This is a quasi-follow-up to this post–at least the part about the American literary canon. I’ve been thinking about my books’ American-ness and wanted to put that into a historical context. But I’m going to start with a digression about publishing history.
It has always been difficult to make a living as a writer. Prior to the nineteenth-century, it was all but impossible with the notable exception of Shakespeare and a handful of others who managed to obtain patrons. But these guys proved the rule: most writers were wealthy folks, almost exclusively men, who pursued writing as a hobby. They didn’t need to make money and for the most part, they didn’t.
Books themselves were expensive until new printing processes and paper manufacturing developments lowered the price in the late 19th century. The circulation figures for 17th and 18th century texts are generally small. Additionally, difficulty transporting goods meant that book markets were largely regional. But even for a given local printer, it didn’t make sense to invest a lot of money to obtain a manuscript.
Let’s consider Jane Austen’s career. She sold the copyright for her first manuscript–which later became Northanger Abbey–for a mere 10 pounds. She published Sense and Sensibility by paying for its publication herself, eventually netting about 140 pounds when the first edition sold out. She sold the copyright for Pride and Prejudice for 110 pounds. Flush from this success, she sold the copyright for three novels–Emma, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility–for a combined 450 pounds.
And that’s it: the entire amount she made over her career. Now, 700 pounds is not an amount to sneeze at in the Regency Period. Her professional career was only five years long between the publication of her first novel and her death–Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously. And Austen wasn’t a bestseller, though her novels were fashionable and circulated with an elite crowd including the Prince Regent. But my point is that while she did fairly well at selling and circulating her work during her lifetime, she did not get rich and without the support of her family, she wouldn’t have had the education, ability, or seed money to write and publish. (For more information, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen summarizes her publishing history nicely.)
Publishers weren’t investing money in Austen or anyone else because the legal structures at the time, combined with the high price of books and the difficulty in moving them, meant that content wasn’t all that valuable. The lack of international copyright laws and the shoddy enforcement of domestic copyright meant that there was no legal barrier to a printer taking a popular book, setting the text, and reprinting it.
In an American context, writers were competing with imported European fiction, which could be published without paying a cent to the author. Meredith McGill’s wonderful book American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting discusses how and why this changed. The short version is that some critics and publications began attacking the magazines and newspapers that primarily published reprinted European fiction, making reprinted fiction an issue of nationalism. Didn’t a great nation deserve great literature? And if that were the case–and if European fiction carried a monarchist stench anyway, wink wink–shouldn’t American publishers invest in a proper, democratic American literature?
They did and the rest is (literary) history.
That’s enough wind-up. Now for the pitch!
One of the things that’s interesting to me looking at the romance genre today is how these undercurrents of nationalism play out. The historical romance market is largely dominated by European-set books and most of these are set in the UK or Western Europe. But the contemporary market is dominated by American-set books–to the point where non-Americans routinely write US settings. I grew up in Montana and the popularity of Montana as a setting for romance has always tickled me. Fiona Lowe–who is Australian–is currently writing a series set in the Treasure State after writing a charming series set in rural Wisconsin. New Zealand writer Nalini Singh’s psy/changeling series takes place in an alternate world that is still basically centered around California.
To be clear, I’m not saying these writers shouldn’t write American settings–obviously lots of Americans write European settings and of course the reverse is fine. People should write whatever they want and set it wherever they want. But I do wonder about the popularity of certain settings. I suspect that two comparable books, one set in the rural American south and one set in rural Vietnam, will face different paths to publication, different marketing, and different reader responses.
My question is this: how American is an American-set contemporary romance? Is the 19th century project of literary nationalism shaping contemporary romance at all?
I’m currently editing the third book in my contemporary series about political staffers. It’s set on the presidential campaign trail and the heroine/hero have lots of arguments about the nature of government. As I’ve been working on it, I’ve been wondering if it could be exported. Would the book work set during an election in Britain? What about Iran? On some level, I’m sure it could. Someone who knows more about those places could probably take the same basic story and change the details. But are there any parts that wouldn’t translate? Is there anything constitutively American there?
In other words, does it just happen to take place in the United States or is it essentially American?
When Graham’s Magazine attacked Harper’s Weekly for not supporting American writers when it relied on reprinted fiction, the strong implication was that European fiction was different politically, that it was incommensurate with American values somehow. Obviously that’s silly, but I wonder why the American setting in contemporary romance remains so popular. Is it just what readers are used to and therefore expect? When a non-American writes an American setting, how do they capture this quality–whatever it is?
To take a reverse example, I really love Laura Florand’s books. In the first two entries in her Chocolate series, the heroines have a desire to belong in Paris. Cade Corey, the heroine in The Chocolate Thief, is an American longing for a way to democratize all the things she loves about artisan chocolate making, and falling in love with a French chocolatier along the way. Magalie Chaudron in The Chocolate Kiss has a divided French-American national identity that makes her fear losing the tiny space she’s carved out for herself on Ile Saint Louis and provides her resistance to the pastry chef hero. This conflict repeats through many of Ms. Florand’s other books.
So the politics of Florand’s books–the heroine who wants to make a place, sometimes a political one, and the hero who legitimizes her–seems to speak to the flip side of the literary national conversation: if a place must be made for American literature, the implication is that American literature isn’t as good, that European literature has set the standard that American writers must revise or explode. The insistence on American literary nationalism seems to come from a sense of inferiority, not strength.
I don’t have some nice, neat way to tie all of this up. But on the eve of the Fourth of July, I wanted to see if anyone has any insight to the relationship between literary national and contemporary romance.