On the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling

- 82 comments

[I’ve had this blog post in the queue for a bit, but was never in a position to publish it because I was too busy dealing with a zillion other things.
In case anyone is wondering, it’s definitely NOT related to my two-week stay in the US (which was stupendous), but rather to an over-consumption of Hollywood movies and particularly horrendous US books that dates back to before Worldcon]

OK, I apologise in advance: this is going to be a bit of a rant. It’s going to be reductive, like all rants; ie it’s going to have a number of sweeping pronouncements that do not apply to individuals or individual groups. But…

In short, I’m tired of being invaded by US culture. I’m tired of US tropes being cited as the norm (even when it’s obvious that the rest of the world doesn’t follow such tropes), of bookshelves featuring translations from US writers and movies following standard Hollywood fare–of the one-way street which means the US sets the tune for the rest of the world, and that anything that looks remotely worthy from non-US countries is given a local remake for those who can’t stand to watch dubbed or subtitled movies (guess what–we watch dubbed/subtitled US movies all the time in France). I’m tired of the way US culture and tropes have so pervaded popular culture that we no longer even question them, or even recognise them–and, worse, that people outside the US are actively aping them in search of the so-called “universal stories” [1].

And before you ask, yes, I know those are tropes, and I know that not *all* US books/movies/series follow them, just like not all French books feature, say, bumbling bosses or people going on strike–and that not all groups or minorities in the US agree with those tropes. I’m just commenting on something that, for good or evil, the US has managed to export abroad (thank you, Hollywood) and therefore is the perception of US storytelling from my window, and the window of a great deal many people in the world.

I’m tired of plots that value individualism and egotism above all else; of heroes that always have to be the masters of their own fates, to be active and not take anything that life deals at them lying down (whereas most of the time, we lie down, we accept, we deal with what we have been given); of heroes that have to be strong and only take marginal help from others to solve their own problems; of heroes that have a destiny, and of movies and books in which breaking up with all traditions is good so long as one finds and follow one’s own path (there are a lot of cultures where breaking up with traditions isn’t necessarily a good thing, and no, this doesn’t mean that they’re evil and backward). I’m tired of how genre(s) put(s) a disproportionate value on heroes who are active and not passive (and, by extension, belittles and dismisses every use of passive voice, and always asks for sentences to be frenetically punchy); of how the most important thing that can happen to a person is to be “given their own story”, as stories weren’t made up of a mosaic of people all interacting together; of how teams exist only either as a background and foil for a single hero, or as a compendium of individuals, each fighting to be outdo each other in stupid displays of heroism (yes, X-men, I’m looking at you).

I’m tired of the casual acceptance of violence as a valid answer to anything, of the proliferation of guns in movies and books, of how it’s always acceptable to go face the bad guys with a sword or a pistol instead of seeking a peaceful resolve. I am sick of the redefinition of narrative as violence, of how everything has to be a conflict in order to be valid–even to the point of defining conflict “against yourself”, which contributes to trivialising the use of the word “conflict”, not to mention twist it far beyond its original meaning. I don’t want my stories to be only about blowing things up, or about good guys facing off bad guys, and dispatching them while stubbornly refusing to think about the ethics of killing, and the fact that the world seldom comes in black-and-white. I want violence to have consequences, both for those who have recourse to it, and for its victims; not to be something you can shrug off in the morning as if it never happened.

I don’t want stories in which the main character has to be sympathetic and with the moral high ground [2] in order to be worthwhile; in which people have to change in order for the plot to be significant; in which women exist only to be sidelined or as surrogate men. I don’t want stories that can be described in neat little boxes, or novels which can be reduced to a high concept and a series of story arcs (and, especially, I don’t want to hear about the Hero’s Journey, or the Three-Act Plot, or the Thirty-Six or Fifty-Five Basic Plots as if they were all some kinds of Holy Gospel). I want novels which can be complex and organic like life itself, and which don’t have to be neatly pigeon-holed in order to be read and enjoyed.

Also, I am tired of people assuming that US notions of racism and class apply everywhere in the world, including in Europe [3]; that minorities from the US are equivalent to and in the same situation as people from non-Western countries; that it’s always better morally speaking to say things bluntly, as long as they are truthful and heartfelt (where I come from–both sets of cultures–if you do that, you’re a lout and a boor. I was taught to always be graceful–which doesn’t mean you can’t be pointed and/or truthful when the situation calls for it. Sarcasm and pointed allusions are always part of my repertoire, and unless the person facing me is really thick, they’ll get that I’m annoyed/hurt/angry).

And, finally, here’s a bevy of tropes that are NOT universal:
-Serial killers obsessed with killing young women in titillating ways. Sorry, nope. That’s Ted Bundy legacy. Our most infamous French serial killers prayed on old women and killed for money.
-Superheroes. Seriously. Those people forming justice leagues and trying to save the world by battling supervillains? They’re a quintessential US trope, and no amount of retconning local figures such as Adèle Blanc-Sec into the framework is going to erase that fact. And yes, there are superheroes elsewhere, and some terrific stories involving them, but remember what I said about tropes being adopted abroad?
-US people coming to a foreign country and being more talented than the locals at solving their own problems (I’d cite books, but there are way too many of those). Bonus points in sarcasm if the book or movie completely fails to get the local culture right (again, I’d cite books, but way too many of those. We can start with how Dan Brown messed up Parisian geography in The Da Vinci code, and work up from there).
-Plots featuring America as the centre of the world, where aliens land near LA–and decisions are made in NYC for the entire world. Speaks for itself…

There is more, but I think I’ve ranted enough. Feel free to comment (but do play by the rules of civility). I will be around, but I’m a. moving flats and b. trying to focus on my writing at the moment, which means I might also be lagging a little behind…


[1]I’m not saying that the use of all those tropes equals crap stories–there are some very good stories out there that make use of them. I just want to point out that they’re hardly universal, and I’m personally in favour of other local tropes being used, rather than copying stuff from the US.
[2] Especially since “moral high ground” has different values for different people (I don’t think it’s bad to make the best of a bad situation, for instance, but there’s a subset of US tropes that think it’s far better to die while attempting to change said situation)
[3] Don’t mistake me. There is plenty of racism in France and in Europe. It just doesn’t follow the same fracture lines as in the US, and class is very much a bigger factor in France or in Europe than it is in the US. Also (and unlike the US), French racism hasn’t been so heavily shaped by discrimination against people of colour (we have racism against Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans–and our latest wave of racism is against Maghrebi, all of which are considered White by US standards), so the whole White/PoC dichotomy is just… not applicable as is where I live?
And finally, at least in France, ethnic identities are just not as strong as in the US, so people don’t identify themselves as “fifth-generation Chinese-French”, for instance. They’re just French. (We can argue about whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s a different dynamic).

(with many thanks to Tricia Sullivan, for encouraging me to put this into words and helping me with the first draft of this; and for Alisa Krasnostein, for sparking our twitter conversation on serial killers in mysteries)

(picture credits: Ami’s on flickr)

82 comments

  1. This is really interesting, Aliette. I was drawn to Octavia Butler when I was younger precisely because she deconstructed individualism and notions of “freedom” that I took for granted as American values–and she did it while remaining a very American writer. My wife recently read some of Butler’s stuff and we had a lovely discussion about the way in which she really opens your mind, in a way that all sf is supposed to but doesn’t necessarily, to the possibilities of post-human life.

  2. Interesting! Do you have any title recommendations?

  3. Yes. This. I think I agree with just about every word here.

    Although… side rant… DUBBED movies? I abhor dubbing (the only exception was the dub of Subway where Christopher Lambert dubbed Christophe Lambert – but everyone else was appallingly dubbed). I lasted less than a minute into a dubbed “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” the other evening.

    Subtitles. Subtitles – even badly translated, which happens – are ineffably superior to dubbing (I’ve watched subtitled movies within the past year or so from Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Chile, France, Germany, Thailand, China, Japan, Finland, Kazakhstan, Sweden). It’s a movie; you’re watching the screen anyway, so there’s no reason to dub. Besides, subtitles allow you to translate visual things in movies like newspaper headlines – try dubbing those…

    End side rant.

  4. Aliette, this is pure gold, and thanks for saying it. I’ll rebroadcast via Panverse. And to quote Zoran Zivkovich “In the rest of the world, writers write what they want; in the US, they write what the publishers want.” Whether anyone LISTENS is a moot point, as I think the market has become so desensitized and is so used to marching in lockstep that nobody has the brains left to question ANY of the assumptions that the suits who run Hollywood and much of publishing make. I’m especially grateful for your not sparing the detailsin your skewering–items like the assumptions about character change, the obsessive use active voice, the need for there always to be a conflict… hell, even the need for a nicely tied-up ending… The net result of all this is a flattening-out of the form, the McDonaldization of fiction. My hope is that people, especially READERS, pay attention and question their assumptions; my fear is that it’s too late, and that commercial forces will trump respect for Art, every time.

  5. Great post, and I agree wholeheartedly – as an American. I’ve railed against the unoriginal plots, retreads, patently getting it wrong, gratuitous violence, heroes against all odds, we are the center of the universe, and other absurdities of Hollyweird for a long time. Here’s one American author trying to change that paradigm, one novel at a time.

  6. I’d hardly call this a rant. This is thoughtful, considered, and very well argued.

    Americans tend to assume that their current set of values — individualistic, egoistic, nationalistic — are universal. They tend to see differences of class as easily overcome because in the American national narrative anyone can strive to overcome any obstacle. This is how Americans tell themselves, for example, that the national history of racism was overcome by the striving of Martin Luther King (who had a dream).

    I encounter, every day, assumptions about the universality of American experience that exasperate me. But, if I were to move back to the UK, I don’t doubt I’d find that they’d be replaced by equally vapid assumptions about the universality of British experience. I don’t share them because I’ve lived large chunks of my life elsewhere. Indeed, much of my life has been lived in places that are ‘elsewhere’.

  7. Spencer: I loved Butler as well because she was so different; but, as you say, she’s still within the US “norm”, if there is such a thing. I love what Haikasoru is doing in bringing more Japanese SF over to the US; and I hope there will be more stuff like that in the future. One of the things which saddens me about SF is that it’s supposed to open your mind to the universe, but that a lot of it is really a hashing of the same old US tropes (which is either saddening or scary, come to think of it).

  8. Joe: thanks!

    Uh, reading recs… Translated genre fiction is really hard to find, but off the top of my head: Harmony by Project Itoh, or any of Haikasoru’s lineup, for Japanese SF, Lukyanenko’s Night Watch quartet for Russian urban fantasy, Pierre Pevel The Cardinal’s Blades and sequels for French historical fantasy (and A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud for French short fiction), anything by Zoran Zivkovic (the Library, for instance) for Serbian, Carlos Ruiz Zafon for Spain (but you already know him, no doubt), J. Damask’s Wolf at the Door for Singaporean Urban Fantasy, Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland and Zoo City for South African SF, Anil Menon’s The Beast with Nine Billion Feet and anything by Vandana Singh for India, Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief for Finland, Charles Tan’s Philippine Speculative Fiction series, …
    (also probably worth trying UK/Aus/NZ/Canadian authors, but I don’t pay enough attention to know which ones aren’t too US-inspired)

    Can I suggest you head over to the World SF blog: http://worldsf.wordpress.com/ . There’s plenty of good stuff there. Jeff VanderMeer is also spearheading efforts to translate more fiction into English, and Cheryl Morgan has set up awards for translated work (http://www.sfftawards.org/, and see their list of nominated works here for 2010: http://www.sfftawards.org/?page_id=445)

  9. Brian: ooh, sorry, I forgot to add subtitled to the movie thing. All fixed now, thanks for pointing it out. I also abhor dubs, though it’s a little hard to watch subtitled movies with everyone (my parents-in-law, for instance, are vastly more at ease with dubbed, while I stare incongruously at the way the characters’ mouths fail to move in time with their speech…)

  10. Dario: aw, thanks so much! I remember we talked about this at your house, and it’s definitely disheartening to see how uniformised the market is getting (while being totally unaware of this, which is what I find scary). Especially since some publishers’ idea of “what sells” seems off compared to the actual market. I sure hope it’s not too late…

  11. I wrote a piece during the 2007 writers guild strike that touches on a lot of the issues you bring up here, i’ve unlocked it for reading. What you are talking about is the kind of stories that actually get made in the US, which is not the same thing as the stories that there are, and its about maintaining a particular type of story that lots of people within the us are marginalized by.

    I also just want to say that I have to really disagree that maghrebi are considered white in the US.

  12. Jonathan: thanks! Glad I’m not the only one 🙂

  13. Fragano: oh, totally. I also get exasperated by some French assumptions that French values apply everywhere. However, I have to admit that the French are hardly in a position to export many of those assumptions abroad–unlike the US… The bit that worries me most is not that cultures are self-centred, but the fact that the US is in a position to impose those values abroad, and does so without realising it (though I have to admit I’ve seldom seen self-centredness on the scale of the US. Every time I go there, I’m shocked at how US-focused the news are, and how little space there is for the rest of the world).

  14. What you are talking about is the kind of stories that actually get made in the US, which is not the same thing as the stories that there are, and its about maintaining a particular type of story that lots of people within the us are marginalized by.
    Delux: oh yes, totally. But as I said–it’s the face that the US presents to the world, and that’s where my problem is.
    RE the Maghrebi. Ah? I have no experience on this, I mostly based it on the races recognised by the census. Where do they fit in, in the general scheme of things?

  15. I totally agree with you on the racism-classism issue – I’ve found myself getting into arguments online with Americans who can’t seem to understand that a) I’m describing _my_ experience as a Brit and b) that it is very different from theirs *sigh*

    I have to disagree about “conflict”, though – it may have taken on the meaning of “argument”, even “a prolonged armed struggle”, but to me its primary meaning is the older one: “an incompatibility between opinions, principles, etc”. A character in conflict with himself is trying to reconcile two incompatible motivations, which I think is the most interesting story there is.

  16. Joe, a good place to begin is James and Kathryn Morrow’s ‘The SFWA European Hall of Fame’. Highly recommended.

  17. …as stories weren’t made up of a mosaic of people all interacting together; of how teams exist only either as a background and foil for a single hero, or as a compendium of individuals, each fighting to be outdo each other in stupid displays of heroism (yes, X-men, I’m looking at you).

    You’ve just nailed why the Mission Impossible movies are awful while the original TV show was awesome. The TV show was about a team working together. There was no glory, no drama….everyone just did their part and rode away in the van together…

  18. Anne: I usually avoid those arguments, but that’s because I have a hard time with arguments in general… On the “conflict” thing, I totally agree with the original meaning; however, a lot of the writing advice I’ve seen starts out by defining conflict as a variant of armed struggle, and then extends it to characters fighting themselves, which I find problematic?
    Dario: yup. That, and the Apex Book of World SF, very good sources for short fiction.
    Jeannette: I hated the Mission Impossible movies (never seen the TV show, though. Sounds like I should give that a try…)

  19. Aliette, there’s the census, and then there’s the FBI and the police. Racial profiling of arab/north african men is a national hobby now.

  20. sorry i cant edit comments but here is an aclu report on racial profiling http://www.aclu.org/FilesPDFs/racial%20profiling%20report.pdf

  21. You must have read How to Read Donald Duck [see wiki http://goo.gl/Eme8T

  22. Re Superheroes: in their most well known form in US culture, they emerged in comic books in the inter-war years. I seem to remember Fantomas being a bit earlier than that. And wasn’t he, er, French? And, yes, I have seen quite a lot of the Fantomas serials.

    How do your list of tropes in American fiction apply to, just as one example, Philip K Dick? Dick is widely recognised as one of the most significant writers (not just in science fiction) of the second half of the 20th Century. I don’t see any of your dominant tropes actually dominating a lot of sf (or modern literature more generally). For example, where are they in Ballard’s work? OK, Ballard was British, but he was in some ways enamoured of aspects of US culture (freeways, airports, cars). Many of your criticisms actually apply far more to cinema (or, to be accurate, Hollywood cinema since, say, the eighties) than literature.

  23. You know what, Aliette? Maybe it’s not just the beauty of your prose that makes me like your fiction so much, but the fact that your fiction does such a good job of demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be they way you rant about…

  24. Hi Aliette,

    Really enjoyed your post. As someone said, not a rant, but a logically laid out argument.

    I’m an Australian writer who also teaches first year UNI students who to write a film treatment. Even though I have a lecture specifically on Australian Film my students put in a large percentage of treatments set in the US. About 40% of their treatmetns would be fantasy/ Far future SF/Historical. This rest are set in our time and world/alternate world, but 95% of them are set in the US.
    I ask the kids, why did you choose the US as a setting? Have you lived there? They seem to feel the story is more valid if it is set in the US. Sometimes it is. eg. A terrorist attack. Because after all, most people don’t even know what the captial of Australia is.

    I also like your comments on films where everything is solved with violence. Sigh. I feel disconected with many stories because of this.

  25. Oops, hit the wrong button before I could proof read. Sorry.

  26. Delux: ah, OK. Not quite like our brand of racism (there’s a lot more to our unease than the fear of terrorism, notably the fact that we feel “invaded” by Muslim cultural values). But I definiteky see your point. Thanks for the links!
    Jane: actually, no. But this sounds like something I should try!

  27. Chris: when I talk about superheroes, I am using the definition most of the world is using by now, which is the comic-book one (people with special abilities or powers, not necessarily supernatural–Batman, for instance, has no powers, but some freaky technology at his disposal, and his opponents have superpower). By that definition, Fantomas is not a supervillain (sorry, just can’t see him as a superhero): the scale of his criminal empire is indeed megalomaniac, but he doesn’t have anything special other than charisma (which hardly counts).
    I would argue that what I’m complaining about is most evident (because most caricatural) in Hollywood movies and TV series, but that it’s also found in an awful lot of SF/F books as an implied assumption.I have not read enough Dick to comment, and I don’t think Ballard is the right example–inasmuch as he was enamoured of American culture, he remained a British writer, and as such he would not have such heavy subconscious reliance on such tropes. But I can discuss it with other writers: Vogt, for instance, has the quintessential American SF with his Weapon Shops of Isher (the right to bear arms as a facilitator to freedom is something that just has no sense in Europe). Similarly, the World of Null-A is completely focused on Gilbert Gosseyn, who turns out to have an amazing destiny (and no one else in the story has even close to decent characterisation). John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is, hum, pretty much all about war as a way to solve scarcity problems? (it’s a good book in this genre, I’m not criticising it, but it does use violence as a strong motor, just like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers). A lot of American SF similarly takes it as granted that we’ll be dragged into conflicts with the aliens that we meet; and I’ve lost count of books which had wholly and unreservedly evil antagonists (Minnericht in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, the villains in Feed, Baron Harkonnen in Dune, most of the Pantheon in Lord of Light, the Farthing set in Farthing… ) Most epic fantasies take violence as the matter-of-fact way to solve problems (under the cover of “medieval times were violent, so we can have free violence!”); and an awful lot of them place more value on heroes proving their personal worth (often by killing someone) than on their taking their place in the community . Don’t have specific examples as most of those books are in boxes now, but M.K. Hobson’s The Native Star comes to mind.

  28. Floris: 🙂 Thanks!
    Rowena: not surprised (a bit saddened, but not surprised). Our French series aren’t set in the US, but they’ve started to mimic US formats.
    And yes, I don’t mind violence, but I hardly think it’s a constructive way to solve problems…

  29. Wow, you got a lot of responses to this one!

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who is fed up with American culture. Granted, I’m still an American and there are certain aspects I like…such as our optimism. But I am tired of the streak where our protagonists–and we–have to be independent in order to consider ourselves of worth, as if we are the only ones on the planet.

    Yeah, I guess you’ve figured out that we are all still a bunch of cowboys. Or really, no– It goes back farther than that. It goes back to the groups of people who fled their countries and came here, looking to take back control of their lives or seek a plot of land where they could be themselves. Highly individualistic and independent. We’ve been raised from those roots. Kind of like how we like to joke about Australians being descended from outlaws and so being a rougher sort of people. But yeah, we really do fit our own stereotypes.

    Anyway, I’m doing what I can to change things. Small things, like posting on my blog about the value of interdependence over independence. And writing the stories I yearn for. (Unfortunately, hard to change things when your voice is hard to hear.)

    I’m also translating a French classic historical fantasy, to try to widen our scope on other cultures. One of the main problems with our literature-in-translation field is that everything is priced ridiculously expensively. If literature in translation were priced the same as a normal book more often and if translators actually made any money, then more people would do it. As it is, literary translators don’t even make as much as writers, despite the high price of the book. If they did, things could change.

    Or, you know, if literature-in-translation stopped being used for textbooks and started being a pleasure read, there would be a larger market for them.

    (German literary translators and their publishers are starting to get this right. I’ve seen several German fantasies sitting on regular SF&F bookshelves).

    Or if we stopped budget-cutting language programs out of schools.

    Also, speaking of schools– unlike France, we have very few places that train translators. There’s a government translation school in Monterrey, and then there are about three other schools that train for the scholarly field. There’s one school I think in literary translation, and one certificate program for business translation. That’s it in the whole nation. The ATA is working to change things, but it’s slow going.

    Things would be a lot easier if we didn’t pride ourselves in being separate from the rest of the world until World War I. Then again, I’ve lived in a country that refuses to even CALL The United States of America a country. We’re far too young for them. :p

    …And yet, all of this has happened before. When Italy was the prominent power, then France, then England, then us. Who next? Whose strengths and weaknesses will we all hasten to emulate in the future? China? That seems to be everyone’s guess.

    Anyway, I’m planning a historical fiction set in France in a time period that is utterly undervalued by the anglophone world and a contemporary fantasy set in Armenia, both countries I’ve lived/worked in and have fallen in love with. Of course, there’s only so much I can do… Especially since, being American, if I write something set somewhere else and get it wrong, I’m going to be perpetuating the American “know-it-all/has a right to everything” view. *sigh* The knife cuts two ways.

    (This got longer than I expected, but I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot, too…. Thanks for posting!)

  30. Re: Geography
    Well, you can at least take some comfort in the fact that many movies are shot in a “city” in the US that is really a different city, or, perhaps worse, shot in the actual city in such a way that it makes the geography all wrong.

    Re: Conflict
    I didn’t realize conflict, and overcoming adversity, was such an American thing. It’s what makes a story interesting, for me – the bumps and bruises and battles along the way. I do understand that other cultures value cooperation over the triumph of the individual; but in the case of superheroes, for example, I suppose I see it as much more the success of an idea, rather than a person.

  31. Indeed. Food for thought for readers as well as writers.

  32. What Rowena describes reminds me of Chimamanda Adichibe’s TED talk, The Dangers of a Single Story: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html. She grew up in eastern Nigeria reading British and American children’s books, and so when she started writing, she wrote about white children who played in the snow and ate apples, even though she’d never seen an apple or snow.

    I’ve been a big fan of anime for a while, and have just discovered Korean dramas this year. There are plenty of cliches and tropes in these shows–particularly the K-drama romance quadrangle formula–but they’re different tropes than we’re familiar with in the US. I for one think we in the US need to experience these kinds of storytelling just as much as our own, to recognize that there really is more than one story (white kids who eat apples and play in the snow).

  33. Sorry, there was a stray B there in Chimamanda Adichie’s name.

  34. I’m totally writing a blog post about this. In particular I’m interested in the idea that, when creating a sf/f story, one could create a plot structure for that story that suits the culture of the story’s characters. When telling the story of a culture (which I think a lot of good sf/f tries – or should try – to do), how can it really be the story of that culture if it is told in plot structures underlined by the cultural assumptions of another culture? Plus I think trying to create whole cloth the structure of stories of an imagined people would be a great challenge – and great fun.

  35. On Brian’s side note, I have to say: movies dubbed into English tend to be done so in a comically awful fashion. Not so Italian or German, where the very top actors dub movies, and they become associated with specific foreign actors, so that there’s a German guy who “is” Dustin Hoffman or Brad Pitt’s voice. I’m not sure if the same is true in France, but in German and Italian the dub actors are occasionally an improvement over the originals…

  36. On the flipside, it would be wonderful if we in the States could have more subbed foreign movies and television shows instead of having them remade into (usually) horrible Hollywoodized versions (especially when they add inappropriately happy endings). And even better if PBS could show the actual UK documentaries that they buy instead of recutting them, and rewriting and replacing the narration to dumb them down for an American audience. Sadly, the Hollywood mindset cuts every which way.

  37. I am wearied beyond measure of the ‘violence is the only/the best solution’ thing.

  38. I think you and I have talked about this, but the most difficult part, as a writer, is that forms of storytelling that do not follow linear plots and are often rejected, (or forms of the fantastic that seem to confuse the reader), leading to very nice rejection letters that read “this is very nice, but it’s not about anything” or it’s not “speculative enough or in the right way”. (Which means insert a robot). I get this very often.

    I often play a balancing act where I know if I write something or write this way, it won’t sell. Or I’ll have to shop it around in 30 places. So do I tell the story or not, or in a different way?

    That’s kind of why after some rounds of agents and feedback of the “we like it, but it’s not a novel. or not the kind of novel we can sell” I’ve placed my novel quietly away. And I have the benefit of living in Canada, understanding a bit more about Canadian and American lit, and having sold to enough pro anthos and mags to get what I think the editors want. But I fear there are perfectly lovely voices which will never be read in English because there are some definitions of “story”, “plot” “protag” and the like which will leave large chunks of tales out in the cold.

  39. I agree with this post (and I am an American), but I do bristle at the use of “resolve” as a noun.

    You are also not alone. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (yarnharlot.com) gets massive complaints when she talks about Thanksgiving on the “wrong day.” (She’s in Canada, where the holiday is on a different date) She has American readers who just don’t understand that we share a continent with different countries.

    I’ll be following up on your reading recommendations. Thank you.

  40. Aliette: Well, it was inevitable you would reference Starship Troopers. I’m not sure you are correct about van Vogt, although Slan was about the persecution of a “super-race” by humans. Van Vogt, however, was at his best sui generis, and not part of some wider collection of writers with tropes; also, he was writing a long time ago. You can hardly base an argument that American story tropes have colonised the fiction of the world on examples of fiction from the middle of the last century. I never read Dune as being about an evil arch-enemy, more about the coming into his own of a man regarded by the desert people of Dune as a Messiah. It is in many ways about religion and destiny; you might as well blame the Christian religion for the story tropes you dislike as blame Dune. Of course, there are many ideas taken from Christian theology that perfuse Western fiction, but that is hardly surprising.

    The basis of what you say about the manner in which what you identify as “American tropes” has colonised world culture is no different from the arguments I heard in the sixties about “coca-colonisation”, notably from French student revolutionaries. France has for many decades been very protective of its language and culture, in a world which it sees as dominated by “Anglo-Saxons”, by which it first meant the UK, its diaspora, and the USA; and later more specifically the USA. America was becoming the dominant world power, first economically and then militarily, from the beginning of the 20th Century, at a time when the powers (and the empires) of European countries were in decline. For Britain, the recognition of the end came at Suez; for France, at Dien Bien Phu. France has adapted to its new role as a major European power, while my own country has spent the period since 1945 losing its empire, and unable to decide whether it wishes to be a 51st state of the USA, or part of Europe. This inability to decide is the root cause of our economic decline, not just in the world but also in Europe. Our position in the world, in which we “punch above our weight” is largely based on the fact that we speak English, which is the only effective “world language”, mainly because of the dominance of the world by America.

    Hand in hand with the rising power of the USA has gone the rising influence of Hollywood. By the 1930s, Hollywood’s films had assumed a dominant role in world culture. As the world has become more and more inter-connected, so that cultural influence has become more pervasive. Many of the themes which you identify and dislike are certainly present in Hollywood films, and in some TV dramas which have themselves been increasingly produced from Hollywood. Many of these commercial films (and likewise to some extent avowedly commercial novels) are “lowest common denominator” products, and are as a result simplistic, reducing the world to a conflict between good and evil, eliminating nuance and shades of grey. However, there are still films produced by major studios which do not fall into this trap, and similarly TV shows, mainly those produced for cable channels, which have more freedom as they are not dominated by advertising. Likewise, there are some novels in the science fiction field which are simplistic in their view of the world, and embody many of the ideas you dislike – the strong central character, conflict with evil, the use of violence to overcome. However, I don’t think you could look at the sf novels which have been produced since the sixties in the USA and say that they all use these themes. For example, Le Guin is not like this, especially in The Dispossessed. There are many novels which use ideas of community and cooperation, rather than individualism and conflict.

    As for Ballard, I would caution you against trying to imagine what was going on in his mind when he was writing, or what may have “subconsciously” influenced him. In fact, I would caution against talking about “subconscious influences” on writers. I suspect most writers are very well aware of the themes – cultural, psychological, metaphysical – and narrative techniques which they are using. The writer is not some “automatic engine” simply transcribing the ideas which are transmitted to her or him by the “cultural subconscious”. The writer is a knowing and self-aware author of narratives which utilise themes (or tropes) of which s/he is well aware.

    It seems to me that your ideas of class and race show a fundamental misunderstanding of the complexity of these issues in the USA, and in European countries. Far be it from me to say that that misunderstanding includes these issues in France, but I’m certainly unsure that I agree with you. For example, you don’t tackle anti-semitism; and you understate the hostility to Arabs (especially, of course, Algerians). Certainly France has tried to absorb migrants, and to make everyone a French citizen, whilst in the USA there has been a tendency for the “melting-pot” to still retain some distinctive groupings (Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans). But ideas of class in the USA are very complex.

    A contemporary novel is almost always limited in its ability to provide some kind of over-arching view of a society, a country, or the world. A novel will usually focus on a particular theme or group of themes. You may like these themes or not. You may find that the novel uses tropes which you do not like. Given that we live in countries which still respect – at least in the main – freedom of speech, you have the choice to reject the books you don’t like, and to accept the ones you do. Similarly with films, and any element of culture. You can argue against those elements of culture that you dislike, American or otherwise. You can relieve your personal tension about this dislike by “ranting”. But the world will go its way. And you can go your way, and read what you want to read, view what you want to view.

    In the end, time will change all things. Just as the dominance of Britain in the world declined from the beginning of the 20th Century, now, as we stand in the early years of 21st we see signs that the “American Century” may be at the beginning of its end. It is worth remembering, as we watch this, that the US rescued us in two World Wars; in the first case, from a war of attrition of tired empires which was bleeding Europe dry, and destroyed the flower of French manhood for a generation; and in the second, ensured that in Western Europe at least, we were saved from fascism and able to live since 1945 in a Europe without war. The US has supported NATO, and also the European Union, which have helped to maintain peace in Europe. Of course, we all know that ultimately it was the Soviet Union that defeated fascism; but imagine a Europe in which there was no Western Front, no D-Day. It would have been a Europe dominated by Stalin, a dictator at least as evil as Hitler.

    If the USA is indeed in terminal decline, then it is most likely that the next “top dog nation” will be China. Think about their lack of democracy, disregard for civil rights, and destruction of the environment, and then consider whether, all in all, a world dominated by China might not be rather a lot worse than one dominated by America. By all means, rant against American cultural domination, but spare some time to consider what Chinese cultural domination might mean. Tear apart American or Anglo-Saxon cultural influence by all means, but beware what may come in its place.

  41. I agree, from Canada. I would just like to add that a) large American cities (and the world cities that flow into their molds) are speculative fiction places, and look more like something out of a speculative novel or movie set than any older cities and b) even places like the Columbia Basin in Washington (ancient desert, Grand Coulee Dam, “Dune” was set in that country, the Hanford plutonium project was there, which blew up over Nagasaki, and, more recently, huge reclamation projects, giant apple orchards in the desert, etc…) look more like Mars colonies, and with as much relationship to the indigenous people or landscape. There is something there, perhaps, that we non-Americans could add to the conversation, by bringing our perspectives back to the country that has colonized us with these subconscious images, and redefining that place from our points of perspective. Freeing fiction from the strictures of individualism would help a lot, too. Maybe it’s all part of the same process.

  42. Hey, Chris,

    I’ve been making a peach pie and thinking. Let’s also not forget that China is a creation of US industrial and investment policy, and not just that, but of a certain political mindset. It is, in fact, a great Speculative Fiction project. One thing that is not American, is to consider that fiction is not “fiction” but an extension of politics. Hence the above comment, but also this note: the upper class social circles in which Hitler and the early Nazis circulated, were the same ones in which Erich von Daniken circulated; the Aryans and the Aliens were both fictions, and both have had long political and social lives, which aren’t all that dissimilar. This also is the territory of speculative fiction. That it appears, however, outside of politics and in works of the imagination nicely labelled “fiction” is not, particularly, European. You see? These are exciting times. Nonetheless, your comments on China are well-noted. That particular story is going to work itself out with an incredible plot yet. Cheers, Harold

  43. As an American I have my own perspective on American tropes, as all of us do. I was taught to see outside my own country, which unfortunately is not as common as it should be. Personally I haven’t been exposed to large amounts of foreign fiction, it’s difficult to come by. However, I’m a big fan of anime and manga and Asian films. One thing I will say is that I absolutely abhor and despise dubs. I cannot stand dubs. So many actors fail to pronounce words correctly, acting is often cheesy or otherwise annoying, and it is terribly aggravating to see how certain US anime publishers destroy the anime by cutting things out and changing things. This happens in video games as well. There are a plethora of anime that should have been highly enjoyable, but were completely ruined by the dubbing and awful acting. I know people who hate subtitles because they feel they shouldn’t have to read while watching a movie or show, personally I feel that’s lazy, though I will admit for some people it’s an acquired skill. But, I also don’t like dubbing because it seems to me that America and their publishers have little respect for other languages and cultures. In general, from what I’ve experienced, far too many Americans hypocritically demand immigrants to speak English but refuse to respect other cultures by learning to properly speak their languages. There is this pervasive attitude that because America is the “top of the world” everyone should speak English and if they don’t, then they’re ignorant and disrespecting America. This attitude often travels with American tourists in other countries, which is incredibly arrogant and certainly earns America its awful reputation as whatever names we’re called. I feel that if you are going to spend significant time, or the rest of your life, in another country then the people there deserve your respect of learning their language and learning it properly. You are in their country, respect them, their culture, and the fact they were there first and owe you nothing. I don’t care if someone doesn’t speak English because they just moved here, I do care if they’ve been here for years and still don’t speak it. But the reason I care is because they can’t possibly be having an easy time living here without English and it’s actually dangerous to live in another country with no knowledge of their language.

    As far as Hollywood goes, well that place is full of ignorant, arrogant, over paid, over exaggerated, bratty people who don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. And it’s mainly publishers, agents and advertisers, not necessarily the celebrities, though one can’t leave them out too. This isn’t to say that everyone in Hollywood is like that. I find certain tropes to be in bad taste, like the whole aliens always land in America and world decisions are made from here thing. It’s annoying, we’re not that special. I also find it distasteful for Americans to write about other countries when they have never been there and have no knowledge of the country, their language, or their culture. It’s especially aggravating when writers who do this insert American culture because of their ignorance of the other country. Personally I don’t believe that enough people do enough research. I will admit that I have put stories in Japan, but I usually make it a somewhat fictional Japan so that I can use the knowledge I do have of their culture with minimal offense to the Japanese. I thoroughly enjoy learning about how other cultures do things, it’s just unfortunate that the knowledge has to get filtered through other Americans, because it’s not unusual to see where things have been left out, redirected to make American view seem superior, or simply give a poor understanding and explanation.

    To those people who have gotten into arguments with my fellow Americans about such things as Canadian Thanksgiving being on the “wrong day” or worse arguments where they’ve insisted that the American opinion is correct and that’s the only way to see the world, I sincerely apologize on their behalf. I dread the day I can travel to other countries because I know I’ll not only have to deal with the bad reputation American tourists have, but will have to deal with seeing other Americans perpetuating that reputation. I guess I had more to say about American views in general than the actual tropes, but I guess that’s ok right?

  44. Harold: I agree with what you say about many current American developments being fertile ground for sf. However, I think you are wrong in seeing present-day China as a creation of US investment and industrial policy. You are giving far too great a weight to the influence of the US, and paying far too little attention to the Chinese government. China is a huge country with an enormous population which is its greatest asset. Since Nixon opened diplomatic and trade relation between the US and China, the Chinese government has used its resource of cheap labour to build an industry which is unrivalled, based on exporting to the rest of the world. This has been a conscious project of the Chinese government, to build China as not only one of the most important, economically and politically, countries in the world, but also to achieve supremacy. It has loaned the US – by investing in US government bonds – the money to live beyond its means and to buy Chinese goods. It has also artificially maintained an undervalued currency, to the intense annoyance of the US and other Western countries, in order to maintain cheap exports. China is busily colonising parts of Africa and now Brazil, buying up vast amounts of farmland to export food back to China. It is negotiating long-term contracts for oil, gas, coal, minerals etc, in order to tie in exporters such as Australia to China as the primary or indeed sole buyer. The low wages paid to Chinese workers is maintained by a dictatorial government, absence of civil rights, and in some cases by what amounts to slavery. Unless this process falters, and the US is able to utilise its own resources to restore its economy, we can look forward to a world dominated by Chinese dictators. The best we can hope for in Europe is that China will see us as irrelevant, and leave us alone, so long as we don’t interfere with Chinese expansion.

    Against this possible change in global power systems, which may occur within 20 years, ranting against “American tropes” in fiction, or American cultural domination, fades into insignificance.

  45. Can I just say: Can they also stop having EVERY male protagonist have issues with his father??!

    Thank you.

  46. I am completely with you, Aliette, on this one. And adding to what some of the above commenters have said, the dominance of American tropes goes even further.
    Germany (the country I reside in and half my family hails from) has been especially affected, both by the influence of comics, Hollywood and popular fiction and specifically by the Nazi-tropes. It is virtually impossible to write something featuring German “hero characters”, if you want to call it that, without someone from the other side of the Atlantic playing the Nazi-revisionism card, simply because you use non-evil German chracters (unless it is a medieval setting, German knights are OK; it seems).
    So much for my annecdotal observations.

  47. Well said and you’ve given me a lot to thing about. I’m glad you posted in the end. 🙂

  48. Totally agree. Needs to be said.

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