Going where few Romances have gone before
I confess being troubled over the recent discussion of how foreign settings don't sell novels in the romance genre.
So I'm in the middle of taking a Cultural Geography class through the University of Texas online, and recently I had to do an assignment on "mental maps." Mental maps are essentially the way in which you perceive the world. For example, even though you may have never been to inner city Detroit, London, or Dubai, Qatar, you have already have certain impressions which may be negative or positive about whether these are desirable places to live/visit.
This knowledge is generally shaped by second-hand knowledge in determining the favorability or unfavorability of an area, such as letters and emails sent home, television and newspaper reports as well as pop culture. For example, many in the United States might jump at the offer of free house and land to move to sunny California because of positive perceptions in pop culture. Fewer might take the offer if it were offered, say in Belize or Guatemala because of either lack of knowledge or perceptions of these tropical areas as poor third world countries, even though the climate, environment, social class and economy may be similar to that of a California suburb.
Very have the time nor resources to actually journey to particular places in order to discover the differences between first hand experience and second-hand knowledge. Instead, we find out about the outside world through what people tell us, like PaperBackWriter's recent blog where she writes:
Bad thing about leaving the USA: having to pretend to be Canadian so no one will spit in your food, or your face, or . . .
Now I'm not trying to say that her experience is not valid; it totally is, but reinforces the idea of "dangerous scary foreign lands" for many Americans who may have never been abroad. Countries as disparate as France, Russia, Senegal, Brazil all with different attitudes toward Americans are lumped into the "foreign" and "exotic" outside.
As a result, alot of Americans go to the Caribbeann for vacation, but far fewer might go to Thailand or Sri Lanka, based on perceptions of desirability and safety. In this way, perception based on second-hand knowledge rather than truth based on first-hand knowledge can play a greater role in determining factors in human migration. NYTimes columnist Thomas L. Friedman a few years ago, did a traveling column around the world to examine the effects of globalization. He went from all over the place from Asia to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, to Latin America. The only place he experienced anti-Americanism? In Iran, but not from Iranians (who were uncommonly polite) but from random French tourists sitting in a restaurant.
We generalize from a few anecdotes because that's all we hear and know. Yet if I were to generalize that Americans hate French people based on the anecdotes of hate mail and vandalism some of my French friends have received living in America, we know that that wouldn't be fais.
You can read a quick summary of mental maps here.
What does this say about insular Americans who only read about stories in America? Well you can read my take on the bottom of this post here. But I don't think it bodes well for the future of America at all. Women who read romance novels are the ones raising the next generation of kids. If we reinforce their sense of America as a singular entity, unconnected with the rest of the world, we are ill-preparing our children to deal with a globalized world. The fact is, every decision an ordinary American makes, from buying a t-shirt made in China, to buying organic soy milk made from beans grown in Brazil, to has a huge effect on people thousands of miles away. The world is only going to become more connected.
I'm going to continue setting my stories in Asia, Africa, and other "foreign" places. However, I'm going to have to work with the double-duty of luring the reader in, perhaps via the worlds of paranormals. I think that readers who read paranormals set in other worlds, should be more open to foreign settings. But I suppose we shall see won't we?
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has a post up today about romance novels featuring exotic settings here.
Teach me Tonight, a scholarly blog about romance has a post here about the branding romance novels and of the conservative conneissur-ism (not even sure if that's a word) of romance readers.