We’re not in Kansas Anymore

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m in the Hilton at Chicago O’Hare airport typing this post so apologies if I don’t get to comments until late Monday as I’ll be flying home from the Historical Novel Society conference. I had a lovely time because for once I didn’t feel like the nerd in the room full of cool thriller writers:)…okay so I still felt like a nerd, it just wasn’t quite as obvious…

On Sunday I moderated a panel on writing about non-Western cultures with a terrific line-up of panelists: Michelle Moran, Jade Lee, Kamran Pasha and Eileen Charbonneau. Of all the (fabulous, of course!) questions I asked, the one that struck me the most related to resistance within publishing houses to publishing books about non-Western cultures. Not surprising but saddening none the less. For most of the panelists, publication sprung from the faith of the one cool editor out there who fell in love with the project and was determined to see it succeed. That’s true for most writers but still the need to justify and convince the marketing and sales force of the commercial viability of such a project remains a unique challenge for the writer of a ‘non-Western’ book.

What I think depressed me the most (though I have to confess much of what the agents, editors and fellow published writers were saying at the conference about the state of the publishing industry was depressing) was the sad truth that in bad economic times most readers want to escape to something they are comfortable with – which usually means something they can easily relate to culturally. I guess readers want the comfy old sweatshirt rather than the exotic shirt they can’t seem to button up. For me, when I start worrying about the economy, I re-read English favorites like the Brontes or Jane Austen with a nice hot cup of tea in my hand – so I readily admit I’m just as bad (though I hope I’m forgiven because I usually have wider, culturally diverse tastes!)

As was evident from our discussion, one of the driving forces behind most of the writers on the panel was a desire to overcome stereotypes (and in Kamran’s case overwhelmingly negative ones regarding Muslims) and to help inform readers about the true nature of a culture which remains to many readers both foreign and inaccessible.

Which brings me to some questions for you all: In a sales driven market, how can writers help broaden the publishing industry’s cultural horizons? What makes a so-called alien culture (and I don’t mean sci-fi or fantasy) accessible for you as a reader?

Despite the economic times, I think we need tolerance and cultural understanding now more than ever. Before I embrace the blogosphere with a group hug (okay, I’m sleep deprived, so cut me some slack here…) I also want to know how do you think readers, writers and the publishing industry can help bridge the cultural divide?

Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

10 thoughts on “We’re not in Kansas Anymore

  1. You’re right, Clare. Most of us avoid leaving our comfort zones unless we get strong recommendations from trusted friends. Some examples are THE ALCHEMIST by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho and Khaled Hosseini’s THE KITE RUNNER and A THOUSAND SPLINDID SUNS. I think what has to apply is the same thing we all keep repeating here on the blog: the story comes first. If it’s truly a great story such as SLUM DOG MILLIONAIRE, it will bridge the cultural divide by touching the hearts of the audience.

  2. I think even in rough economic times, readers are looking for an escape. An escape can be a comfortable reunion with a beloved book (Jane Austin, etc.) or it can be transportation to someplace new and exotic. It’s all how you present the idea (sell it) to the publisher.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. For me, the secret to bonding with a different culture in fiction is to make the culture secondary to common human emotions. In addition to the examples Joe cites, I think also of SHO-GUN by Clavell, which was first and foremost an adventure story.

    But I think it’s important to note that within each of the examples cited in the comments (except maybe THE ALCHEMIST, which I didn’t read), the books themselves paid service to the stereotypes held by the reader. The Taliban of THE KITE RUNNER and the Japanese of SHO-GUN were every bit as brutal as the stereotypes portray. The caste system of India, which I thought was supposed to have been undone, is on display in high relief in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

    So, Clare, stretching your analogy (or is it a metaphor?) I think an exotic shirt is welcome, so long as it comes with a comfy fleece lining.


  4. Wow, lots of conferences this last weekend. I was at the Horror Writers Association Stoker Weekend, but I also dropped in on the California Crime Writers’ Conference and caught Robert Crais’s keynote speech.

    He said what we all know but always seem to forget: “It doesn’t MATTER what’s going on out there. Write your passion.”

    That’s how we expand readers’ horizons.

  5. I had a detailed comment half-written in my head before I sawe John beat me to it. There are a lot of human similarities shared across all ethnic and national groups. Love of family, honor, gteed, love/lust, too many to mention. How these are acted on differs from society to society, but the core things don’t vary all that much. People will appreciate a mother’s love for her child whether she’s in Baton Rouge or Bangkok.

  6. Yes, indeed, John and Dana! Kamran Pasha held us in thrall with his story of the bonds of love and friendship from Mother of the Believers and Jade Lee had us all close to tears on the crippling effects of her great-grandmother’s footbinding. Mitakuye oyasin..we are all related! The panel was a wonderful time together thanks in large part to your author wrangling skills, Clare…thank you!

  7. I was also at the California Crime Writers’ Conference this weekend, Alex – I agree that what Robert Crais said was very inspiring. It was a great conference, by the way!

  8. Great comments everyone – I’m definitely wiped after the flight hope – getting up at 4am and not being able to sleep on the plane because of a baby next to me (as they had to keeping getting up with her – she was really good) will do that for you. I agree that a great story grabs us over any divide and I love the idea of the exotic T-shirt with the fleece lining:)

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