Books Israel

Foreign or Familiar? Does it matter?

I’ve read two recent blog posts about foreign settings in books – one by Rachelle Gardner, the other by Nicola Morgan.

In my son’s English class, when he was about nine, the pupils were made to read an American book written totally in a dialect I found hard to follow. My son didn’t understand it at all. When the same book was suggested for my younger son’s class, I complained and the book was changed.

There’s no point in reading a book you can’t understand, but as long as you can, does setting matter? Personally, I like to read about places I’ve never seen. I also like to read about places that are familiar.

What about other readers? Are they usually interested in books set in foreign places? Apparently, Americans are less willing to read books with foreign settings than readers in other countries.

I have another question about setting. I generally set my stories in England, where I used to live. I would like to write stories set in Israel, where I live now. But I think readers generally expect specific topics to appear in any book set in Israel: war, political conflict, etc. I think they believe Israel is one of those countries where it’s impossible to lead an ordinary life. Am I wrong?

By Miriam Drori

Author, editor, attempter of this thing called life. Social anxiety warrior. Cultivating a Fuji, edition 3, a poignant, humorous and uplifting tale, published with Ocelot Press, January 2023.

15 replies on “Foreign or Familiar? Does it matter?”

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. Rather the reader wants a great story, and to feel that the writer is fully in control of that story and the setting. So if the reader is likely to be unfamiliar then we need enough information about setting to make it real. (Think – The Kite Runner).

And there are so many more writers from different countries writing in English now (or well translated) that any reader limiting him/herself to familiar settings is missing out on some wonderful writing. Besides, human feelings transcend settings – it’s surely worth remembering we have more in common than the rivalries that divide us.

People think Australia should be about “the outback” and talk about koalas, kangaroos, people calling one another “mate” etc. Reality – almost everyone lives along the coastline, most of them in cities. Many Australians have never seen a koala or a kangaroo except in a zoo and “mate” is not a common form of address.
Personally I would be quite happy to read about an ordinary family in the suburbs of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem etc and if there were, to me, exotic mention of Sabbath rituals or a bar-mitzvah or a rabbi then that would just make it more interesting. I know that such a life exists though. It does not make a story on its own of course – and you know that – but it can be the setting for one, What we have to do is convince other people of this.

Hi Miriam. Another though provoking post. The issue of location is very real for me. I too live in country with troubles in it’s recent past. Mention Ireland and in particular Belfast and instantly one hits barriers. Mostly with agents and publishers. I had one very promising contact with an agent who said: “Great story, powerful and thrilling but I can’t sell “troubles’ novels. Everyone is sick of that. ” (It really wasn’t a troubles novel.)
At the time there were three big time movies out set during the troubles! (All rubbish in my humble opinion.)
The other bug is called “Irish interest.” A tag I’ve tried to avoid. That often means US Irish Americans viewing Ireland through green tinted nostalgia glasses. If one is offering an Irish setting but not caricature Irishness then it is a struggle.
My novel Prairie Companions had a good agent response but she asked me to shift the location from the Candaian Prairies to the US equivalent. “An easier sell,” she said.
In other words let the market dictate what you write.
No. I will not do that, can’t do that. I write what I know and where I know and anyone who does otherwise usually fails to convince me as reader.
I choose to go Indi so I can be free of these constraints but I know I will lose sales and the biggest market – the US – will have lower sales than if I bowed to pressure and had US settings.
So be it. There are enough non-parochial readers in the US and elsewhere to support my modest ambition so I say: Write what and where you know. Be true to yourself and do not be overly concerned about readers with limited vision and narrow horizons. There are enough market-led writers to cater for them.
Regards, davidrory.

Neil Gaiman approached this subject somewhat when he defended himself in the author’s notes of American Gods in the “how dare an Englishman write an American novel” section.

I think you may be right. Americans tend to not want to have their books set in other countries. However, I think that this is changing. Exotic locations such as Dubai, Europe, and the orient are showing an increasing share in fiction. Some of this has to do with a population that is growing more and more diverse with each census.

Ooh, I don’t believe that about Israel, and I’d love to read a book set in an Israel that isn’t about war and politics, but shows more of ordinary Israeli life. Then again, I’m Canadian, and I’m writing a book that opens in Toronto and doesn’t even mention snow, so who knows how well that will do? πŸ˜‰

I don’t think readers have specific expectations about location, they just want to read a good story. Writing about everyday life in Israel could balance the picture readers get from CNN. Go for it.

I’m interested in reading books set in other countries too, I don’t think they have to be set in the US for me to enjoy it. As long as the language was clear like you say and any foreign words or slang was translated or explained I think it would be great!

A really good question – I’ve just moved to New Zealand from England and I’m at the start of a novel, which I’m basing in England. However I am purposely making some of the settings generic (or not focusin too much on them) so that I could easily relocate it to NZ.

I enjoy reading books set in other countries. I am bilingual, so I particularly like books set in Italy. I love to read the local color, it’s fun to read what Italian words they incorporate into the story (and be careful, people like me can’t stand it when you misspell words in the language or fracture grammar).
On the other hand, I have also read a lot of books set in countries other than Italy. In this case, I look for a glossary for all the foreign words I do not know and if there isn’t one, it is terribly disappointing because I don’t know what they mean! Other than that, I love reading about other cultures and have read books about people in places (fiction and non fiction) all over the world.

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