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22 May 2024

Writing America, from the outside

Succession is a show about the heart of US power, created by a non-American. Is that wise, or even legitimate?

By Jesse Armstrong

Is writing something set in the US as an outsider – in this combustible moment, with institutions under threat, a frayed political system, a culture so fractious – wise? Is it possible? Is it legitimate?

It’s certainly happening more and more, even just among writers I’m familiar with. In recent years there’s been Alice Birch’s Dead Ringers; Georgia Pritchett’s The Shrink Next Door; Charlie Brooker with certain shards of his Black Mirror; Armando Iannucci’s team of British writers on Veep; Alex Garland’s Civil War. This clutch of examples joins the long list of non-American-born writers who have written about the country, from Charlie Chaplin and Billy Wilder for the screen, to Vladimir Nabokov, WH Auden and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the page.

I’ve been involved with the writing of several TV shows and films set or partly set in America: an episode of Veep, the film In the Loop, The Day Shall Come with Chris Morris, and what I’m best known for right now, HBO’s Succession. In that time, I’ve come to appreciate the many problems and few potential benefits one has writing a show about the US from the outside.

Jesse Armstrong photographed for the New Statesman by Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz

The first anxiety to address, I suppose, is whether we British writers might be culturally appropriating America when we write it? After all, it’s hard to imagine foreign writers marching into Lagos’s Nollywood or Mumbai’s Bollywood as blithely as British writers do into the pitching rooms of LA, expecting a small bottle of water and some airtime.

But all questions of cultural appropriation are really questions of power and the US is still the pre-eminent world power, whatever our fears about where it might be headed. It has the dollar, Silicon Valley, the warheads and Hollywood. America can take it, from those who live there and those who don’t. Indeed, in a sense, we Brits also live in America. Amazon, Apple, Meta-Facebook, Alphabet-Google, Disney: they all shape our world in ways we’re aware of. In Vassal State: How America Runs Britain, Angus Hanton points out Weetabix, Boots, HP Sauce and Sky are all US brands now too. US corporations have more employees in the UK than in Germany, France, Italy, Portugal and Sweden combined. Our economic and imaginative spheres, and our Atlanticist political culture, mean we live in something of a rainy Puerto Rico, without representation in the Senate or House but deeply affected by the flows of American capital and moods of American culture.

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I think we can say that it is more than legitimate for outsiders to write about the US – it’s necessary. Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s famous aphorism about immigration as an imperial legacy – “we are here because you were there” – is apposite. America is everywhere – the global champ. And everyone knows you’re allowed to have a pop at the champ.

The US is big enough to be criticised. But that doesn’t mean your take on it can’t be annoying, trite, patronising or wrong. In particular, the British point of view on America has a history of condescension – fading but still detectable. You know how it goes: Americans are fat. Americans are stupid. American beer is weak. America is uncultured, prone to violence and, most of all, wealth-obsessed. It’s there in Charles DickensMartin Chuzzlewit: “All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars… Do anything for dollars!” Dickens’ moral discrimination seems to disappear, as the nation’s people are lumped together as spittoon-hawking, overeating, socially boastful and selfish.

Undoubtedly, there’s much to say on America’s faults – and it can be fun saying it – but if you want to write about America 180 years after Dickens, you need to make sure you’re writing about a real place. Not the British dream-nightmare version of it – which is like those generic “American” accents British actors once used, which come from nowhere and stand for nothing.

I occasionally get asked in British media interviews if there’s something particular about the British sense of humour. It always feels like an invitation to self-satisfaction: BMW may own Rolls-Royce, but we still know how to make the best comedy; a moth-eaten note of irony is the last bit of currency in the imperial vault.

But while I love Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh, and looked up to and learned from Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris and the British comic satirical tradition, it was Woody Allen and Joseph Heller, Elaine May and Billy Wilder who I first loved. Seinfeld and Larry Sanders and Annie Hall were the models Sam Bain and I looked to when we tried to learn how to write a sitcom with Peep Show. Only the cloth-eared think we Brits are singing at a more delicious pitch. Only those, ironically, who lack an ear for subtlety think Americans don’t catch irony.

So, if you’re searching for easy targets on the wide American plain, you might find it over-hunted – by Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Lorrie Moore, as well as Matt Groening, Larry David, Jordan Peele and Tina Fey.

What can you offer, as an outsider writing America? “Outsider” is a slippery term, and I am aware there is a certain off-putting, self-regarding twinkle in the eye of someone who declares themselves to be one. The Bukowski-ish cool guy watching from the sidelines with a Scotch and a superior smile, writing “look at all these phonies” in his notebook. And some “outsider” positions are more comfortable than others. A European white man adrift in America I would recommend – all the delectable alienation, less of the physical danger. Though I come from a different nation state, I might be more comfortable in the corridors of US media power than some natural-born Americans. The US has a history of making its own outsiders, those not folded into the flag: new immigrants, native inhabitants and people taken there against their will – slaves and their descendants.

There are lots of ways of being an outsider in America, and many of them don’t require you to come from elsewhere. It’s a country made up of people trying to be American, even when they already are – a chorus of “I like to be in America” sung by people playing a part. Even someone as thoroughly American as John Updike thought of himself as “a literary spy within average, public-school, supermarket America”. It’s a nation full of spies in the supermarket, invisible men like Ralph Ellison’s; anthropologists like Zora Neale Hurston. Or Jerry, Elaine and George, investigating the secret canon of social case law: can you double dip a chip?

But of those who have a different perspective because they were born in another nation, there are a wide variety of outsider types. There are the visitors: Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit, or Waugh with The Loved One. There are the sojourners, who spend a while living and working but don’t relocate for good: Zadie Smith with On Beauty, Martin Amis in Money. (Most British showrunners are some version of this.) There are the emigrants: writers who were born abroad, but moved to the US young: IAL Diamond, who co-wrote The Apartment and Some Like It Hot; the Yellowface author RF Kuang; Gary Shteyngart. There are the exiles – those who came to America not by choice: as mentioned above, Nabokov, and the great wave of Weimar emigrés: Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger.

There are the imagined Americas of those who never visited, such as Franz Kafka, or those far away, such as Flann O’Brien with his “Unified Stations of Amurikey” in The Third Policeman. There are all the other complicated quasi-Americans: Alexander Mackendrick, born in the US but raised in Scotland, who directed the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success; Adichie, who divides her time between the US and Nigeria; and Raymond Chandler, born in the US but schooled in the UK.

For most of these non-native Americans, there is an element of coming fresh to their subject. Half-polite guest, half gimlet-eyed, ice-chip-in-the-heart literary spy. And all this spying, this icy looking, what is it good for ? What does the guest see that the resident doesn’t? You notice the smell, which the resident is habituated to. You see the alarming cracks in the wall the resident has stopped noticing. But sometimes you also see the grandeur of a room where the resident can only see the cracks. The guest can get things wrong, slip up, misread the codes, but that lack of habituation, if handled right, with humility can – can – be a strength.

The hardest thing to get right in any work of art, and certainly in a TV show, the single most essential and ineffable thing you’re looking for is a tone. A good tone in a show helps so much else: from the big stuff (its perspective) to the practical stuff (the cast). Even on a technical level: where you should come in on a story, and where you should end. Comedy or tragedy are, after all, in some ways just a question of where you choose to leave your characters. At the altar or at the deathbed.

If tone is the key to a successful show, it’s also, unhelpfully, pretty impossible to describe. You need it in your head when you start, but can’t describe it until the whole thing is done. If it’s off, nothing lands. If it’s working, you can go to surprising places. Maybe being an outsider gives you, if certainly not the whole tone, a start. If not the whole voice, an accent.

Is there perhaps a silent, unwritten introduction to foreigners’ writing about the US that tees things up, by saying, silently, something like: “Holy shit, come and take a look, you’ll never believe this!”? That initial tuning up, that heightening of sensitivity, that sense that there is something inherently interesting here – that is good for writing. I wouldn’t advise trying to efface your outsiderness – I tend to think, like our teachers used to tell us regarding coats, if you put it on inside you won’t feel the benefit when you go out. That’s how I feel about writing that is set in the US: if you don’t have some form of critical-satirical standpoint, you won’t feel the benefit of the outsider perspective.

And I don’t think it’s just my prejudice in favour of comedy or scratchiness that makes it seem that the people who have made best use of their outsiderness have made various types of satire: political satires (Veep), social satires (Yellowface, On Beauty, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, Adichie’s Americanah), tech satires (Black Mirror) or Hollywood satires (Sunset Boulevard). Which is not to say satire should be overt, or campaigning. The American writer James Thurber wrote to a friend, “People never learn that there is 1,000 miles of desert between a good cause and a good play. Few people can cross it alive.” Anyone who starts out to write a satire thinking the impulse to admonish or preach will make it worthwhile should probably have that quote branded, if not on their hands, then above their keyboard.

Do different varieties of non-American writers on America have different tones? Does the willing adult emigrant, for example, have a softer focus? It might be natural that these people, who knew what they were getting into, are most comfortably accommodated to the US – the least sceptical. I think of Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, and the British directors who came out of advertising to make careers in the US: Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Hugh Hudson.

The exile may have a tougher take – “driven into paradise”, as the composer Arnold Schönberg described himself and the emigrés who made 1940s and 1950s Hollywood “Weimar on the Pacific”. Perhaps there is a variety of exile art that is attracted to shifting identities, black humour and subversion. Billy Wilder was triple or quadruple ausländisch – outsiderish – chased from Polish Galicia, Vienna, Berlin and Paris by anti-Semitism. He knew that the worst change was possible. And he lived long enough that the child he saw at the side of the last Habsburg emperor in Vienna – the four-year-old Crown Prince Otto – came in to see him on the Paramount lot. That dizzying historical irony – how could it not colour your sense of the world?

If those Weimar exiles had a specific tone, do British observers offer a particular perspective on that country with which we are so interlinked? It seems possible we are comfortable with a certain profitable acceptance of hopelessness. Britain is, after all, a declining power, living in a Piranesi, full of TS Eliot’s falling towers. Maybe in our cradles we’ve drunk some sour milk which accepts that all projects, grand and small, end up as vast and trunkless legs of stone standing in the desert.

Are British writers more comfortable with the conscious acceptance of guilt, the hypocrisy of power, with the whole thing being a lie, the imperial project a smokescreen for creeping pink cartographical domination? While white America, at least, clings to the city on the hill, the last best beacon of hope?

There are fun things about writing in America. American speech is great. Shorter. Punchier. My favourite dining experience begins not with an outline of the metaphysical concerns of the chef’s culinary philosophy but a New York diner waiter who comes over, pad open, and says: “Talk to me.” New words, new coinages, a madness for contraction and mixing. It’s intoxicating. Freeing.

“I sit in one of the dives/On Fifty-second Street/Uncertain and afraid,” Auden wrote in September 1939, almost like any giddy Brit just arrived from JFK. In Raymond Chandler’s prose you sense someone with ears alive to American idiom after his youth at Dulwich College. This is Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely, “It was a nice walk if you liked grunting. There were two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street. They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly.” You can feel Martin Amis’s excitement to be out of the UK in the famous opening to Money: “As my cab pulled off FDR Drive somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane.”

There are, however, risks. I remember hearing about the streets of provincial postwar England, when kids got their hands on comics but hadn’t heard much real American speech and would go around exclaiming ‘Ghee whizz!” with a hard “G”. One does need to be careful of “ghee whizzing” in your excitement to be writing American. But it’s fun to dive in. To be direct, and say right out that you’re uncertain and afraid.

So much of British language and humour is about the not saying of things: “Don’t mention the war.” Or euphemism: “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” Or Humphrey Appleby’s tactic for sowing seeds of doubt about a ministers’ plans by praising them as “courageous”. I love all that. But it’s exciting to have access to US brevity and astringency. Telling it straight, telling it brutal. Dorothy Parker, chased for a piece, told her editor: “Too f***ing busy, and vice versa.”

It’s possible that in Succession we winkled out a profitable clash between two traditions: the Saying vs the Not Saying. Taking your time and enjoying language games is somewhat against the rules of TV and film scriptwriting, where the premium is on speed – no goodbyes on the phone, no change from the bartender. But being a bit more expansive linguistically allowed us to make the show, as well as other things, something of a horror story about language losing its meaning. All those low-IQ “genius ideas” in corporate and media spheres – all the “exciting new challenges” that are likely to leave you without a job.

And of course, one of the great freedoms about American language for a British writer is being released a little from class games. Jerry Seinfeld observed that the luge – the one-person bobsleigh – was the only Olympic sport you could conceivably compete in against your own will. Well for the British, class is the game we all take part in all day, whether we want to or not. All the opportunities for transgression – getting above your station, trying to pass yourself off as even minutely superior, or low-balling it and missing a glottal stop – all that opportunity for embarrassment, has been hugely profitable for British comedy: Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Steptoe, the striving, class-inflected overreach of Alan Partridge and David Brent. The US, of course, has it’s own stratifications, no less minutely calibrated. But class is perhaps a stronger flavour in the UK, and it is liberating to cook with other ingredients.

Equally, there are dangers in writing about America. Those who visit New York know the shiver of delight in seeing the steam rise from the streets just like in the films. We feel we know the US rather intimately. This gloss of familiarity can be a starting point. But you must beware the sense you know America when what you know is the refracted screen version – or risk writing a shadow of a shadow.

Research is usually the antidote to arrogance. I, like most British people, grew up suffused with US culture, and I also took American studies at university. But when Succession came into view, I read and read. On Four Lions and later the Miami-set The Day Shall Come, I found Chris Morris’s level of research initially exhausting, later impressive, and finally essential. Knowledge gives you a chance of not being glib or timorous.

One way to turn your outsider disadvantage to your advantage is to write key characters who are themselves outsiders. In Succession, characters born outside of the US such as Logan and Lukas Matsson were able to verbalise some of our outsider barbs. Indeed, the whole class of people we wrote in Succession, though they were largely American, didn’t really inhabit it. Our milieu was rich, coastal America: New York, LA, San Francisco, which stand like the city republics of Florence, Siena and Venice: jealous of one another but disdainful of the peasants who toil in the lands between. The show is not even set in the US, really, but among a global class, in a US of VC, the United States of Venture Capital, whose boundaries expand to wherever there is a business with value yet to be extracted. Gerri asks Roman when he is training at an upstate theme park, “Is it very horrible in America?” Yes. “No amount of antibacterial gel is going to be able to wipe the America off me,” he tells her.

Kendall says in our election episode that America “is kind of a nice idea, all the different people, together”. Everyone will have their red lines. For me, writing our election episode with the US poised between a nascent authoritarian and a more traditional candidate, I felt it was not within our purview to declare a victor and predict a direction for the US. It was too much of a judgement, one I didn’t feel it was appropriate for us to give. Not when so much hangs in the balance.

So yes, you can write a show in America without being American. In terms of tone, being an outsider means there is often an itch. A wriggle. A shiver. A desire to say, “You know, it can be other ways, too.” Sometimes it means anger, dismay – and those emotions can be fuel.

The outsider’s chief advantage is that indispensable tone or frequency, which pulls everything taut; some sense of an argument going on that can never be settled. America and the world is perhaps one of those tussles. America has such hopes for the world, we have such hopes for it, such fears of it, and we’re continually understanding, misunderstanding one another.

American innocence and European experience are on an old, old axis. It sometimes seems that American innocence has been lost regularly on the hour every hour since the first sailor saw that fresh green breast of America, while all our European experience doesn’t seem to teach us much of anything useful. Still, there is something in the Henry Jamesian, Graham Greene-ish opposition that we can’t stop worrying away at: innocence and experience, idealism and cynicism.

Idealism and cynicism, it occurs to me now, is perhaps one of the submerged stories of Succession. In a way Logan’s children are all American to his European. Their search for something to believe in, among the pile of broken chairs which is the sum total of his moral philosophy, is one way of looking at their tragedy.

It’s an old story, but in some version of the terrible, zealous, hopefulness of America, and the weary, used-up knowingness of Europe – somewhere in the tangle of those old ideas – is still some sweet stuff: the good meat in the claw of the Atlantic lobster.

Jesse Armstrong is the creator of “Succession”. This essay is an edited version of his 2024 Douglas W Bryant Lecture, presented by the Eccles Institute for the Americas at the British Library

[See also: Who runs the show?]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024