Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why the US may not be ideal for international writers

 The third thing I mentioned learning from the SCBWI Tokyo event is that the UK may be a better fit for me. Put differently, it's more that the US is probably a bad fit.

One of the writers in attendance, a Kiwi I believe, asked about books with international settings (and presumably also international characters). Ms Kole said they tended to be a harder sell, and that they had to have a reason to be set overseas. My initial thought was to rebel against what she was saying. I'm Barbadian. What more reason do I need than that for setting a story in Barbados? But then I tried to calm down and think of what I know about the US. And not just in book terms.

I lived in the US for 2 years. I've been to 17 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. In the past 3 1/2 years I've lived nextdoor to 5 different Americans. I think I know more about America than the average international Joe. Heck, there's a possibility I know more about America than the average American Joe - lol - but I won't push that claim.

Here are some theories as to why the US might not be looking for international stories. 

So many stories

What is American? It's easy to point at certain foods or things and say that is French or Italian or Japanese or Indian. Some countries in Asia and Europe (Italy for example) are technically younger than the US, but they've been developing their culture for thousands of years, and it's resulted in great similarities even over vast land areas like China and Russia.

In the US though, the majority of the population (or their ancestors) came over from an already developed culture. They retained much of that culture. Through hundreds of years, these cultures become more and more watered down, but they still exist.

The US doesn't need to go to Taiwan for Taiwanese stories. There are lots of Taiwanese Americans. 

50 countries

I'm not generally very politically minded, but even I know that when you look at the way states operate, it's much more like how whole countries operate in the rest of the world. Take for example driving laws. Many of the "big countries" like England have treaties with Japan so that foreigners living here just sign a few pieces of paper to obtain a Japanese drivers' license. Americans can't do that. The reason I've heard is that each state makes it own driving rules and driving tests, so there is no standard of what an American driving licence really is, so the Japanese can't evaluate it.

Because the states are so different from one another, not just politically, but geographically, culturally, racially, etc, there is a tremendous variety of stories available in the US.

International centrestage

The US is at the centre of the international stage in many fields, but possibly none more so than entertainment. The most well-known movies are Hollywood productions,and most of the famous singers, authors, etc, are American. One repercussion in story world is that American stories ARE international stories, because the whole world now knows that culture. And if the whole world is interested in America, why should America be interested in anyone else? Popularity is almost never a two way street.

Sheer numbers

There is a ridiculous number of authors in the US - a number which multiplies hundred- maybe thousand-fold when you consider aspiring authors. With all of those stories vying for attention, there is less space for those who're not from within the US, especially when they're telling unfamiliar tales of unfamiliar places with unfamiliar characters.


From the very way the US was formed, certain rights and concepts became engrained. One of them was the concept that the US could and should always stand on it's own two feet. It shouldn't need to take in anything from anywhere else. It results in a fierce American pride that often causes other countries to hate America. (I'm just telling the truth. Don't shoot the messenger.)

As Stephanie Perkins' points out in ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, there are way fewer works translated into English than is the case with other languages. There are lots of reasons for this, but I think it's partly to do with the US reluctance for other stories, or the branding of external settings as "artsy" or "not mainstream" or whatever else.

I'm not saying that any of these things is in and of itself a bad thing. Nor am I angry at the US for doing them. (Although I still hate to hear "offer only available in the US.") The US - and anywhere else - is well within their rights to only care about their own people. It's just something that makes it a little harder for me and people in a similar situation. I even thought about making my stories more American-friendly. For many reasons, I doubt I will. But that's a story for another day.


Expatriate Tax Return said...

Very interesting! Great Article!

Anonymous said...

As a Frenchwoman, I am a little, er... annoyed that you seem to think of my country as having uniform, clearly defined culture, a perception I've found to be typical of people from "new countries", and derives IMO from ignorance (and lack of similar experience, after all; not saying Americans or Australians or what are more ignorant than us).

"In the US though, the majority of the population (or their ancestors) came over from an already developed culture."

Well, in France, not just the majority, but the WHOLE population was part of "already developed cultures" before it became "French". When my grandma was a child (around the 2nd World War), France actively banned the use of other languages than French at school, because a lot of "French" citizens back then still did not have French as a native language. Where I grew up, many people still don't identify with the flag that flies in Paris, but rather with a region whose bigger part now belongs to Spain.

As a poli sci student, I have come to read about American democracy vs French democracy. One of the biggest differences seems to be that, despite their cultural backgrounds differences (though the immigrants who really made "American democracy" were actually from a pretty homogeneous background), people came to the US and built them and fought for them because they *wanted to*. It was their choice, their consent. They had this *common* goal. The reason why France is France, on the other hand, is very disconnected with its people: alliances through royal marriages, wars, treaties, invasions, conquests, defeats, coercion. It is no coincidence that so many wars raged in 20th century Europe (and not just Western Europe, either). European people are really confused (or easy to confuse) about who they are, and which country is theirs.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Claire, You pose a lot of good reasons why international stories don't sell very well in the US, and I think you're actually being very kind. Sadly, I think one of the biggest reasons is that so many US residents think this country is the center of the entire planet and they have no interest in anyplace else.

I've been an elementary school teacher for 23 years, and it makes me sad when students come to me at the age of 10 knowing so little about the world -- and knowing their parents are nearly as ignorant as they are. :(

I don't think it's the fault of education. You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. I can teach and teach and teach and teach ... but if they're not interested in learning ...

Sorry. I'll get off my soapbox. Just feeling a little discouraged this week, after discovering one of my students thought Alaska was an island because it always appears on US maps by itself.

Sophia Richardson said...

I'm late commenting, but this was a really interesting post, Claire. I have to agree with Dianne, I can see international stories not doing as well because the US has a reputation for being very US-centric, as well as all the other reasons you listed.