dyslexic" as a reason for poor school performance.

Anonymous said...

One of the best English prose stylists of the recent era was the late, great Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn), whose work to be enjoyed at its best is to be found bound in one volume as "A Turbulent Decade - the Diaries of Auberon Waugh 1972-82."
Auberon Waugh used to write a satirical diary in Private Eye magazine, and this the collected volume. Urbane yet waspish, and capable of Swiftian indignation when the occasion demands, the diaries are an absolutely hilarious take on life in Britain during the '70s, the era of Ted Heath, industrila decline, power cuts, imperial decadence and bad haircuts.
If you want to enjoy English writing at its best and have a few good belly laughs at the same time, you could no worse than purchasing this volume.

HenryOrientJnr said...

American politicians seem inferior to the English ones perhaps because they lack the continual practice that Question Time and debate in the House of Commons provides. American political rhetoric is incredibly boring compared to the lively and intelligent dialogue British politicians are familiar with. However, the British of today are not in the same league as Churchill's generation in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

"As Education Realist points out, we have lots of prestigious national science and math fairs for high school students (which are now dominated by Asians), but little of the same fame for the reading and writing set."

Who cares about high school fairs? Fame and popularity go to speakers: politician, rappers, pundits, actors, comedians, lawyers, youtubers, preachers, talk show hosts, radio personalities,etc.

And writers get more respect. More knew and admired Hitchens than geek scientists.

Anonymous said...

Populism uber alles, Churchill didn't have to deal with this anti-elitist crap. Outside of Academia, are there tangible benefits to the sort of high language Mr. Sailer speaks of? Do the benefits outweigh the negatives, social and economic?

An irony is Sinclair Lewis, while making fun of Babbits, was writing Babbit prose for an audience of Babbits, some with counter-culture affectations. We are a nation of embourgeoise peasants, a reality each new wave strengthens, and, even if not mindful of this fact, the anxieties and resentments of our grandparents are still with us. There's the root of the ambiguity towards Alan Rickman and other Brits, and our tendency to give campy British street names to new developments. Shropshire lane or Devon street to places still reeking of fresh paint and yards covered with freshly laid sod. This ambiguity reflects different demographics, such as aging WASP or WASP by affinity vs. still angry Irish Catholic fireman. But even within a single social climber there can be differing impulses.

Americans aren't relativist or unaware of status, they have their own little linguistic status markers with attendant cruelty. They will make fun of Appalachian dialects and Ebonics, albeit more ambiguously in the latter's case. These linguistic dalits serve the ubiquitous human need to have someone to look down on, even in a nation that takes Regular Joe-ism to a noxious degree. But the populism uber alles model has backfired somewhat on the Middle Class hegemonists in that they have to accept as legitimate all manner of decadence and idiocy, lest they look like a snob. Do you know why the caged bird sings?

Personally, I think it goes way back before the 1960's, back to Horatio Alger and his praise of parvenus. For centuries, a novus homo had the grace to be ashamed of his humble background. Not no more, honey. If the cash is green, the lineage is clean. Britain isn't immune to this, sf Trollope's the Way We Live Now.

This maudlin populism spills into genealogy, many Americans love the notion of having a pirate or a thief or a bastard in the family, ignoring the tawdry realities of such identities. The days of wishful thinking, connecting one to a companion of Wm of Normandy are long over.

Americans don't like someone who sounds too smart, smacks of elitism (as commercial and status conscious society we are, God don't we love to attack elitism) For generations now we have had a dominant discourse of mockery of linguistic pretensions. This isn't Chaucer mocking people like his pretentious nun, who were incompetent. This is a direct attack on the notion of learned speech.

High speech has also been associated with effeminate, introverted males, so it might also be a negative in the mating game. The days of warrior-scholars are pretty much over outside of war-nerds and pundits who care about foreign stuff. Warrior-scholars are a luxury of aristocratic societies.

There is some tolerance for a few oddballs, people liked the old coot from WV who'd throw in a few Latin phrases here and there, convincing many he was a New World Cicero. But that was DC. In most circumstances, you try to sound too cerebral and everybody in the office is going to think you are Dwight Schrute and that you play with swords in your spare time.

Anonymous said...

'Compare American stinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson...'

Thinker or stinker?

Justin said...

I noticed the same thing watching British TV shows. I'm always left with a distinct inferiority complex, they are all just so clever and loquacious.

Anonymous said...

Skill with words (whether speaking, reading or writing them) is just not very highly prized in the US. I can't say for certain if the same situation prevails in England, but my impression is that TV shows made there place much greater emphasis on language.

Ray Sawhill said...

For me, a nicely-turned paragraph is something I have to consciously manufacture. For a lot of educated Brits, that's just how their words tumble out.

Lexikon Luthor said...

Wait, what? As far as I can tell, you seem to think that the English are better at words than Americans because you got shown up by Derbyshire while watching a movie and you attribute this to the vagaries of English spelling. And you threw in the Ivy League, Henry Kissinger and Churchill just for the hell of it.

Anonymous said...

This applies to acting as well, Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Ian Holm, Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Gambon, Alec Guinness, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Jonathan Rhys-Davies, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce, the list goes on and on. What do we have in the US that compares?

BlackRoseML said...

The GRE is now renormed.

Auntie Analogue said...

Evelyn Waugh's spelling was execrable - his handwritten diaries and papers are riven with misspellings; one must expect that his editors corrected many misspellings in his novels' manuscripts. Yes, Waugh had superb command of words and their meanings, yet therein lies paradox since his his writings in his own hand were peppered liberally with errors.

Preferred English dialects have always gone in and out of style. For some acute insights into this phenomenon let me recommend John McWhorter's book 'The Word On The Street.'

Anonymous said...

I think the English just relentlessly flog young public school boys until they can write a sentence that runs for half a page without a comma out of place.

Anonymous said...

California schools are making a big push for reading and writing. I know my children's elementary school requires 20 minutes of reading a night, starting in kindergarten. Children have a Reading Counts (Scholastic Books program where children take a computer test on books they've read) point goal they have to meet each grade period and point totals are posted for the class. It becomes a competition within the class. My children had to start writing structured paragraphs in first grade. They do a lot more writing than I ever did as a child.

Pincher Martin said...

Steve,

"Still, nobody seems all that interested in trying to figure out how to improve our children's advantages in English. It's almost like we think it's unfair to the rest of the world that we speak English, so we should have our children bash their heads in to compete with Asians on the culturally level playing field of math. That strikes me as a noble but stupid response."

I agree well-educated Brits write better than well-educated Americans. Gore Vidal once commented that the average letter to The Times of London was better written than editorials written in the NYT.

But how much have the Brit's superior English skills helped them out in global competition? They have a lot of people in publishing and numerous intellectuals on the make (a la Chris Hitchens, Henry Fairlie, Andrew Sullivan, and many others) who migrate to these shores because it's easier to impress the natives and find a sinecure. But it's not as if their superiority in this area has provided much else to their country in the way of benefits. It certainly hasn't stopped their country from an irretrievable slide into mediocrity.

So I'm pretty sure I don't want my country's educational system to emulate the Brits' in any measure. Math and verbal facility are not inherently equal skills in the marketplace. And there's nothing which says a young promising lad with high verbal skills and merely good math skills can't find promising work in, say, a tech company.

Look at someone like Steve Jobs. He had some technical skills and probably had a high enough M. But he was not a serious engineer, and indeed he thought of himself as something of a humanist. Yet it was Jobs who ultimately provided something an engineer like Wozniak could not. He focused on aesthetics and simplicity for the end user rather than engineering gimmicks that only engineers could understand or appreciate, and that was the real long-term value added to Apple.

Jo said...

I suspect it has a lot to do with Oxbridge-y expectation of - and competition over - verbal ingenuity. In Middle America nobody expects you to turn a phrase -- in fact, they'll look at you askance if you do. But in many pockets in England -- larger pockets in the past -- it is a form of currency.

rho said...

wren said:
Perhaps it is my imagination.

I think it is. You may be able to access more of the writings of younger generations, through Internet comments, but I don't think it follows that they are more read, and definitely more widely read than a 1950-something English schoolboy.

I'd like to see a comparison between sales of CliffsNotes and verbal scores, and whether there is any correlation. As far as I know students are still required to read a bevy of classics. Knowing enough about them to pass a test may be better than zero knowledge, but exposure to language is a non-negotiable requirement in advancing language fluency.

Jo said...

"My young teen daughter averages over 4,000 texts a month. We limit her facebook time, but that is essentially publishing in front of peers. They know who can't write well or cleverly and judge each other on it."

We'll be back to Gibbon in no time!

An absurdly small proportion of Facebook users judge each other for not writing well. The imperative is to be "funny" or to link to "funny" things, not to write well.

Unknown said...

The Federalist Papers are pretty well crafted.

"pernicious labyrinths of European politcs" and etc.

Jo said...

If you ever hang out with young literary types in New York, you'll see that they try very hard to create a culture of formal and informal verbal competition. But like you said, it's more obviously a form of striving than the Oxbridge version, which can seem as natural as breathing.

Anonymous said...

I fear you reveal your American less than perfect sense of English when you laud Churchill's style.
It was despised by the man you rightly praise, Evelyn Waugh.
Bombast and bluster, and little else.

Anonymous said...

Why are English 'better'?

Flair vs fair.

English go for flair, Americans go for fair. Why did Buckley win debates in the 50s? He went for British-like flair while his opponents stuck to data, evidence, and etc. Wit and charm(even when on the side of wrong) can beat facts and logic.
Due to puritanical roots and anti-aristocratism, American language never developed the elitist flair that became so common among Britons.

Also, England was a small country, and so there wasn't much space. So, for there to be peace and understanding and order, people had to rely on high degree of language skills. America had lots of space, and this led to people being spread far and wide. Thus, language skills of high order became less valuable. Americans talked to communicate basic stuff, not to argue over fancy points. A John Wayne wouldn't have been possible in England. But an English gentleman would have felt stupid as a farmer in the Midwest or Wild West. England had lots of poor farming folks, but they were crammed in a small country, and so they too had to develop language skills as a form of social politics.

Sense vs sensibility. Americans like to make sense with language. English have been more into sensibility. Sense is 'drabber' than sensibility. Truman was Mr. Common Sense but drab. In contrast, a Briton could be talking utter rubbish but do it with such fancy sensibility that it sounds intelligent. Same with Buckley. An American with aristocratic airs, he always sounded a lot more intelligent and meaningful than he really was.

Henry Canaday said...

Did you ever see sample questions on the old A-Level tests Brits took in the mid-60s? To do well, you had to: a) be very smart; b) be very hardworking; and c) go to a very good school or track within a school. The old Labor Party governments really did want to level up the abilities of smart working-class kids.

Three other hypotheses about Brit language skills:

1) Memorization works. Memorizing and orally reciting great essays, poems and speeches embeds vocabulary, complex but non-awkward sentence structure and the sheer beauty of well-formed language in your brain in ways that reading and studying do not. My impression is that Brits did more of this, and continued doing it longer, than Americans.

2) Competition works. Deep down Brits are one of the most competitive people in the world. But for most of the last two centuries they have not been allowed to compete as vigorously in the market, or as violently in the streets, as other peoples. So competitive instincts were channeled into other means of establishing superiority, one of the chief of which is speaking better or more precisely or more cleverly or more beautifully than other Brits. This can be obnoxious (see Pinter) or hilarious (see Potter) but it matters.

3) Lack of competition works. For a long time after World War II, the Brits had about one, state-owned monopoly TV station. The best of BBC is very good. But the average BBC daytime show is mind-numbingly boring and the best prod to reading a book the electronic age has produced.

Jo said...

Also, re: Churchill, the English and "energy": is it possible there is some widely dispersed genetic variation that results in abnormal energy among Anglo-Saxons? A lot of ridiculously energetic people required to build that empire.

I guess this question stems from an anecdotal experience dating a UK citizen living in the US, who was just off the charts in terms of energy; always wanted to be doing something. It could be exhausting at times, and her English father was a corporate attorney who was the exact same way.

I noticed that highly energetic people (not manic people, but energetic) tend to be able to fall asleep immediately. They will be going, going, going, all day, and then when they decide to sleep, they swiftly and uncomplicatedly sleep. I suspect this is one of the chief advantages.

Anonymous said...

780 verbal, 640 on the math on '92 math SAT...

Aspergery personality only diagnosed recently...

I recall absolutely CRUSHING any verbal related multiple choice test - especially reading comprehension. This is despite learning english only at ten.

Yet, my essay writing was only middling.

Definite career problems... In college I switched to math heavy fields as I couldn't handle ambiguity of grading in the humanities.

Unfortunately, despite working my ass off, hit wall as my math deficiencies caught up with me in upper division and graduate courses.

If anybody has career suggestions, I'd be happy to take them! But, sadly, it's probably too late for me...

Anonymous said...

This piece reads like a reprise of DID ELVIS COSTELLO BECOME 'BETTER' AS HE BECAME LESS RELEVANT OR SOME SUCH.

Maybe, UK became 'better' with language as they became culturally less important and relevant. Having less worthy things to say, technique became more important for its own sake. Though UK produced its share of great writers in the 20th century, it gradually and then dramatically gave way to rise of American literature(especially after WWII with the dominance of Jewish-American writers). English writers continued to write well but the stuff they were writing had less and less relevance--though that might be changing with globalism that is undermining the notion of the 'national writer'. David Mitchell is one such writer. He seems to write for the world. And the (worthless in my estimation)Haruki Murakami can hardly be said to be a Japanese writer. He writes for everyone. And some European films today seem hardly European. French films of 50s and 60s looked set in France. Now, the French dress and act like Americans--and listen to the same music--, and the only difference is language. Bummer. I used to watch French films to get away from American culture. Now, even arty French films show Americanized French folks.

America, as a younger country, had a less developed sense of its culture and use of language than UK, but there was vitality in American literature that was increasingly lacking in the British.
It's like Japanese had better movie techniques in the 80s but their cinema had grown old and tired. Mainland Chinese, on the other hand, had cruder grasp of film technique in the 80s but coming out of the Mao yrs, there was real vitality and power in their (so-called Fifth Generation)filmmaking.
English culture was fully created and packaged by the 19th or even 18th century. Thus, English writers were heirs to a great tradition and adhered to it. They absorbed a lot of fine rules but were also constricted by them.

American inherited less of a cultural treasure, but this allowed for greater freedom to express their individuality. Daisy Millerism.
It's like classical vs jazz. Classical masters had perfect technique. Early jazz guys weren't so sure about what they were doing as their musical form was a work in progress. But jazz gained greater vitality while classical slipped into museum music. Later, jazz turned museumy while rock gained vitality.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that the English are English by Blood, and for the most part have been speaking English for centuries. Their ethnicity is also their language, so the ability to speak their language at a very high level of fluency is an important part of their identity.

OTOH, a very large percentage of European-Americans have grandparents or great grandparents who were not native English speakers. The English spoken in the U.S may have been "dumbed down" to accommodate non-English-speaking immigrants and their children, and this had inter-generational effects. Remedial English wasn't necessary in British schools, and students at elite schools often learned Greek and Latin which gives even greater insight into the English language.

The American identity and the English we speak is therefore different from that of a "pure" Englishman who speaks English. No one speaks "American" in the U.S.

For so many of us European-Americans, English is just the language we happen to speak, not something that our ancestors have been speaking for so many generations or part of our "tribal" identity.

Mike said...

While I can't speak definitively to your larger point, I'd caution that the comparative advantages of American English vs British English may vary by context and by era.

It also seems that relative differences in germanic vs latin influences may play a part, where we interpret speech more heavily latin-ized as more high-brow and sharp. (Perhaps rightfully so; Latin is an impressive language.)

I was wracking my brain for modern American writers who are entertaining/evocative/precise. Paul Graham comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

England has a longer history of educating people to read english than America. the difference is natural. Students at American universities don't "read" subjects like they do in england. Reading more and better prose early in life makes for better writers and readers later.

department11 said...

Most of my career track has involved explaining political developments to techie types

Well, explain this to me. Why do such companies force applicants for technical positions to face screening from H.R. women who have no way of assessing technical ability or how compatible experience might be with needs? Or do these women do nothing besides checking visa status? I'm fascinated that so many women can make 90-120K in H.R. in SV.

DaveinHackensack said...

There are still a few high verbal intelligence types in tech (though perhaps not in big firms such as Google). A contractor of mine majored in English undergrad and is a crackerjack Rails developer.

Re the English being better at English: when you compare the first half of the 20th century and earlier, no question. In poetry, no American rivals Auden (who, I think became an American citizen later in life, but is clearly English). And, as you say, it's tough to think of an American contemporary who rivals Waugh (tough also to think of another writer whose 1930s novels still seem so fresh today). But I wonder if the pendulum has swung back a little in the opposite direction in recent years.

If you consider the Man Booker Prize winners of recent years as the cream of contemporary British (and Commonwealth) novels, it's not a uniformly impressive list. The Life of Pi? The Corrections blows that away, by far. Has any British novelist in the last 20 years written anything as good (and prescient) as Bonfire of the Vanities?

Auntie Analogue said...

Britons commonly use verbs more aptly than Americans use them. For example, Americans almost always say, "I think [such and such happened/will happen/is true-false/is the case/&c.]," while Britons deploy more precise verbs, e.g., "I expect/suspect/consider/calculate/estimate/deduce/adduce/detect/foresee/anticipate/presume/regard/conclude/&c." Verb precision is just one way in which common British speech is more vivid than its Yankee cousin, and this difference is not limited to the "I think" example. When Britons use "I think," they use it to tell what they are, indeed, thinking (about a topic) - not what they expect, anticipate, suspect, &c. of a person or situation.

By the same token, many Americans are overawed by British speech simply because it's larded with words and spellings absent from American speech: words such as fortnight (two week period/two weeks), lorry (what Americans call a "straight-job" truck - in the US both straight-job trucks and tractor trailers are called "trucks," while in Britain a lorry is distnguished from a "tractor trailer" by the Britishism "articulated truck" or by the contraction "artic"), bonnet (car hood), boot (car trunk), brolly (umbrella), railway carriage (railroad passenger car), railway wagon (railroad freight car), engine driver (railroad engineer), caravan (house trailer), motor (car), carriageway (highway), motorway (major highway, akin to US "interstate" or "freeway"), whilst (while), holiday (vacation), braces (suspenders), suspenders (garter belt), knickers (panties), waistcoat/weskit (vest), vest (men's undershirt), petrol (gas), paraffin (kerosene), tread/trod (step/footfall).

Another distingushing feature is the Btitish "s" in place of the American "z" in words such as organise, energise, realise, aggrandise. At British expatriate Andrew Sullivan's blog his keenness to use American spellings shows up in his confusion of "s"/"z" spellings: Sullivan is wont to use misspellings that are misspellings in both British and American English, such as "exercize" and "advertize."

Then there's the British (and Canadian) inclusion of "u" in words such as labour, favour, savour, &c., a flourish many Americans admire but, at the same time, other Americans deplore or ridicule.

Americans tend to regard British speech as being quaint, fussy, or snobbish, while Britons tend to regard American speech as being primitive, untutored, imprecise, needlessly blunt, or simply brutish.

It would, however, be an error to presume that all Britons speak (and write) well and that American speech (and writing) is inferior to British, as both Brtain and America have large underclasses whose speech is crude and whose spelling and grammar are execrable. One needs only to survey readers' comments at British websites to observe that Britons appear to be as apt as Americans are to display horrid English usage and spelling.

Anonymous said...

"Even in the 20th Century, when Americans were catching up, the home team still seemed awkward compared to the visitors. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a fine book, but compared to the seemingly effortless clarity and fluency of Evelyn Waugh's early novels of just a few years later, its prose seems provincial and striving."

Though I haven't read any Waugh, I think this is a wrong assessment. GREAT GATSBY, as a piece of lit, may be striving, but it's not provincial. If anything, the charm of Waugh rested in its provincialism. By this, I mean(though I'm guessing since I never read him), Waugh remained very British wherever he went. Whether on Africa, Mars, or in UK, he maintained his air of detached irony and froopity-poo-ness. It's like the literary snob in LOVE AND DEATH IN LONG ISLAND remains very British even when he becomes infatuated with some hunk in an American teenage comedy. Even as he lusts for the lunkhead American, he cannot let go of his British reserve, restraint, and froopity-poo-ness. From what I heard about Waugh, he was very much a snob wherever he went and whatever he wrote about. He was an English island at all times and all places. He could be critical of the Brits, but in a very Britishy way. He liked to keep dry, aloof, etc. I'm sure it's full of charm and wit and all that stuff. I'm sure it's very observant and insightful. But British soul never opens up and reveals its deeper nature. There's something about the British character that finds 'overly' personal introspection and expression to be gauche and of poor taste. Why is that Brits always use the word 'rather' or rah-thuh. It's like a pillow between themselves and their feelings. So, even if some madman kills a Briton's mother, he will say, "I think he's rah-thuh unruly." Brits go for an overly rhetorical understatement, a kind of a contradiction but perfected over centuries.

So, it doesn't matter if Waugh's novels may have been 'better-written'. GATSBY is great because it's a novel written from the soul, emotionally confessional and even half-mad. And it's not really so striving in the way Sailer means. Indeed, it ultimately favors one kind of striving over another kind. There is social striving and personal striving. Fitzgerald himself was a social striver, but this obsession is rooted in his love for a woman, a personal dream. Gatsby is a phony but not really a liar. He created a fake world around himself but he did it for true love, for a dream. Though Daisy really isn't much and unworthy of his love, Gatsby's vision of her is true even if it's untrue because his love for her is so sincere and dreamy.

Like Holly Golightly, he may be a phony but he's a real phony. And it's this dreaminess that makes it a great novel regardless of whether it was as well-written as British novels. In fact, if it had been too well-written, the emotional impact might have been lessened.

Waugh was dry martini writer. Fitzgerald emptied the full bottle and bared his soul. He wrote the more moving novel.

Anonymous said...

It's true that British parliamentarians argue more skillfully than people in Congress. Americans do speeches, Brits do debates.
And the guy in WINSLOW BOY was quite skillful too.
Even so, nothing beats Jewish wit. Dry wit loses to wet wit.

jody said...

"As Education Realist points out, we have lots of prestigious national science and math fairs for high school students (which are now dominated by Asians),"

well...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmVzs3-GNBc

although i don't think this changes the general point, that east asian and indian parents who come to the US, are academic mongers, who push their kids to start researching some topic in science when they are only 16, and begin working in private with a university professor before they've even graduated from high school

"Americans are not as good with words on average as the British."

this is possible but i will say this. a british person never met an r at the end of a word that they wanted to pronounce. they just pretend those r's don't exist.

aside from writing prose, they're better at writing music too, despite being outnumbered about 4 to 1 by european americans.

one thing i forgot in the engineering discussion was the chunnel, the channel tunnel. not sure anything like that exists anywhere else. the germans, swiss, and austrians are better miners and tunnel builders though in general probably.

Anonymous said...

One problem with British language is its inflexibility in style. It's as if proper Britons must strive to sound intelligent at all times, even about really dumb things. So, the British comments about the London Riots sounded stilted and ridiculous, like gentlemen trying to control themselves while observing and trying to describe the actions of animals.

Sometimes, we need a PJ Rourke, Rush Limbaugh, or even Howard Stern to say it like it really is. Some things don't deserve 'intelligent observations'. It just needs to be denounced in a brash manner.

blah blah blah said...

If you take the GRE you'll notice that for the comprehension section they'll sometimes use much older texts that have a very different style from that of today; and because language involves irregularity and ambiguity having no deep experience with previous compositional styles could be part of the problem. Whereas with math there are no ambiguities or irregularities.

It's interesting that fewer people in absolute terms ( about half as many) are entering the STEM disciplines in university than in the 80's and that a smaller percentage of people work as scientists (4.9% vs 5.3%).

Anonymous said...

What if Beavis and Butthead were born into aristocratic families?

jody said...

i deliberately type everything in lower case, without capitalizing. this is faster to write and faster to read. i only capitalize for acronyms. occassionally people make some snarky comment about it, but they still get to insult me faster, since they were able to read my posts faster than i can read their posts, lol.

not sure any academic authorities will ever go for that, though. pretty sure they will stick with established "proper" capitalization conventions. in the year 2100, students still be taught to capitalize the first letter of every text they send to their girlfriend, even if most students don't observe any grammar rules when texting. didacts will continue teaching strunk and the elements of style, 15th edition.

green text on a black background is also the easiest color combination for human eyes, although i don't think we'll be moving away from a default scheme of black text on a white background any time soon. even though, a black background would save huge amounts of electricity worldwide, since LED (and OLED? not sure) devices don't have to activate black pixels, whereas these white background pixels are maximum electricity output. which was the point of google introducing blackle.

personally i wonder when cursive will die out. do they still teach cursive in public schools, and how long until it's gone? and when nobody can sign their name anymore, will it matter? will electronic verification of identity render the millenia old signature obsolete?

not a hacker said...

How about this from Derb:

Fraser was 82 when he died, and quite out of tune with the Britain he had been born in, and spent most of his life in.

That's quite awkward, no? He meant to say out of tune with the world he was living in at time of death, right?

ATown said...

770 verbal / 550 math SAT. I have not encountered others with this spread.

I have a similar profile -- 800 V, 660 M (taken in 2003). I have a B.S. in computer science (which I found difficult, and, by sophomore year, knew my modest native talent precluded the chance of Silicon Valley super stardom). I currently work as a medical writer.

Such a skew is fairly rare in males...For what it's worth, I am also gay, and am terrible at visuospatial tasks. I took a CAD course as a college junior and had to drop it because I simply couldn't manipulate objects mentally.

Young people with outstanding verbal talent but only modest mathematical ability are probably the ones best served by attending elite colleges -- they can major in art history (like Michael Lewis) and still get a cushy consulting/Wall Street gig. If they are feeling especially daring/lucky/masochistic, a JD from a T-14 school remains an option.

Simon in London said...

Funny my comment didn't make it?

jody:
"this is possible but i will say this. a british person never met an r at the end of a word that they wanted to pronounce. they just pretend those r's don't exist."

"English person", please. My Ulster accent has plenty of rrr's! :)

Mind you the Cornish 'pirate' accent is also known for its ARRR!!

Anonymous said...

Have you read Evelyn Waugh's letters? The prose is not exactly superlative.


Maybe he had a great editor.

Simon in London said...

anon:
" It's as if proper Britons must strive to sound intelligent at all times, even about really dumb things. So, the British comments about the London Riots sounded stilted and ridiculous, like gentlemen trying to control themselves while observing and trying to describe the actions of animals. "

Yup. Fair cop, guv'nah!

On any half-way intelligent forum, such as isteve here, we feel compelled to try to sound measured and self-controlled. If you want to see how we really feel, try the comments threads over on the Daily Mail.

Pincher Martin said...

"Young people with outstanding verbal talent but only modest mathematical ability are probably the ones best served by attending elite colleges -- they can major in art history (like Michael Lewis) and still get a cushy consulting/Wall Street gig."

Michael Lewis also majored in economics, which is almost as useless as art history, but more of an acceptable entrée to a Wall Street profession.

Anonymous said...

In terms of raw verbal horsepower no recent English writer could touch David Foster Wallace.


I'm talking about technical ability, not style (I'm guessing his fiction isn't popular on this blog). He could construct absurdly complex sentences and his vocabulary was second to none. And in person he always came across as breathtakingly intelligent.


DFW was a gifted philosophy student which I think is better training for the precocious undergraduate than, say, creative writing classes.

alonzo portfolio said...

ER's table shows that for 2001-02, U.S. born men outscored women by 30points on the verbal. How did we arrive at the conventional wisdom that girls are better verbally?

Anonymous said...

"770 verbal / 550 math SAT. I have not encountered others with this spread."

I scored in the 98th percentile on the verbal section of the GMAT and the 40th percentile on the quantitative section. I have never met anyone with this large of a gap in their ability levels. Perhaps I have non-verbal learning disorder? Outside of a legal career, there are not a lot of satisfying job options for people with our intellectual profile. I struggled for years to find satisfying work until I found my current job.

Graham Asher said...

"Though I haven't read any Waugh, I think this is a wrong assessment."

Better read some first, then start sounding off, mate.

jody said...

"Anecdotaly, I see the Harry Potter generation continue to read voraciously, and frequently write eloquent online comments. I am sometimes even surprised to see very logical, well-written, concise texts, as well.

I don't recall this facility so prevalent in the 70's 80's and 90's."

probably because there was no internet in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

yeah yeah, i know it existed. for 12 middle aged computer professionals who were using it in 1982.

teenagers were not on it. almost nobody was on it. nobody was writing long, carefully considered posts about any topic and posting it to the web in 1992.

smart but angry 18 year olds weren't writing 500 word reactions to the latest disappointing video game, movie, television show, book, or sports event, a mere 1 hour after it happens. that's how it works now, but that never happened in the past. i'm not surprised to see there are plenty of people out there with real writing chops, who are using it mainly to post tirades on various boards and sites.

Anonymous said...

Martin Sorrell, "whose ancestors came from Russia, Poland and Romania" was featured on the BBC's "Desert Island Disks" a month or two ago.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/09f04be2#b017vjlw


He's a friend of historian Simon Schama (they studied in the States together), but it was a remark he attributed to one of the Saatchi brothers that struck me.

"It is not only important that we succeed, but that our competitors fail".

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes, we need a PJ Rourke, Rush Limbaugh, or even Howard Stern to say it like it really is."

The nearest is Richard Littlejohn, Rod Liddle or Jeremy Clarkson, though the anonymous journalist Barry Beelzebub was good in his day.

http://barrybeelzebub.blogspot.co.uk/

Across the pond, there's Kevin Myers.

http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/kevin-myers/

Whiskey said...

I'd argue that the lasting power of literature must be measured by popularity, what people will shell out for of their own accord for entertainment, not "the Canon" of whatever it is in fashion among the literati.

By that account, Americans do quite well globally, but still are down a bit because of the enormous popularity of Tolkein and JK Rowling. But against that, say Hammett, and Chandler, and Kaminsky, and Westlake compares favorably to say, Alexander McCall-Smith, and Agatha Christie.

Entertainment wise, what people will actually PAY for seems to split fairly closely between Americans and the English. Americans have against recent hits like Rowling, Stephanie Meyer of the Twilight books, and George RR Martin of Game of Thrones. To match Shades of Gray (by an English TV producer). There's the American writer of the stuff behind the Tru Blood stuff, and so on. Yes much of it is dreadful.

But people BUY IT. I'd suggest THAT is the true measure of influence. What people will pay for to be entertained.

Anonymous said...

"This applies to acting as well, Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Ian Holm, Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Gambon, Alec Guinness, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Jonathan Rhys-Davies, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce, the list goes on and on. What do we have in the US that compares?"

You asking me , pilgrim?

Pacino kicked Pryce's ass in GLEN GARRY.

And can you imagine some hoity-toiter reading Eastwood's lines in DIRTY HARRY?

Anonymous said...

"An irony is Sinclair Lewis, while making fun of Babbits, was writing Babbit prose for an audience of Babbits, some with counter-culture affectations."

But the book is very sympathetic. We come to rather like him.

Ex Submarine Officer said...

750 verbal, 670 math, pre norming. Something of a skew, but I quit high school in 10th grade, took the test when I was 21 w/no prep.

Ended up w/a BS in physics, MS in Mech. Engineering, career in software development.

The most salient characteristic of English English as opposed to American English, to me, is their ability to insert subtle wit/irony with a choice of surgically precise words.

One interesting note on Churchill's famous "we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them... we shall never surrender" speech.

All the words in this are of old english origin, the only exception being the last word, surrender, which is a foreign loan word into english.

Draw your own conclusions.

Anomaly UK said...

Not sure about the British vs American angle, but the lack of notice taken of speed of reading, is, now you mention it, very striking.

I read 2 to 3 times as fast as pretty much anyone I know, and yet it's so slow... all the stuff I don't have time to read hurts me. If I could read 5% faster, how much more would I know? It's really odd that reading efficiently isn't taught.

Steve Sailer said...

I remember watching Prime Minister's Question Time in the 1990s with John Major, who I'd always heard described as a complete nimrod by British commentators. Yet, I was in awe of how articulate he was in debate.

Anonymous said...

was it 5 shots, dear ole chap? or was it six? oh dear, i lost count myself from the frightful excitement?

Kylie said...

"Has any British novelist in the last 20 years written anything as good (and prescient) as Bonfire of the Vanities?"

I don't know about "prescient" but I think The Little Stranger is every bit as thought-provoking and well-written as The Bonfire of the Vanities.

FredR said...

I don't know if this is the case with you, but a lot of people read Emerson in 9th or 10th grade, get immediately turned off, and never try him again.

He certainly holds his own in his correspondence with Carlyle, which, apart from offering a direct comparison of their writing styles, is often an amazing read.

Ian McEwan pointed out in the Paris Review that for post-war fiction, American literature was just more interesting than English. "The American novel seemed so vibrant compared to its English counterpart at the time. Such ambition and power and barely concealed craziness." But probably that's separate from verbal facility. On the third hand Bellow, for instance, strikes me as, sentence-for-sentence, a stronger writer than anybody the English have produced in that period. There could be a pattern here of more energetic but less controlled writing on the American side of the Atlantic, but I'm not sure.

Anonymous said...

http://youtu.be/q6OZ0DiZwAg

the new english

FredR said...

"How did we arrive at the conventional wisdom that girls are better verbally?"

By always losing arguments with our girlfriends.

Kurt (previously anonymous -- because I hadn't noticed this option) said...

If you thing the complexities of English grammar is bad, you should try German!!

http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/awfgrmlg.html

I AM one of these "Californian students" who would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective!!!

Kurt (previously anonymous -- because I hadn't noticed this option) said...

To FredR:

"There are two theories to arguin' with a woman. Neither one works." --- Will Rogers

Anonymous said...

I thought there was a progression in verbal agility - Dubliners, Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake.

Logic, as a sub set of math, doesn't need great spacial skills. Possibly the reason people with good verbal skills were useful in programming and similar tasks.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

"was it 5 shots, dear ole chap? or was it six? oh dear, i lost count myself from the frightful excitement?"

Hilarious. Also, for some reason, it reminded me of the beginning of the end of the best scene in Inglourious Basterds:

Lt. Archie Hicox: [In English] Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's.

Major Dieter Hellstrom: By all means, Captain.

Lt. Archie Hicox: [picks up his glass of scotch] There's a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch. Seeing as how I may be rapping on the door momentarily...
[drinks his scotch]

Lt. Archie Hicox: I must say, damn good stuff, Sir.
[sets his glass down and smokes his cigarette]

Lt. Archie Hicox: Now, about this pickle... we find ourselves in. It would appear there's only thing left for you to do.

Major Dieter Hellstrom: And what would that be?

Lt. Archie Hicox: Stiglitz.

Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz: Say "auf Wiedersehen" to your Nazi balls.
[Stiglitz fires his gun into Hellstrom's crotch]

Aaron B. said...

"i deliberately type everything in lower case, without capitalizing. this is faster to write and faster to read. i only capitalize for acronyms. occassionally people make some snarky comment about it, but they still get to insult me faster, since they were able to read my posts faster than i can read their posts, lol." -- jody

Um, no. If I happen to see "jody" at the top, I'll generally force my way through the post because I've learned that you have interesting things to say; but normally I skip posts without capitalization. It may be faster to write without it, but it's harder to read, and I don't read blog comments for the challenge. Capital letters at the beginning of sentences help the flow a lot (for me, anyway), and I could read and understand your comments better and more quickly if you used caps.

Aaron B. said...

"Britons commonly use verbs more aptly than Americans use them. For example, Americans almost always say, "I think [such and such happened/will happen/is true-false/is the case/&c.]," while Britons deploy more precise verbs, e.g., "I expect/suspect/consider/calculate/estimate/deduce/adduce/detect/foresee/anticipate/presume/regard/conclude/&c." -- Auntie Analogue

If that's true, I suspect it indicates that Brits read more. I use verbs that way, and I attribute it to reading thousands of books and starting young. I'm convinced that the most important thing about reading is to do lots of it.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that in the bookstore, the vast majority of books about history outside the United States are written by Brits. For example,most of the popular histories about the Middle East are written by Brits. Not only are they more numerous, they're both smarter and more enjoyable to read. And compare the writing style of someone like Adrian Goldsworthy to that dope Victor Hanson. When it comes to writing good nonfiction, most of the time the Brits leave Americans in the dust.

Ex Submarine Officer said...

Despite all the English examples, the best writer of prose I've ever read is Melville.

I never read Moby Dick in HS, so one day in college, I decided I would, figure out what all the fuss is about, this supposed paragon of American literature.

Read a few page and then in boredom tossed in on a bed stand where it sat for 6 months.

Finally, I redoubled my resolve, decided I wouldn't be reading this as an artifact, but as would a contemporary of Melville.

It was the most fascinating thing, I then went and read most of the rest of Melville's stuff.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, can touch Melville's skill with prose.

Anonymous said...

ER's table shows that for 2001-02, U.S. born men outscored women by 30points on the verbal. How did we arrive at the conventional wisdom that girls are better verbally?


The conventional wisdom is always wrong.

Anonymous said...

but it's noticeable that (eg) British journalism is not dominated by Jewish writers the way American journalism is


The dominance of NY Jews in journalism has nothing to do with their putative "high IQ verbal skills". Just read some of them if you doubt that.

Anonymous said...

It's as if proper Britons must strive to sound intelligent at all times, even about really dumb things.

One must, mustn't one?

Anonymous said...

I love provincial writing. Steve, part of the reason I like this blog so much is your depictions of Golden Age California and its ongoing transformation. The American soil interests me far more than any other location. I could pick up the Grapes of Wrath this minute and read it to the end, regardless of the message. I'm addicted to Mad Men because it is about my city. No leapfrogging for me - and I'm first generation American.

Anonymous said...

VS Naipaul is better than any contemporar Britih novelist.

Karen said...

My comment seems to be lost in Moderation Purgatory. Abbreviated, I said originally that the Brits still encourage the study of Classical languages, and at higher levels, of Anglo-Saxon. There is nothing that will improve a person's writing like knowing the sources of our vocabulary. Latin is a verbal form of algebra and therefore provides us left-brain types with a pattern for very structured and orderly thinking. In the US, however, Latin is being eliminated in favor of vocational classes, which teach kids a subject that will be obsolete in five years. Drop Vo Ed classes and teach Latin and Greek and you'll start seeing a huge improvement in test scores.

Simon in London said...

anon:
"The dominance of NY Jews in journalism has nothing to do with their putative "high IQ verbal skills". Just read some of them if you doubt that."

I have - they certainly come across as skilled with words; especially at using words as weapons. When they're doing it to somebody I don't like, it's great. They're very aggressive, but in an effective manner. YMMV.

helene edwards said...

Latin is being eliminated

As of when, 1960?

alonzo portfolio said...

VS Naipaul is better than any contemporary British novelist.

Maybe, but as a reporter he blows. "A Turn in The South" manages to convey not a single truth or interesting observation about American race relations.

Anonymous said...

they certainly come across as skilled with words


Can you give specific examples of these Jewish pundits who you feel are skilled with words? Jennifer Rubin? Erza Klein? Matthew Rothschild?

If they were really so skilled with words they would not need to banish people like Sobran, Buchanan, Deryshire and Sailer from the public square. One of them could dash off a quick column utterly demolishing Steve's arguments, for instance.

Anonymous said...

" In the US, however, Latin is being eliminated in favor of vocational classes, which teach kids a subject that will be obsolete in five years."

If you're here, I'm sure you know Murray's opinion about this view. He thinks it is wasteful and stressful to inflict overly demanding material on average students - I have to agree.

Technical fields don't evolve that quickly, and technicians are generally quite comfortable keeping up with them. Many techs are quite happy not being tied to a desk, and they make a good living to boot. Don't ignore the drawbacks of getting a late start at earning a living.

There's no law against reading Ovid during your lunch hour.

not a hacker said...

The conventional wisdom is always wrong

Somewhere in the 90's The New Republic devoted an issue to, "Is the conventional wisdom right?" They concluded that it mostly is. This occurred some years past the magazine's prime, but I have a soft spot for them because they were the first to note that "most 'racism' is classism," a point which, if it could only be established as CW, would make most of our current political battles moot.

Karen said...

The problem with Murray's approach is that he assumes everyone who isn't a white male from a wealthy family would be overwhelmed by anything harder than "Goodnight Moon." He thinks no should be challenged and then is angry when people behave like no one expects much of them.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that calling somebody you're losing an argument to "Nazi" or "anti-Semite" actually constitutes skill with words, but YMMV.

James Kabala said...

I must be really out of it - I am startled to learn that average math SAT/GRE scores are higher than average verbal scores - especially since it is the consensus opinion that math is harder than English as a classroom subject (or am I wrong about that too?).

Anonymous said...

Another 99th percentile in the GMAT verbal and 74 in the math, here. And, yes, I became a COBOL programmer in the Eighties, having majored in Philosophy (with some Ancient Greek).

Steve has posted on how C++ sorted the real software gurus from us pretenders. I took the management route, and today, although I own the small company, I'm mostly valued for my word-smithing; that is, the ability to actually string a few sentences together in a proposal or a presentation.

Another reactionary blogger, (I forget who it was) posted recently on the triumph of the scientific method. We are all nerds now. Eloquence is suspect. Evidence is valued.

When I was young, the thing was to be magisterial, to pronounce haut en bas, to deduce from pure logic, to demonstrate superior intuition, even to theorize. But the Roundheads have seen off the Cavaliers. Try any of that today and some dim bulb will ask you to 'cite studies'. Perhaps it is part of the feminization of our culture.

G.P.

Renée said...

George Beranrd Shaw once claimed that by the 'rules' of English spelling (which, as a native English speaker, I charitably admit must be an absolute nightmare for a foreigner, any foreigner to learn), that the English word 'fish' could quite legitimately, by English spelling conventions, be spelled as 'ghoti'.

You see, the 'gh' from cough.
The 'o' from 'women'
and the 'ti' from 'nation'.


GBS never was as clever as he thought he was. English spelling is based on sound AND meaning. Pronunciation is much more fluid than spelling, and that's how it ought to be. Spelling is fixed so people with different accents can communicate easily across and so words that no longer sound like they once did, visually retain their etymology.

For example, 'bomb' keeps a silent 'b,' making its Romance etymology clear, which helps speakers of other languages relate it to the French 'bombe,' the Spanish and Italian 'bomba.' Of interest to native speakers taking the SAT, the vestigial 'b' links it to its English word family: bomb, bombardier, bombastic, bombardment,and bombast. With context clues, that knowledge gives savvy students a clear advantage when they run across one of the more unfamiliar 'bomb' words on the test.

Renée said...

George Beranrd Shaw once claimed that by the 'rules' of English spelling (which, as a native English speaker, I charitably admit must be an absolute nightmare for a foreigner, any foreigner to learn), that the English word 'fish' could quite legitimately, by English spelling conventions, be spelled as 'ghoti'.

You see, the 'gh' from cough.
The 'o' from 'women'
and the 'ti' from 'nation'.


GBS never was as clever as he thought he was. English spelling is based on sound AND meaning. Pronunciation is much more fluid than spelling, and that's how it ought to be. Spelling is fixed so people with different accents can communicate easily across and so words that no longer sound like they once did, visually retain their etymology.

For example, 'bomb' keeps a silent 'b,' making its Romance etymology clear, which helps speakers of other languages relate it to the French 'bombe,' the Spanish and Italian 'bomba.' Of interest to native speakers taking the SAT, the vestigial 'b' links it to its English word family: bomb, bombardier, bombastic, bombardment,and bombast. With context clues, that knowledge gives savvy students a clear advantage when they run across one of the more unfamiliar 'bomb' words on the test.

Anonymous said...

http://youtu.be/acCfnwTpdxU

the new english pt 2.

Anonymous said...

http://uncensoredsimon.blogspot.com/2012/06/salute-to-noel-coward.html

lost and gone English?

Anonymous said...

"Sobran"

You lit my fuse. A true intellect who rarely flaunted it. He was averse to out-of-town words. He use of literary allusions was masterful and never gratuitous. Never a hint of striving in his work. A leftist writer of his calibre, from a working class, broken home would have been exalted. Although he was obsessed with Shakespeare, he was immune to the aggressive English verbal virtuosity he called "British Snot."

"What we really ought to ask the liberal, before we even begin addressing his agenda, is this: In what kind of society would he be a conservative?". - Sobran. This is a question I expect anyone with an agenda, not just liberals, to be able to answer.

Anonymous said...

I like American English because it's one on one. Buchanan writes plainly but with directness and force you don't find in English English. Buchanan may not be fancy but his economism, like Hemingway's, has a certain power. He doesn't beat around the bush like so many Brits with their thorny wit or flowery proses.

Pincher Martin said...

"The problem with Murray's approach is that he assumes everyone who isn't a white male from a wealthy family would be overwhelmed by anything harder than "Goodnight Moon." He thinks no should be challenged and then is angry when people behave like no one expects much of them."

That's not even remotely true. You obviously filter Murray through some leftie partisan source.

Lucius said...

"The brilliant Macaulay, who expresses the tone of the English governing classes of the day, explicitly teaches that *good* means good to eat, good to wear, material commodity; that the glory of modern philosophy is its direction on "fruit"; to yield economical inventions; and that its merit is to avoid ideas and avoid morals. He thinks it the distinctive merit of the Baconian philosophy in its triumph over the old Platonic, its disentangling the intellect from theories of the all-Fair and all-Good, and pinning it down to the making a better sick chair and a better wine-whey for an invalid-- this not ironically, but in good faith-- that, "solid advantage," as he calls it, meaning always sensual benefit, is the only good. The eminent benefit of astronomy is the better navigation it creates to enable the fruit-ships to bring home their lemons and wine to the London grocer. It was a curious result, in which the civility and religion of England for a thousand years ends in denying morals and reducing the intellect to a sauce-pan. The critic hides his skepticism under the English cant of practical. To convince the reason, to touch the conscience, is romantic pretension. The fine arts fall to the ground. Beauty, except as luxurious commodity, does not exist. It is very certain, I may say in passing, that if Lord Bacon had been only the sensualist his critic pretends, he would never have acquired the fame which now entitles him to this patronage. It is because he had imagination, the leisures of the spirit, and basked in an element of contemplation out of all modern English atmospheric gauges, that he is impressive to the imaginations of men and has become a potentate not to be ignored."

Emerson, "English Traits", Ch. XIV "Literature"

Lucius said...

"There is an example of the compensations in the commercial history of this country. When the European wars threw the carrying trade of the world, from 1800 to 1812, into American bottoms, a seizure was now and then made of an American ship. Of course the loss was serious to the owner, but the country was indemnified; for we charged threepence a pound for carrying cotton, sixpence for tobacco, and so on; which paid for the risk and loss, and brought into the country an immense prosperity, early marriages, private wealth, the building of cities and of states; and after the war was over, we received compensation over and above, by treaty, for all the seizures. Well, the Americans grew rich and great. But the pay-day comes round. Britain, France and Germany, which our extraordinary profits had impoverished, send out, attracted by the fame of our advantages, first their thousands, then their millions of poor people, to share the crop. At first we employ them, and increase our prosperity; but in the artificial system of society and of protected labor, which we also have adopted and enlarged, there come presently checks and stoppages. Then we refuse to employ these poor men. But they will not be so answered. They go into the poor-rates, and though we refuse wages, we must now pay the same amount in the form of taxes. Again, it turns out that the largest proportion of crimes are committed by foreigners. The cost of the crime and the expense of courts and of prisons we must bear, and the standing army of preventive police we must pay. The cost of education of the posterity of this great colony, I will not compute. But the gross amount of these costs will begin to pay back what we thought was a net gain from our transatlantic customers of 1800. It is vain to refuse this payment. We cannot get rid of these people, and we cannot get rid of their will to be supported. That has become an inevitable element of our politics; and, for their votes, each of the dominant parties courts and assists them to get it executed. Moreover, we have to pay, not what would have contented them at home, but what they have learned to think necessary here; so that opinion, fancy and all manner of moral considerations complicate the problem."

--Emerson, "Wealth", from "The Conduct of Life"

Londoner said...

jody: "i deliberately type everything in lower case, without capitalizing. this is faster to write and faster to read. i only capitalize for acronyms."

I've largely dispensed with capital letters in my online communications (though not here, for fear of being thought illiterate). The main reason is simply that they are almost always unnecessary. They do nothing to aid reading comprehension and can frequently hinder it. Visually, they are mostly ugly, and in cases such as V, C, W, S, Z, X and P the differences between lower and upper case are trivial. So why bother? I find all lower-case text visually harmonious. In English, initial capital letters used to be routine for many concrete nouns until the 19th century, by which time they'd been largely eliminated. Finish the job and eliminate the rest, I say.

Anonymous said...

Teddy Roosevelt had comparable mental energy, but few read his books for fun these days.
African Game Trails,his autobioography and the brazillian expedition are all pretty readable. the naval war of 1812 is dry but readable.

Londoner said...

The best English wordsmiths do have an almost supernatural way with the language. I think some commenters here, and Steve, are a bit hard on the Americans. As has been mentioned above, in the USA English tends to have a more functional and less spiritual character, whereas in England this is (kind of) reversed. Americans have until very recently been absorbed by the task of building a nation more or less from scratch - not an environment in which super-fine-tuning linguistic and rhetorical prowess is a worthwhile activity. In England, much of the state and its infrastructure has been in place since time out of mind. There was space for a linguistic hyper-elite to form and hone itself over many generations.

Also, there is great admiration among many of us for Americans' repartee, verbal fluidity and speed of retort. Much more common here is slow, excessively modest and/or hesitant speech. With some exceptions, we are not good at brandishing language like a weapon in everyday situations; many Americans are able to do this.

nsam said...

Not bad, for an American.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lfxYhtf8o4

Mitch said...

When I was a kid, nothing like this existed. Some kids with liberal Christian parents like me got the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, or Wrinkle in Time books, and there wa always Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but the newest of those books dated to the early 1960's. The only YA books actually being published during the 70's were Susan Ccoper's wonderful and too much neglected Dark Is Rising books.)

Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series is awesome, but it certainly wasn't the only YA being published during the 70s.

William Sleator, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L'Engle (for all her faults, still essential reading at the time), Ursula K. Leguin, Robert Cormier and that's just off the top of my head without giving it serious thought. The 1970s was really the beginning of YA fiction, when we got all the grim stuff that is now the norm.

William Sleator's House of Stairs absolutely rocked my world.

And Steve--thanks!

Steve Sailer said...

I started an email group in the 1990s. One of the members then won a Nobel Prize, so I was a little hesitant to point out to him that his use of all caps made it look like he was shouting all the time. I suggested he try typing in all lower case: just as easy for him, easier on the rest of us.

He replied: BUT I AM SHOUTING.

slumber_j said...

Ex Submarine Officer is absolutely right about Melville and Moby Dick in my opinion. It's sweepingly beautiful and stunningly varied in its prose and poetry, containing just about every major kind of writing and utterance that existed when Melville wrote it--including a scientific treatise and a sermon. As with Wagner (with whose work I have had my difficulties), if you just let it wash over you, you'll find yourself transported.

slumber_j said...

Also, Moby Dick has actual funny parts.

Pincher Martin said...

There are many original American prose stylists.

The mature Abraham Lincoln was as great a writer as Winston Churchill. If the U.S. Civil War president was less prolific than the WW2 British Prime Minister, he might have been the superior stylist. The literary critic Edmund Wilson said in Patriotic Gore that Lincoln was the only president he could imagine being a distinguished man of letters outside of politics. Two excellent books on Lincoln's rhetoric are Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg and Ronald White's The Eloquent President.

H.L. Mencken is another master prose stylist with a peculiar American writing style you can't find in Britain. Mencken was just a young reporter in his early twenties when he responded to a Henry James' jeremiad about American journalistic writing with this hilarious, vivid, and not unfair retort:

“The average newspaper reporter writes better English than Henry [James], if good English means clear, comprehensible English…. Take any considerable sentence from any of his novels and examine its architecture. Isn’t it wobbly with qualifying clauses and subassistant phrases? Doesn’t it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder? Isn’t it ‘crude, untidy, careless,’ bedraggled, loose, frowsy, disorderly, unkempt, uncombed, uncurried, unbrushed, unscrubbed? Doesn’t it begin in the middle and work away from both ends? Doesn’t it often bounce along for a while and then, of a sudden, roll up its eyes and go out of business entirely?”

That's pretty damn funny. But more to the point, it's vivid and hard punching prose - more of an American club than a British rapier. It still reads well after more than a century in print and it's representative of Mencken's later writing.

America has also had a number of very good vernacular writers who don't serve as useful models for young students. For example, Mark Twain's fiction is popular in high school curriculums, but no student should want to learn how to write like Twain. And should a student want to, no teacher would help him. The first thirty pages of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men are among the finest writing in all of American literature, but good luck emulating it. (Ernest Hemingway's style, on the other hand, is so comically easy to emulate that it's been turned into an international competition.)

Ring Lardner is another American original who neither travels wells nor appeals to pedagogues looking for models for schoolboys to emulate.

Since many outstanding American writers don't fit into an easy pedagogical model, teachers of schoolboys usually reach for what I call the Strunk and White approach: Everything is kept simple. Simple words build simple sentences which build comprehensible essays. And for 99% of American schoolboys and schoolgirls, that's an excellent model to use. Style is generally bleached out as they're told to emulate writers like Hemingway with strong nouns and strong verbs. Adverbs are frowned upon. That approach is useful for educational mass production, but you aren't going to develop any Gibbons and Macaulays with it.

Steve Sailer said...

" The American soil interests me far more than any other location."

Me, too. It's great that practically every city in the country now has a local version of what Raymond Chandler was for my native Los Angeles: a writer of stylish detective stories long on local color.

But, I can't help noticing that Chandler himself, while born in America, went to the same English school as P.G. Wodehouse. And Chandler just had more style than his American educated predecessor Hammet.

Anonymous said...

washington irving is underrated as a writer AND his influence on other writers, Dickens in particular, is unknown.

DaveinHackensack said...

Steve,

"He replied: BUT I AM SHOUTING."

That's funny.

Separately, what about TV writing? Some of the top verbal talent in the US in recent decades has gone into TV, as you know. Although the concepts for some TV shows here came from the UK, there aren't many Englishmen actually writing for TV here, are there? Is there an English David Kelly or Aaron Sorkin?

CJ said...

I remember watching Prime Minister's Question Time in the 1990s with John Major, who I'd always heard described as a complete nimrod by British commentators. Yet, I was in awe of how articulate he was in debate.

My wife and I were vacationing in Wyoming in early summer in, I think, 1992. There was a thunder/hail storm and we were forced into our motel room. C-SPAN was running the British parliamentary channel because the U.S. Congress wasn't in session. Then-Prime Minister John Major rose to speak after an education-related criticism by Labour member Harriet Harman. This was at the time then-Opposition Leader Tony Blair was saying that if elected a Labour government would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime." Major got up and pointed out that although Harmon was criticizing government aid to private schools, she was sending her own children to private schools. Labour members immediately began to groan and boo loudly. Major stopped, opened his mouth in surprise, looked at the Speaker's chair and said, "But Mister Speaker, I'm only being tough on hypocrisy and tough on the causes of hypocrisy."

Ron Woo said...

Aiya Steve - it's perturbing to see you proffer such defective insights when you are one of the preeminent commentators on cultural difference and human biodiversity currently active.

A few days ago Chinese civilization was wholly characterized by numerology and superstition because some people ply fengshui and practice qigong - now all of the English are verbal wunderkinds and memory masters based on your interactions with a mathematician and man of letters.

Anonymous said...

How many years of Latin does it take to understand the word "overly"?

Anonymous said...

In the traditional British curriculum, a student would have studied Latin, Greek, German and French by the age of 16. This alone would make them much better at English. Knowledge of German and Latin automatically will make one better at English, given historic influences on English.

ben tillman said...

Skill with words (whether speaking, reading or writing them) is just not very highly prized in the US.

Wealth and power in England are -- and long have been -- much more centralized than in this country. Verbal ability is invaluable under such circumstances, as it facilitates the manipulation of the environment (i.e., other humans); such ability does a frontiersman little good.

Anonymous said...

"It's great that practically every city in the country now has a local version of what Raymond Chandler was for my native Los Angeles: a writer of stylish detective stories long on local color."

They do? Who is the RC of Milwaukee? Omaha? Poughkeepsie? Bloomington?

Anonymous said...

Rokyo and Breslin were great.

Anonymous said...

Brits wrote as if sitting upright to keep good posture OR as if relaxing in lounge in some colonial outpost drinking martini.

Americans write as if conversing in a tavern or among close friends.

Anonymous said...

British writers start from the premise that they and their readers are strangers and certain propriety is called for.

American writers start from the premise that their readers are ersatz pals or neighbors.

Religions are different in that way too. There is distance between God/Jesus and man in Europe.
In the US, you can converse with God like He's right next to you.

Also, Brits like to show off their class, upbringing, and etc. By fine writing, they wanna show they're well-bred and well-educated.
Americans are more democratic and so there's less need to show off that way.

Anonymous said...

A professor of mine once said when it comes to film narration, French outclass the English and Americans. This is true. French voice-over narration have been far more poetic, insightful, suggestive, expressive, etc.
Consider JULES AND JIM, PHANTOM INDIA(even when Malle is reading in English), LA JETTE, NIGHT AND FOG, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, ALPHAVILLE.
There is nothing like it in American cinema except Orson Welles.

Ex Submarine Officer said...


Ring Lardner is another American original who neither travels wells nor appeals to pedagogues looking for models for schoolboys to emulate.


Ring Lardner wrote the funniest sentence in the English language:

"Shut up", he explained.

Anonymous said...

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/9288023/How-England-Made-the-English-by-Harry-Mount-review.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYAFWlrztFU&feature=plcp

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/historybookreviews/9287906/Midnight-in-Peking-by-Paul-French-review.html

http://www.businesswithoutborders.com/industries/retail/who-speaks-english-best/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2155612/British-envoy-Edward-Werner-daughter-Pamelas-death-Peking.html

Anonymous said...

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2156691/Feuding-Goldsmiths-finally-end-bitter-Twitter-war-Rothschild-heiress-rapper-lover-posts-photo-Twitter.html

How sick.

Pincher Martin said...

Ex Submarine Officer,

Lardner had a great ear. Here he is relating an anecdote about a competition between two baseball players in comparing the accomplishments of their babies.

"You ought to hear the athletes discuss the relative merits of their babies. There was an argument in my room last night that was the funniest I ever heard. Mr. [Artie] Hofman's Mary Jane has two teeth, and two others just breaking through. She weighs twenty-five pounds. Mr. [Ed] Reulbach's Edward has four whole teeth and weighs twenty-six. But Mary Jane can pound her fist on the arms of a chair and laugh at the noise. Yes, but Edward is a boy. Whereupon I told them that my four months old nephew—there isn't any such—could dive from a tower ninety feet high into a dishpan full of salt water without making a splash. I wanted to get them out of the room so I could go to sleep. One of them left a five o'clock call for my room by way of revenge. Whenever they start their debates in Schulte's presence, he quiets them by saying, 'Wait till you hear what my dog can do.' "

Once Lardner wrote about a small group of bush league players reporting with awe the easy sexual access of southern women when the team was traveling through the region. Finally, one player shook his head in wonder and said, "some of those girls just lose their head when they meet a man with shoes."

Anonymous said...

700+ for both math and verbal here.

173 comments and no one has mentioned where the high verbal/low math shine: bullshit artists. If someone is too mathematically inept to realize their bullshit for what it is, how much more effective will they be in promoting it!

Salesmen, politicians, lawyers, naturopaths, chiropractors, homeopaths, general con artists, astrologers, humanities professors, journalists.

DaveinHackensack said...

"700+ for both math and verbal here.

173 comments and no one has mentioned where the high verbal/low math shine: bullshit artists. If someone is too mathematically inept to realize their bullshit for what it is, how much more effective will they be in promoting it!

Salesmen, politicians, lawyers, naturopaths, chiropractors, homeopaths, general con artists, astrologers, humanities professors, journalists."


High-end sales often requires some quantitative aptitude; in fact, companies often test for it.

Simon in London said...

anon:
"Can you give specific examples of these Jewish pundits who you feel are skilled with words? Jennifer Rubin? Erza Klein? Matthew Rothschild?

If they were really so skilled with words they would not need to banish people like Sobran, Buchanan, Deryshire and Sailer from the public square. One of them could dash off a quick column utterly demolishing Steve's arguments, for instance."

Since Steve's arguments are correct, they could hardly demolish his arguments with logic, and I'm not talking about logic. But New York Jewish journalists are very good at constructing pieces that are emotionally effective, eg they are effective at emotionally convincing the typical reader that Steve's truth-telling makes him a bad, hurtful person who should be banished from polite society.

trey said...

The Beatles in a very large measure won the crown in 20th Century Pop Culture, I think, by their public displays of wit. While Elvis was more limited to presenting the usual pop culture persona of humble gratefulness, the Beatles were able to verbally spar with the media in their famed press conferences.

Granted there were four of them and thus the hot seat was not so hot, but their ability to think and speak on their feet made their bond with their audience and subsequent audiences more enduring than most pop acts.

Anonymous said...

jody: "i deliberately type everything in lower case, without capitalizing. this is faster to write and faster to read. i only capitalize for acronyms."

This is why I rarely read your comments. Which is a bit of a shame because when I do glance at them they seem intelligent. But the all lower case writing just looks too sloppy to me. It's especially odd when coupled with periods.

John Barth, by the way, is an elegant writer of American prose.

Anonymous said...

Auntie Analogue said...
"Evelyn Waugh's spelling was execrable - his handwritten diaries and papers are riven with misspellings; one must expect that his editors corrected many misspellings in his novels' manuscripts. Yes, Waugh had superb command of words and their meanings, yet therein lies paradox since his his writings in his own hand were peppered liberally with errors."



The same thing appears to be true of Jane Austen:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/8080832/
Jane-Austens-famous-prose-may-not-be-hers-after-all.html

Anonymous said...

"700+ for both math and verbal here.

173 comments and no one has mentioned where the high verbal/low math shine: bullshit artists. If someone is too mathematically inept to realize their bullshit for what it is, how much more effective will they be in promoting it!

Salesmen, politicians, lawyers, naturopaths, chiropractors, homeopaths, general con artists, astrologers, humanities professors, journalists."

I'm a colonial so I don't know what your SATs equate to, but I was the 99v 74q GMAT above. I take your point. My brother and father are/were engineers. I am not disrespectful. On the contrary, I am always making allowance for the 'known unknowns', of being a bit of a math moron.
I often think that verbal blowhards should be more respectful.
G.P.

irishman said...

I saw Nigel Lawson, Thatcher's chancellor or the exchequer, on the telly recently. He was arguing that the excellence of the English in the liberal arts in the "public schools"(as the English call private schools) was at the cost of more technical and scientific understanding.

He said that the consequences of this were profound and were a foundational cause of the decline of the British economy after the war because the men who occupied the commanding heights of British business and politics had no idea of how the world worked and little appreciation of industry.

I think there is a lot to this. Since the World War the role of the English has resembled the Greeks in the Roman empire more and more. The Bush/Blair relationship demonstrated this well but you see the same thing lately when it comes to the Eurozone crisis with Cameron and Obama. They are both working together to talk Merkel off the ledge but frankly Obama is shown up badly when you compare his performance to Cameron.

Steve Sailer said...

The British have won a huge number of hard science Nobel prizes, and their engineering creativity seems pretty good, as well. My impression is that their weaknesses have been in things like getting their mass produced manufactured goods to be durable, the crucial but kind of obscure challenges that the Germans and Japanese worked out well, but, say, the Italians didn't.

Anonymous said...

Mortimer Adler was willing to put a number on the pages per hour required of a person in a scholarly career- 95 to 100, if I recall correctly.

In this age of ebooks, I think a word per minute rate would be more helpful. Wouldn't it be nice if colleges were to let a prospective student know up front that for a particular class you must read 6000 pages of prose fiction and that if you read 20pg/hr, anticipate a minimum of 300 hrs of homework for just one class.

Matt said...

Steve, I think British people (including the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. at the least) more have a *different* style - relative to Americans more socially observant, tolerant of ambiguity or uncertainty, playful and fond of unusual words and generally messing around with language and imagery, indirect for politeness' sake and tolerant of indirectness - than we have any *better* abilities.

Americans are more assertive, serious/humorless, unambiguous and direct, generally. These strengths are applicable to fiction also but American non-fiction is particularly a pleasure to read. Even the Ashkenazi Jews who are noted as America's funny wordsmiths are still not really genuinely playful with their language (rather "clever").

(Americans have a bit more, I think, of what GNXP commentator John Emerson called "The German Seriousness" - http://haquelebac.wordpress.com/2010/03/13/ernest/ - pinpointing the centre of the phenomenon in Germany and the name "Earnest" (in the 19th centruy) as a cultural marker for it. Probably because they're a bit German / Dutch and a bit Puritan in their origins.)

I don't think, of course, contra the people who want to contrast American plain honesty with British sophistication that it results in more truth in writing - it's more outright lies, deliberate misdirection, obfustication and bullshitting (but all in a very assertive fashion) versus ellision and distraction.

You mention Cochran - I can't imagine his writing would have been improved if he were British (but otherwise identical in interests and talents).

I think also the corruption of the respectable parts of the academy may be more of a phenomenon in the US than in the UK (where the contagion is more quarantined to less respectable parts and the "studies" subjects).

Of course, if you look on the GSS, ethnically English / British folk with 1st generation immigrant status score the best (I believe) on Wordsum (not sure if it's them or the Ashkenazis) so the Derbyshire and journo types you're encountering probably really do have better vocab, for all that the true British / American differences are mainly ones of style.

Got any opinions on the English language strengths of the other Anglosphere groups Steve (are the Aussies and Canucks more like the English or the Americans, have any unique strengths, &c.)?

Anonymous said...

Distaste for an upper-class British accent would be quite natural for a former colony.

Maybe but I think that there wasnt really a English/British upper class accent in the 1770s.

My understanding that class differentiation of accents only began when enough upper class boys were sent to (boarding) school rather than tutored at home.

Up until then regional accents were just that. Aristocrats spoke with the accent of their place of upbringing. Only once their children were gathered together could they develop a separate accent from the masses.

Thats a theory Ive heard anyway.

Anonymous said...

in the year 2100, students still be taught to capitalize the first letter of every text they send to their girlfriend, even if most students don't observe any grammar rules when texting.

Im happy to capitalise when texting, I always write texts as correctly as possible. Especially when sending sexually explicit texts to girlfriends.

But then I am British.

Anonymous said...

You have to be smart to read fast. So naturally, they don't want to talk about who can do it and who can't.

Anonymous said...

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/normantebbit/100162976/banning-the-word-fatty-is-an-insidious-attempt-at-politically-correct-thought-control/

From grammatically proper English to
politically correct English.

neil craig said...

Very flattering, possibly true - I will have to thjink on it. On the other hand I once blogged comparing speeches by British PM Gordon Brown, whose PR team procalimed him, probably correctly, as the intellectual highlight of the British Labour Party & Sarah Palin.

No comparison. Palin had well thought out informed positions. Brown had unthought cliches.

W Baker said...

Though I have little use for the warmonger, Churchill, and, as a Latin major, far better use for Cicero's tongue, Winston didn't get his command of the English language from Latin. He was a notoriously poor Latin student and beaten regularly for it. Perhaps it was the rod rather than the radix.

Anonymous said...

"Separately, what about TV writing? Some of the top verbal talent in the US in recent decades has gone into TV, as you know. Although the concepts for some TV shows here came from the UK, there aren't many Englishmen actually writing for TV here, are there? Is there an English David Kelly or Aaron Sorkin?"

Stephen Moffat and Russell Davies are both very good, and the late Dennis Potter was probably the best ever in the medium, but the English don't have the equivalent of the American television writers' room, where you get a whole group of people with off the charts verbal IQs breaking stories together, telling stories, and coming up with ideas and jokes in a brutally competitive environment.

There's a reason why a lot of America's best verbal talent--David Benioff, Vince Gilligan, Matt Weiner, Shawn Ryan, et al-- is found in TV.

Kylie said...

"Chandler just had more style than his American educated predecessor Hammet."

Not in my book.

I read a couple of Chandler novels and while the prose was good, yes, they didn't have the grit and gumption I want in a hard-boiled detective story. I read them once, then tossed them.

By contrast, Hammett's novels really move. I find them viscerally exciting. Plus, Hammett has one big advantage over pretty much every other author I've ever read. I have little visual memory, which means descriptive passages in novels are an unrewarding hardship for me. But Hammett's prose style is so vivid and effective that I can see the action he describes. If he can do that, he's one hell of a stylist.

Red Harvest is the most exciting novel I've ever read. Even rereading it keeps me up late at night.

Anonymous said...

If you've seen Nigel Farage rhetorically dominate the EU Parliament with one of his ferocious harangues, you know the truth.

I, for one, would love a system that would force the Telepromptered fool in the Oval Office to stand up in front of Congress and the cameras to defend himself and his policies, like the British PM must do.

Anonymous said...

That would be Nigel Farage...

Individuation in fairytales said...

So Sunbeam, you're saying God is an American?

Anonymous said...

New York Jewish journalists are very good at constructing pieces that are emotionally effective, eg they are effective at emotionally convincing the typical reader that Steve's truth-telling makes him a bad, hurtful person who should be banished from polite society.



It's a lot easier to "convince" people of that when the people who decide who should be banished from polite society are these same New York Jews. That is, they only need to convince themselves. Hardly a task requiring a marvelous wordsmith.

Anonymous said...

"VS Naipaul is better than any contemporary British novelist.

Maybe, but as a reporter he blows. "A Turn in The South" manages to convey not a single truth or interesting observation about American race relations."

A Turn in the South is one of Naipaul's lesser works. Naipaul's books on the US and britain are inferior to his fiction and nonfiction on Indian and Carribean subjects..

Anonymous said...

Many critics of the Great Gatsby have missed the point of Great Gatsby.

"The Great Gatsby is, in part, an indictment of the American Dream but it is an indictment that is framed in religious terms. It is no coincidence that it was “on Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, [that] the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.” Gatsby’s parties provide at least some of his guests with a pseudo-religion and Gatsby himself cannot entirely escape the pseudo-religious net. On reinventing himself as a seventeen year old, we are told, he went about “His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

However, this sentence does not tell the whole story: Gatsby was able to transform his lost Catholicism into something nobler than mere materialism. When he first kissed Daisy, he feared that “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” but, in fact, “she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” For Gatsby faith in God is replaced by an ultimately unsustainable faith in human love."

http://www.catholicfiction.net/2010/10/08/the-great-gatsby-by-f-scott-fitzgerald/

MQ said...

Steve doesn't mention Melville, who was an absolutely extraordinary writer. An eccentric and difficult one, knotty but profound, very dense long poetic sentences -- reminiscent of Shakespeare at times.

is it possible there is some widely dispersed genetic variation that results in abnormal energy among Anglo-Saxons? A lot of ridiculously energetic people required to build that empire.

People at this site massively overemphasize genetic vs. cultural differences. One of the clearest demonstrations of the importance of culture are the 'golden age' surges of energy and creativity that run through peoples who at other times in their history seem dormant -- the Greeks in the 7th through 5th centuries BC, the Arabs soon after Mohammad, the Spanish and Portuguese during the 15th to 17th century, etc. These surges seem to last about two or three centuries and then tail off into a gradual loss of energy, power, and influence. The British golden age seems to have run from sometime in the mid-17th to sometime in the mid-20th century (although I guess Shakespeare was before that).

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