They say, ‘Write what you know’. Or the world will see through you.
That’s all very fine and well, except when you turn out exceptionally beautiful prose in your unique and local dialect, which readers beyond the next mountain find difficult to understand.
Or in more general terms, America.
I know James Joyce, Roddy Doyle, Irvine Welsh and Dylan Thomas all found enormous acclaim (eventually) by turning their local dialects and idiosyncracies into stuff which somehow hit upon international sensibilities. But let’s face it, they are the exception rather than the rule.
Writing is a Business. Turnover is Essential
How about the rest of us? In a purely commercial sense, for those of us who may not be staring a Booker in the face any time soon, how accessible do our books have to be?
When your main character is at the supermarket, do they put their messages in the boot of the car, for instance, or do you find yourself typing their groceries into a trunk? Is your main character now a twenty-three year old American journalist working in Dallas, rather than the thirty-three year old London-based continuity announcer you had in mind when you sat down to write in the first place?
It’s a tough, tough question. I might write something that the folks in a little western pocket of my little western island would love. But I have to think about potential readership. In this post I suggested that an author writing in English could target 600 million potential instances of people picking up a book (which all feels very quantum) in the US alone. If I don’t make my book accessible to them, am I sabotaging my own success?
Starving For Your Art, Anyone?
And how far do we go down the global route without losing artistic integrity? Wasn’t Downton Abbey great telly altogether until it got big in the US, upon which point it UK creators thought realism and characterisation became secondary to spectacle and quick-fire resolution? (Even though this was seemingly to pander to a country which had already perfected the brilliance of slow drama with The Wire, Breaking Bad and even 24.)
Looking at Downton, you would think that writers need to trust their readers and viewers waaaaaaay more. They’re not stupid: they’ll get it, and you don’t need sparkly explosions every half hour to entertain people. But would E.L. James have reaped the GDP of a small indebted country if 50 Shades of Grey had been set in Slough? Would Roddy Doyle be as successful now if The Commitments hadn’t been made into a movie? And what if Ulysses hadn’t been banned?
If it’s all down to random events, perhaps we should just be true to our roots.
Tell you what, Authors. Write what you like.
I think you do have to write what you like Tara – or at least what you’d like to read on a wet day in November or on a long bus journey or lying on the beach or on a snatched break between the household chores.
I don’t think it would work otherwise. I am sure some “americanisms” might creep into what I write but if it does it’s from looking at so many American movies (there you go – when did I stop saying films?) and t.v dramas. I don’t think it would work if you were trying to write in someone else’s dialect because you wouldn’t be able to keep it up.
Your own voice would creep through and it would all seem very inconsistent altogether. And remember, “finding your voice” is one of the first things writers are told to aim at.
I think it’s not so much the americanisms creeping in, as understanding what people outside your own sphere might not understand… I could write about someone legging it into the square in their togs and taking the puck-out, for instance, but who outside Ireland would understand that I was talking about Hurling, one of our most popular sports? It’s hard to know where to draw the line, where to generalise, or where to let the beauty of our own dialects take over.
But we do have to write what we like: if we don’t write what we’d like to read ourselves, why would we expect anyone else to want to read it?!
I have been thinking this through also. My writing is Scottish based. I was born, raised and live in Scotland so don’t see why my writing should not reflect that. I realise that probably makes my scribbles undesirable reading for most readers outwith this little piece of north-west Europe. But then I think that if these people only want to read about the known that they are comfortable with, then that is sad. We have taken on board writing from all over the world, got to grips with Russian authors, South American, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, French, Irish, Chinese… Why do we expect potential readers to be unable to grasp our cultures. Yet the reality is we probably limit our readership by our culture…unless of course you can eventually become as lauded as Irvine Welsh or Iain Banks…or Colm Toibin.
Ah, but you see, when you talk about writing about Scotland, I immediately think “Ooh! I’d like to read about Scotland. I like Scotland.” Which is probably exactly what I’m missing when I think about my own stuff. A lot of people want to read about Ireland, too. And London. And Wyoming, and Alice Springs. We forget how interesting our insular stuff is, sometimes…
Coming from an acting background, I love accents and dialect. I think they add character and richness to prose, as long as you keep it genuine. I think Roddy Doyle, James Joyce and all the others succeeded exactly because they stayed true to their original vision. If you keep your focus on engaging your readers, you’ll find ways to help them understand the more obscure colloquialisms, either through the context or other characters. By the way, Tara, speaking of those outside your sphere, when I was little, ‘togs’ were swimming togs and I know very little about hurling – so I’m now getting visions of burly hurling players in their swimsuits streaming into a town square with their hurleys and hitting balls about. Completely wrong, I know, but very entertaining! And you and Joan are absolutely right – you have to write what you like. There’s just no point otherwise.
But in commercial fiction, how much room is there really, for stylistic stuff like dialect? If I’m writing chick-lit about an single thirty-something woman in a comedy-filled job with a shoe addiction, is there room for masses of colloquialisms, or do readers unfamiliar with that stuff find it taxing, an unnecessary leap from the story? Roddy and James are stars of the literary fiction world, with often lofty points to make.
On another note, would you understand it if I talked about that guy togging out instead? (Just checkin’) 🙂
I think you’re right about literary fiction – its aims are very different and can embrace cultural differences more easily perhaps. But commercial fiction has its jargon too. Which is presumably why we have genre fiction in the first place. For example, chick-lit aficionados won’t necessarily be familiar with the jargon and conventions of, say, science-fiction. Phoney or obtuse references designed to make a writer look clever or ‘on trend’ can turn even initiated readers off. Ultimately, I think a writer has to find his or her own voice and concentrate on communicating with their readers as best they can within their chosen style. I don’t think that means that car boots have to be called trunks, as long as it is clear to the uninitiated reader from the context what a car boot is. Regarding the second issue, getting togged out would mean putting on a set of clothes for a particular or special occasion to me, so it could describe a hurler getting into his match kit, but could also mean somebody getting ready for a night out or an interview. ‘Togs’ is another word for clothes, as such, I think my specifically connecting it with swimming is just a quirky childhood thing. I blame my parents.
This is a live topic for me at the moment as I’m revising my novel (set and written in Ireland) for a US agent and one of the requests was to make it more understandable to US readers so it works in UK and US market. And yes, I do have a hurling reference in it (which is staying).
Most changes were simple to make (although it helped that I’ve written a lot of non-fic and short fiction that found a US home) and it didn’t change the heart of the story one jot. I also got two lovely online US writing friends to scan for unclear Irish references.
It might still not sell, but actually I think the story works better now for readers everywhere and I’m happy with that.
I love reading stories from all over the place, and that applies to most readers, but there’s no point confusing them. This sort of tweaking can be done at the end, just write it your own way first.
Congratulations on having an agent ask you to internationalise it in the first place! You seem to have struck a nice balance without having to change the substance or style to any material degree… I think that’s important.
Readers still need to be trusted – perhaps more than your agent thinks. I might know hurling but I don’t know a single rule of American football and it never makes a difference to my understanding of American High School drama!