The dominance of US storytelling modes, the implications for international writers and other links

I’m surprisingly wordy today, even though I seem to have caught some kind of bug. Because after the lengthy harassment post, here are some other links too good to pass up:

Aliette de Bodard has a great post on the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling and how they often crowd out local patterns. I don’t agree with every single one of her points, e.g. I quite like superheroes. But US-specific ideas and assumptions being treated as the worldwide default drives me up the wall as well, for example when US sexual or behavioural norms are applied to international works (e.g. Torchwood whose characters were so much more interesting before they became monogamous and monosexual and confined their misbehaviour to torturing and killing people). Or when American critics blast Stieg Larsson’s books for being full of endless discussions of Swedish politics that don’t interest anybody (except, you know, Swedes). Or when Americans complain that the leads in British cop shows don’t carry guns and refuse to comprehend that British cops don’t bear arms. Or when there are complaints that underage characters in foreign films or books are shown to have sex and drink alcohol, even though both are perfectly legal and normal in the country the film or book comes from. Or the fact that space opera, a subgenre I used to love, inevitably has to involve the military and in particular a military modeled after the US marines.

This also ties in with my post on international writers, because any refusal to adhere to American moral, linguistic and storytelling conventions will make it that much harder to get published. So you end up making compromises, you cut adverbs, rephrase passive sentences as active, you cut out bad words, you cut this lengthy descriptive passage or that rambling dialogue which doesn’t directly advance the plot. You try to sound like Hemingway, even though you neither are Hemingway nor particularly like him. You do your best to give characters agency, even though you are not quite sure how to do that, considering they are chained up in a dungeon. You up the age of your protagonist from 16 to 18 so you won’t be accused of writing child porn, when he or she has sex, you change the beer in their hand to Coke, because Americans are paranoid about teenagers drinking, you cut the paragraph that hints at necrophilia, because some things are taboo, even if they are realistic under the circumstances. And yes, I have done all of those things at some point.

And even if you self-publish, some worries remain. Do I keep my British spellings or use US spellings? Do I add in a paragraph in which my POV character makes an observation that an actual person in the time the story is set would not have made, but that modern day US sensibilities require? Do I lose sales because I refuse to adhere to certain US cover design trends that I find hideously ugly?

Talking of covers, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books compares the US and UK covers of various Lisa Kleypas books. In my opinion, the UK covers are decent and period appropriate, while the US covers exemplify pretty much everything that is wrong with historical romance covers today with their wholly anachronistic clothing and colours that didn’t exist in Regency times, because the dyes were not invented until decades later. Still, a lot of American readers seem to like them, because they look fun and sexy.

Really, one of the things I like best about publishing my own stuff is that I don’t have to deal with having cover horrors like poor Lisa Kleypas inflicted on me. And yes, the covers of my two historicals are very different from the gaudy dresses and corset covers so popular in the US. And wait till you see the next one. It’s monochrome. And neither gaudy nor sexy. And also very subdued, for a story that’s my most violent yet. That is, it’s subdued until you take a closer look and see what it actually depicts.

At the Clarion blog, Mark Lawrence, whose debut novel or rather a review thereof sparked off a not so flattering post about the current state of the fantasy genre in this blog a while ago, talks about his journey of becoming a published writer. I still have very little interest in his book (really not my cup of tea, sorry), but his story of breaking into the publishing industry under extremely difficult conditions is both touching and inspiring.

At the Book View Café, Deborah J. Ross offers a stirring defense of escapism, literary and otherwise.

Over at Pegasus Pulp I have a new post up chock full of writing and publishing links, death of publishing handwringing and fiction-writing computers. I also have some interesting alternative energy links at the ABC Buhlert site.

Finally, as hinted above I will have a book announcement tomorrow or the day after, depending on whether Kindle Direct Publishing breaks down again on me.

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10 Responses to The dominance of US storytelling modes, the implications for international writers and other links

  1. I hit exactly this as an Australian when putting out a YA space adventure (in diary format) featuring an Australian teenager. This meant that not only was the book going to be written in “Australian”, but I knew I was going to hit somewhat different expectations for what was suitable for a YA book.

    Australian teenagers swear. Especially when they find themselves alone on alien worlds. My teenager is fairly restrained (she swears four times in the first book) but I knew that some people would consider swearing in an entirely different light to the way I do. [And, indeed, I picked up a wonderfully incensed review based entirely on the first line of the book.]

    I really struggle with the idea of trying to put out a version of that book written in American English, with the swearing taken out. But I’m enjoying the current shift in publishing which lets me make the decision to leave it in and take the occasional outraged response.

    • Cora says:

      I strongly suspect that American teenagers swear as well (and drink alcohol and have sex) just like German or Australian teens. It’s just that their parents prefer to imagine that they don’t do such things. Never mind that being stranded on an alien world is an excellent reason to swear.

      I once had the word “bullshit” changed to “bull” in a story, because the magazine was a family market, as the editor informed me, and any but the mildest swearing was inacceptable. And here I was thinking that bullshit was mild. When I self-published the story, the original “bullshit” was the first thing I reinstated.

      Besides, I think you just have to deal with the outraged parties, because their worldview is so different it’s impossible to cater to. There have been several instances where someone, usually someone American, complained bitterly about all the awful sex and swearing in a book or film or TV episode and I was left wondering, “Wait a minute, did I miss something? Cause there was only some tasteful fade-to-black sex and no bad words I noticed. How the hell did everybody else get to see the porn version?”

      Germans are exactly the opposite BTW. Here you often find pundits or concerned viewers complaining about all the horrible violence and all those gory US crime dramas on primetime TV. And I always wonder, “What parallel universe do you live in and can I come and live there, too, cause the TV in mine is infernally boring?”

      • I remember that Gaiman story where he was told he couldn’t use ‘fuck’ in “Sandman”, so he changed it to ‘felch’, which is an infinitely more, ah, colourful word for a reader to look up in a dictionary.

        [I’ve also heard self-publishers putting out books in British English getting negative reviews for all the “typos” – colour, honour, etc.]

        • Cora says:

          I don’t remember which author it was, but a British author had fairly harmless international swearwords censored while some purely British terms that were a lot worse slipped through. A picture book for children by a German author was censored in the US, because a cartoon drawing of an art gallery included a millimeter long penis on a statue and a semi-abstract drawing of a naked woman the size of a postage stamp.

          My all-time favourite case of inexplicable censorship was when I tried to write “I was standing on the dyke today and saw ice floes drifting by” on some internet forum and “dyke” was censored for being a bad word, even though I used it in a perfectly acceptable context.

  2. Rebekah says:

    “Mark Lawrence, whose debut novel or rather a review thereof sparked off a not so flattering post about the current state of the fantasy genre in this blog a while ago”.

    You’re getting upset about the state of fantasy because of something one woman thought about one book you haven’t even read? is not gospel. You probably wouldn’t like Prince of Thorns, and it’s fine not to read it based on a review. But to expound on someone’s opinion and what it means for the genre without even taking the time to find out if her opinion is based in anything? Meh. That’s rumormongering at best.

    FYI, her review was wildly off base and she missed a lot about the book and the author’s intent. Two people can take something quite different out of the same book. Please do not take one review, however high-profile and powerful, as meaning that you understand the book or its place in a genre. If you don’t want to read the book, fine, but if you don’t, then please don’t talk about it.

    • Estara says:

      If you don’t want to read what she writes, don’t come to her blog and dictate what she should write about, just leave – no one is forcing you to read this.

      My two cents.

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  4. What do you think of this article on the US's influence on fiction?

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