I made a list the other day. J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, and Susanna Clarke are/were all British. Eva Ibbotson and Robin McKinley were both born other places, Austria and America respectively, but then later moved to England.
Of my favorite fantasy writers, only one had no connection to England: Gail Carson Levine is still very American. However, an interesting note about Gail Carson Levine is that, unlike the other writers I mentioned, I just cannot enjoy her work in adulthood the way I could in childhood. Only “Ella Enchanted” really stands the test of time, in my opinion.
I have several theories on this.
First, maybe the British write better fantasy because they have a great cache of folklore to draw from. European Americans haven’t been in America long enough to develop a mythology, unless Paul Bunyan counts. Native Americans haven’t been very well-represented in the publishing world. So maybe the American writers that are getting published don’t have a deep connection to folklore and mythology that would enable them to write it well.
If this is the reason, it makes me wonder if there’s a lot of really good fantasy published in languages I can’t read. Because most civilizations are ancient enough to have really interesting folklore and mythology.
My second theory is that maybe the British are just more comfortable with adults reading positive, uplifting fantasy. American fantasy seems to be either strictly for children (not even young adults), or else really dark. On the other hand, a lot of British fantasy is more like what A.A. Milne wrote in his introduction to Once On A Time:
For whom, then, is the book intended? That is the trouble. Unless I can say, “For those, young or old, who like the things which I like,” I find it difficult to answer. Is it a children’s book? Well, what do we mean by that? Is The Wind in the Willows a children’s book? Is Alice in Wonderland? Is Treasure Island? These are masterpieces which we read with pleasure as children, but with how much more pleasure when we are grown-up. In any case, what do we mean by “children”? A boy of three, a girl of six, a boy of ten, a girl of fourteen – are they all to like the same thing? And is a book “suitable for a boy of twelve” any more likely to please a boy of twelve than a modern novel is likely to please a man of thirty-seven; even if the novel be described truly as “suitable for a man of thirty-seven”? I confess that I cannot grapple with these difficult problems. But I am very sure of this: that no one can write a book which children will like, unless he write it for himself first. That being so, I shall say boldly that this is a story for grown-ups.
Those are my theories. Feel free to insert your own. I’ll be over here trying to figure out if it’s feasible to move to England.