SF FROM THE RIM:
WRITING FOR AMERICANS VS. WRITING FOR “FOREIGNERS”
By Guy Hasson
Having spent my childhood in both the U.S. and Israel, I am a man who belongs to both cultures and yet remains an outsider in both. I am an author of – and for – two cultures. When writing a story or a book, I consciously write stories that would easily fit the two different audiences I know. This allows for an interesting perspective, which I hope to explore here: Writing for Americans vs. Writing for Israelis (or, on a wider scale, ‘foreign countries’).
THE RACE OF THE CHARACTERS
The American audience needs strong justification for the lead character not to be an American.
The American audience as a whole (not everyone) sees the U.S. as the center of the world in which, naturally, almost all important things happen. The archetypical protagonist is American.
Non-American characters are exotic to the American audience. It is harder to connect with them, it is harder to feel they are ‘one of us’, and in any case, an explanation is always necessary in the back of the reader’s mind. The author needs to subtly-or-otherwise explain his choice of foreign protagonist within the story.
The foreign audience needs strong justification for the lead character to be of that country.
While the Americans subconsciously see themselves as an empire and in the center of the world, people in most other countries see their own countries as part of a greater whole, usually dependent on America’s (or, in the past, the Soviet Union’s) foreign aid, dependent on other countries’ protection, and equipped with a regional bad blood (usually) that goes back thousands of years. People of most ‘foreign’ countries feel subconsciously that they are in a country that is but a cog in a greater complex.
Add to the mix the fact that more than 95% of the most influential and powerful literary and cinematic SF has historically come from the U.S. and the U.K. and you’ll understand why the audiences of other countries are preconditioned to see the dwellers of the English-speaking world as the natural protagonists of most SF stories.
And so to write protagonists that are ‘foreign’ (meaning ‘native to the country in which the books/stories are written’) the author needs a strong justification why the story can only be moved forward using a non-traditional hero. The author needs to show the audience that no other character of any other country could possibly have been the main character.
SEXUAL AND POLITICAL TABOOS
Different cultures have different sexual, political, and moral taboos. Authors are sometimes interested in pushing the envelope on one or more of these taboos. In trying to write for two cultures simultaneously, the author has to find a way to bring both audiences to the moral starting point of his story.
The trick is for the author to realize that when he’s stepping over a line, he’s stepping over a line. As long as he is aware of it, he will treat it in a manner that befits it (gently or crudely, understanding the reader’s difficulty or being ‘in your face’ about it; letting the characters join in on how hard it is to cross the line or in letting the characters step over the line and discover that they’ve done it and it’s not so bad; etc.) There are many ways to help the readers along a new moral path.
The American audience, for example, comes from a more repressed sexual upbringing/morality, and yet American SF authors (like Silverberg, Heinlein, and Pohl, to name but a few) have brought in sexual content more extreme than their readers were ready for. These authors took their readers’ existing morality, and helped them down new paths. In writing for at least two cultures, the author has to subtly do the work for two readerships, not one.
MIDDLE CLASS WOES VS. REAL LIFE WOES
The American SF audience prefers reading about middle class woes.
Most of American SF fans have a pretty good life. They live in the richest country in the world, they are usually not homeless or in a position in which they must physically fight for their lives. Most SF literature (and cinema) comes from a point of view that describes the small woes of a life that is generally good. This is true even when describing SF conditions that are harsh. Since the audience doesn’t ‘connect’ with the harshness, neither do the characters. Reading or seeing about the true harshness of homelessness, rape, war, etc. is not the cup of tea for most readers although there are, always, a few exceptions.
The foreign SF audience prefers reading about harsh woes and/or non-existent woes
Life in foreign countries is harder, and the potential readers are usually faced with harsher daily news and harsher events of the day. In addition, life (job, money, family) is usually a greater struggle. Many countries have been exposed to dictatorships, civil unrest, poverty, violence, war, or terrorism on a much grander scale than American citizens have. Life is harder, and therefore SF literature is usually about harsher subjects and certainly not about middle class woes. The opposite side of this is that sometimes an audience that lives in a harsh life prefers escapist literature.
My own solution for this dichotomy: in writing stories for both cultures I either write about middle class woes in a way that is seen as escapist in other cultures or about harsher woes while leading the audience there in a way described above in the morality section.
WRITING ABOUT THE FUTURE
The future for the American audience is relatively stable.
The Americans live on a rather stable tectonic political plate. Even big events like the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, the Cuba crisis, and 9/11 did little in the overall run to change the inertia of the American future. The American readers feel the present as a relatively stable one, and therefore writing about the future for the American audience is not a problem.
The future for the foreign audience is less stable.
This depends on the country. Since Israel is the ‘foreign’ country in question, writing about the long-term future for the Israeli audience is a big problem. Political and regional realities change every two years or so in major ways: Peace breaks out, war breaks out, terrorism breaks out, life-changing elections break out, nuclear war might break out in a couple of years, etc. These change the political landscape and with it the landscape of the future. What seems a reasonable assumption when you write a story becomes ridiculously outdated by the time the story is published.
This has been a small, short glimpse into the mind of an author with a dual perspective. Feel free to check out two of my stories, reprinted at Infinity Plus, and see the duality that exists in them: ‘Her Destiny’ and ‘The Dark Side’.
I hope you enjoy your new dual perspective.
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