United States Fiction vs British Isles Fiction and “Swim Back to Me” by Ann Packer

“Swim Back to Me” by Ann Packer – Stories  (2011)

 Fiction is much more valued in the British Isles than it is in the United States   I’m using the term ‘British Isles’ geographically, to mean all the countries in that group of islands including Ireland. 

 In the British Isles, fiction is thriving. Reading groups and a large number of reading blogs flourish.  Speculation as to which author and book is going to win each of the major literary prizes including the Booker, the Orange, and the IMPAC is a major sport.       The demand for high quality fiction in the British Isles has led to a substantial number of authors who work to develop their own delightful unique style, their own voice, in order to supply this demand.

 Contrast this with the situation of fiction in the United States.  In the United States there is not much interest in literary fiction among the general public at all.  The various book prizes come and go, and only a few of us pay any attention to them.  A lot of books of fiction are sold in the United States, but these are mainly “bestsellers” which make no pretense to literary style whatsoever.  Among most of the authors in the United States, the goal is to sell a lot of books, not to create a work of art with its own distinctive style.  The literary is distrusted in the Unites States, and the public only puts up with the most simple and direct fiction writing that doesn’t call attention to itself.

 All of which brings me to today’s book, “Swim Back to Me” by Ann Packer. “Swim Back to Me” is a collection of two novellas and four stories which take place in the academic community around the Stanford area of northern California.  Each of the novellas and stories is about a major problem within a family or between families. I won’t go into the individual story plot lines, but will say that all of the stories genuinely held my interest. 

Ann Packer writes each of these stories in simple and direct prose.  She carefully relates all the details so the reader fully understands what is at stake in each story, and her style does not interfere or distract the reader from feeling empathy for the characters in the story.  I remember reading some of John Updike’s novels about family situations, and I would be struck by the style and perfection of a particular sentence, but the admiration of that sentence would distract me from the empathy that I was supposed to be developing for the characters.  John Updike, although from the United States, had developed a distinctive literary style.  In these Updike novels, his literary art actually got in the way of the story.  Sometimes to be artless is the better policy, especially when you want your readers to identify with your characters. That is why Ann Packer’s simple and direct style works well for these stories.  .

I should mention that John Updike did write some stories, the Maple stories. that do have the immediacy of “Swim Back to Me”.  It was only in a couple of the novels that the ‘artful’ problem occurred.

Ann Packer’s stories are not completely artless.  One technique that Packer uses effectively is the abrupt ending.  I would be immersed in the story, and suddenly it would end.  The story quits in an unexpected place, no summarizing, no looking back on what has occurred.  Most of the stories occur in the immediate here and now, even if the events occurred 3o years ago as does “Walk for Mankind”.  What I mean is that the story does not have any nostalgic tinge or any sense of looking back to an older time.  Instead the story unfolds as if it were happening right now.  One of the positive qualities of “Swim Back to Me” is its immediacy.

As I said before, here in  the United States simple and direct is the preferred style of writing.  The people here for the most part like their fiction plain and clear without literary devices getting in the way.  Here it is difficult to tell one author’s style from another’s. 

The bottom line.  The stories in “Swim Back to Me” are fine examples of United States stories.  However I’ve read so many British Isles novels and stories which have a strong distinctive style and voice, and I’ve come to prefer these.  The writing voices of such writers as Louise Dean, M. J. Hyland, and A. L. Kennedy are so unique and individual, they transport you into their own singular world.  You feel at least as much empathy for the characters in these women’s novels and stories as you do in those simple and direct United States stories,  but the unique voice and style these women put into every sentence  makes their fiction  superior to the United States kind.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I don’t agree that American literary fiction is less pop than lit fiction in the UK, but that’s because I’m a “Prove it!” person. It would be very difficult to collect stats on that. T. Boyle, Marilynne Robinson, and Philip Roth are just a few of the great best-selling American literary writers that come to mind.

    But I also love English fiction.:)

    I don’t know the work of Ann Packer, but I love controversial discussions so thanks to introducing this one!


  2. Hi Frisbee,
    Sure there are some unique literary talents in the US including the writers you mention, but they operate in kind of a vacuum without a lot of support from many US literary enthusiasts. In Britain the general public seems to appreciate literary efforts to some extent. I’ve noticed the Guardian has good reviews of US novelists. I go there now before the NYTBR, because the Guardian seems to have stronger reviewers.


  3. I love The Guardian, too. In the U.S., Jacket Copy at the L.A. Times is comparable, though one woman, Carolyn Kellogg, almost all the work (it’s the equivalent of the Guardian’s excellent book blog). She’s amazing.

    Tony, do you suppose the bloggers at the Guardian get paid? Or are the non-staffers giving their work away for publicity?

    I know from The Guardian that England is experiencing many of the problems we face in the U.S.: library cuts, arts cuts, bookstores closing, not enough published in translation, book sections in newspapers being cut back. Readers love their books, but it’s hard times for books.

    You raise very interesting questions.


  4. Hi Frisbee,
    I’m going to add the LA Times’ Jacket Copy as a Favorite. I sometimes read the LA Times reviews but not on a regular basis, and I haven’t even gone to their blog. And I haven’t even checked out the Guardian blog if that is different from the review section. I’ll need to search for it.

    I haven’t heard much about the recent English situation, but I suppose they’ve got Fox News and their own version of the Tea Party messing things up too.


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