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Well, to start.   I wasn’t really suggesting that novels should harp on things like the truly awful smells of Medieval Europe.  I only meant that it’s a very rare historical novel that doesn’t get lots of fairly significant things wrong.  When it’s an era I’m very familiar with, I find I don’t suspend my disbelief at all,  I just get annoyed.  When it’s an era I’m not familiar with, it doesn’t bother me.

And it’s not that I think people in earlier eras took themselves, and honor, and morality more seriously than we do.   It’s that I think some readers desperately long for an era in which that was the case, and since they’re not getting it out of the twenty first century, they go looking for it in historical and fantasy fiction.

But the thing that really struck me about the comments yesterday was all the enthusiam for “exotic” locales and eras, and it struck me on a number of levels.

The first of these is the fact that, in conventional publishing wisdom, this does not seem to be generally the case.  Mysteries with “foreign” locations that are  not England have a difficult time selling in the United States, and with one or two exceptions, historical mysteries don’t do nearly as well as contemporary ones.  Foreign mystery authors who are not English do really badly here.

What’s more, in my own experience, if I write a novel set in X place or about profession Y, it will reliably produce a little rainstorm of letters from people who live in X or do  Y, many of them starting out “I’ve never read your novels before, but when I saw what this one was about, I had to try it!”

I do this myself, and I know why I do it–because for every area or occupation has things that drive you crazy, and if the writer nails them, it can be a lot of fun to read. 

I think it’s interesting that so many of you assumed that when I said I liked to read novels set in ordinary everyday life about people with ordinary everyday problems, I must mean “literary” fiction of the “we’re all going to sit around and have upper middle class angst” school.

But I’ve already said on several occasions that I read nearly none of that kind of thing, because most of it is boring as hell and far too predictable. 

The contemporary “mainstream” novels I do read tend to be by actually foreign authors: Jose Saramago, Umberto  Eco, and that kind of thing. 

I agree that novels can help us understand how people very different from ourselves think–in fact, I think that’s the point of what literature in general and the novel in particular does–but I feel that I live among people I don’t understand very well.  Some of them  I can’t figure out no matter how hard I try.

As for the therapeutic culture being absent from the Midwest–ha.  I usd to live in Michigan.  Of course everyday people do not think like that, but everyday people are not who fuels the therapeautic culture.  That’s done by teachers, nurses, social workers, and myriad other paraprofessionals in the so called “helping” professionals.

I agree that most people are far too sensible to think of shopping as an “addiction,” but if they end up in trouble over it, the courts will insist on “counseling” (read:  a twelve step program for your shopping addiction) as a condition of probation or parole.

Iowa now has one of the highest percentages of kids prescribed Ritalin for supposed ADHD, and the  United States government is pushing a definition of that disorder so broad that it could be pasted onto just about anybody.  You can find that here


So, yeah, that does interest me, the entire movement away from accepting that human nature includes some things that are just not very good for us and defining away both sin and bad habits as “disorders” seems to be endemic, and not just in rich parts of the country like the Connecticut Gold  Coast.

But right now, what I’d really like is to understand what makes a setting exotic, and whether people are into the truly exotic (mystery novel by Albanian author writing about newly independent Albania), or more like something mostly just like us, but dressed up differently.

Written by janeh

May 29th, 2009 at 8:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Exotic'

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  1. I would have thought teachers and nurses, at the very least, were ordinary people, with social work not far behind! Teaching and nursing were among the standard occupations for a lot of women over a lot of years, and until recently, you didn’t need to spend a lot of time training to engage in them. I’d think that they are quite common occupations held by quite ordinary people, and if there’s any local argument to the contrary, it must be from some survivor of at least two and more likely three generations back who spent their entire life in a remote rural community in which the clergyman, teacher and the nurse were the only people with an education at all. That sounded a bit more rant-like than I intended, but really, I wouldn’t consider someone in those categories to be anything other than ‘everyday’.

    There’s exotic and then there’s exotic. If something is too far from my own experience, and I don’t have a strong reason to think I might like it if I put the effort in to read it, no, I won’t go for it. I actually leafed through one of Saramago’s books in the local library because I remembered you mentioned it, but it didn’t appeal to me enough for me to borrow it. The blurb made it sound ‘literary’. It sounded like the thing was based on some stylistic quirk. I read “The Name of the Rose”, liked it well enough, don’t remember much about it, but suspect from googling now that back then I missed just about all the symbolism and references.

    Yes, probably I do like something on the less exotic side of the mundane/exotic continuum, and I do tend to like fairly easy reads. Or, if you prefer, something similar to me, but dressed a bit differently. I honestly wasn’t thinking at all of the whole literary fiction thing, though, when I said I didn’t like reading stuff set in a place like mine. There seems to be a mass of chick lit set, if not in places exactly like mine, in interchangeable suburban or urban settings, full of brand names, fashion and relationships and not literary at all. I say ‘seems’ because I don’t read this stuff, I just flip through it in the library. We also have an bunch of active local writers, some of whom I like more than others, but none of whom I read as regularly as I read genre fiction. It’s same old, same old – I live life here, I don’t need to see it again elsewhere. I generally don’t like at all books written by people who write about my exact locality but who don’t come from here – they invariably get so much wrong I can’t be bothered with it. Unlike your readers, I don’t tend to grab novels about my little corner of the world. Or about my workplace. I work in an office. Someone was once astonished when I said I really detested The Office (original series on DVD; I gather there’s an American version which I obviously haven’t watched). But I found it boring, unfunny and wrong (not true to life, and not even true to some imagined life). The characters were all nasty, the ‘office issues’ they were making fun of simply hadn’t happened to me and weren’t interesting or amusing, and amusing things that would have been closer to my own experiences weren’t there. And, of course, it wasn’t exotic – it was supposed to be in a standard office with standard office workers. It was just strange, but in a boring and unpleasant way.

    I don’t think the therapeutic culture is a pervasive here as in the US, although we certainly have some aspects of it. We always borrow popular US trends – we used to say 10-15 years later, but the gap may be narrowing.


    29 May 09 at 8:51 am

  2. I can’t define “exotic” either. Some of the detective novel series that I’ve enjoyed are:

    Dell Shannon’s Lt Luis Mendoza books set in Los Angeles of the 1960s and 1970s,

    Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborra Knott set in a small town in North Carolina

    Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Malone books set near Santa Barbara.

    None are exotic in the sense of remote and foreign culture,

    But I won’t read books about teenage angst or “racism” or “sexism”.


    29 May 09 at 3:46 pm

  3. Hmmm. The examples of exotic locales I gave were all adventure settings rather than mystery. I do have some historical mysteries. In an odd way, they’re less confusing than near contemporaries in which I have to try to recall what evidence or investigative procedure is available to the detective. Contemporary mysteries in my adult years represent several revolutions in criminal investigation.
    But I do have real exotic mysteries–Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Mountains of Mourning” in which the detective must first understand the culture to solve a crime no one else wants solved, and Randal Garrett’s wonderful “Lord Darcy” stories–straight Detection Club Oath mysteries set in a somewhat different world, with different investigative tools. Lord Darcy wouldn’t know a fingerprint if it crawled up and bit him, but his forensic sorcerer can tell him the last strong emotions felt at the crime scene, and reconstruct a garment from a thread. The catch–a problem for any writer of fantasy of SF–is to let the reader know what is or isn’t possible without slowing down the plot.
    I quite agree that I don’t like reading any historical novel written by someone who knows less of the period than I do, and it’s also true that it seems to be easy to get the costuming right and the spirit wrong–and to have no idea how people behaved there and then. But if they’ve got serious troubles, they never leave the library or the bookstore.

    And when the historical novelist gets it right, she can sometimes tell a story which can’t be told as well–or couldn’t even BE told–in a contemporary setting. Leigh Brackett wrote good Chandleresque detective stories, and took a Spur Award for a western, but prefered to write SF. You could do ANYTHING in SF, she wrote–which meant you had to be very, very careful.

    When I disclaimed “realistic” novels in my present situation, I ought to have hedged. A really good novelist could show me the follies and absurdities of my present life–but Austens and Twains are in very short supply. Crusie came close sometimes. And it is this time and this profession I felt were unpromising. Set a mystery in Historicon–where the historical miniature wargamers gather once a year, or set a good mystery in the Pentagon, and I’ll bring home spare copies.


    29 May 09 at 6:07 pm

  4. Robert, have you read *Bimbos of the Death Sun* by Sharon McCrumb? Hilarious murder at a SciFi convention called the Rubicon.

    A wonderful example of exotic and historical mystery is *The Janissary Tree* by Jason Goodwin. The protagonist, Yashim, is a eunuch loosely associated with the Emperor’s court in 1836 Istanbul. Young soldiers are being murdered and left in strange places throughout the city, and a young courtesan has been found dead just before her first visit with the Emperor. Yashim is assigned to solve both sets of crimes.

    Evocative of both time and place, the story is filled with all-too-human but not modern characters. Goodwin has written several histories about the region, so his setting rings true. Of course, I don’t know enough about it to spot falsities. It is a really well-written book.

    I’m looking forward to reading the other two books starring Yashim, even though I would normally pass on historical mysteries. My husband got this one for me as a Christmas present because it won a Booker Prize.

    In other news, I too was really puzzled by Jane’s description of teachers, nurses and social workers as not “everyday people.” To me, it doesn’t get more everyday than those professions. Trust me, it’s not those people keeping the theraputic culture going, as they benefit from it no more than anyone else subjected to it, and may suffer more than the rest of us. It’s not so much the teacher who wants to deal with medicated students, it’s the administrator who ends up with troublesome kids in their office. Sure, some teachers may see medicating students as an easy way to to an obedient class, but most of them do not. Layers of professionals are required to deal with testing, diagnosing and treating so-called ADD or ADHD kids, and they’re the ones who are directly benefiting from keeping that theraputic meme going.

    If nurses spend more time dealing with fake “syndromes” they have less time to do real nursing. And there is no shortage of work for nurses, it’s not like they’re creating work to keep themselves busy. But therapists, mental health professionals, people who run addiction treatment programs (which as Jane points out essentially don’t work) and talk show hosts sure do benefit from keeping us all on the edge of “addiction” to something, real or not.


    29 May 09 at 9:16 pm

  5. I just ask that the settings and/or culture be different from my own, not necessarily exotic. So I read books set in pretty much any part of the US except my own, both contemporary & historical. The UK ditto. I will at least try mysteries set anywhere else in the world–some of my favorites are Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Detective Agency series (Botswana), Suzanne Arruda’s Jade Cameron series (Africa), Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (Egypt), & Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series (Laos). The first & third of these series are certainly doing well in sales. I see more and more reviews for mysteries set in unusual locations these days, although they’re still a small percentage compared to mysteries set in the US & UK.

    As Robert pointed out, there are some mysteries even in fantasy & science fiction. Lois Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan nearly always has a mystery to solve, somewhere in the universe. I like the new Hengist Hapthorn mysteries by Matthew Hughes (picture Sherlock Holmes in a futuristic society written by PG Wodehouse, with more rigid stratification.) Terry Pratchett’s Commander Vimes often has a mystery of some kind.

    Exoticism is in the eye of the beholder, too. Kerry Greenwood’s books set in Australia are exotic to me, because I’ve never been there. But maybe they don’t seem exotic to someone *from* Australia. Even Gregor and his community seem exotic to this WASP from the Midwest!

    I would read a mystery by an Albanian with great interest. I’ve had a hard time finding mysteries set in other countries which are written by natives of the country. I read Spanish & some French, and am always looking for books in those languages which I might like. Aside from Simenon & Vargas, what I usually find in French is translations of English/American authors. In Spanish, so far I’ve found Arturo Perez-Reverte (if anyone here likes Dumas pere et fils, I highly recommend his Captain Alatriste series, some of which have been translated) & Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I have the impression that mysteries are not a popular genre outside the English-speaking world. Either that, or I’m looking in the wrong places.

    Lee B

    29 May 09 at 10:44 pm

  6. Lee B,

    I’m in Australia in 2009. The Kerry Greenwood books are set in Australia of 1929. Phyrne’s car has a crank, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners are new inventions, a pound a week ($5) is a good income, 500 pounds safely invested will give you a lifetime of good income etc etc

    Yes, its exotic!


    30 May 09 at 3:24 am

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