Professor Grace Ioppolo talks on the BBC World Service

Hot, cold or lukewarm? What I told the BBC World Service about the differences between British and American emotion in literature

Grace Ioppolo

Grace Ioppolo writes: 

On Thursday, March 21, I was interviewed by the BBC World Service and asked to comment on a very interesting new study at the University of Bristol that suggests that since the 1950s, British literature has become ‘colder’ and less ‘emotive’, while American literature has become warmer and more emotive. Researchers at Bristol analyzed language in novels written since the 1950s and found that ‘emotive’ words have been declining in British fiction from the beginning of the 20th century, with a marked decrease since the end of the Second World War. Researchers also concluded that in America, the huge generation of ‘baby boomers’, born between 1945 and the early 1960s, had been encouraged to express their emotions and thus had carried this expression into their fiction.  A brief report of the study can be found here:

I’m a huge fan of the BBC World Service, because I listened to it regularly while growing up and living in the US, so I was delighted to be invited to speak on one of its programmes. After some comments from the principal researcher on this project, I was asked to debate the subject with Dutch novelist Gerbrand Bakker (Prof. Lesknik-Oberstein, who is Dutch, later told me about him).

The moderator, Razia Iqbal, asked me if I thought the British were less emotional than other groups, and I replied that the British weren’t less emotional but had different ways of expressing emotion. I said, ‘The British can be very emotional on a mobile phone but not in person!’ Razia seemed to find this very funny and burst into laughter. Mr Bakker then disputed the new study by arguing that no one can decide which words are ‘emotive’ and stating instead that emotion can be expressed in other ways (through tone, for example). I then agreed with the study, but I suggested that the less emotive language in British literature began in the 1920s and 1930s with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell, among others, who used a constrained and confined writing style. Mr Bakker continued to argue that we cannot really study how a writer writes or what a writer means and that much depends on the reader’s interpretations of the text.  I concluded that, in my experience of living and teaching in the US and the UK, British and American writers do not write the same way, but that Mr Bakker was right in one sense: books are no longer things that authors write but that readers read, and this means each reader writes his or her own book, injecting emotion into it as each pleases. All in all, I found it a very lively and enjoyable debate, and the credit goes entirely to Ms Iqbal who was an excellent moderator.

So, is Toni Morrison more emotive than Iris Murdoch? Is Martin Amis less emotive than Jonathan Franzen? We are hoping to post an mp3 file of the programme, but if you have any comments about this subject in the meantime, please let me know (with emotion or not): or @ProfShakespeare

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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