Americaland: writing the US from beyond its borders

Paul Raven @ 05-02-2010

America!People can be very quick to make jokes about the lack of knowledge some Americans have about the countries beyond their borders, but the opposite can also be true. Damien Walter recalls a discussion he had with Neil Gaiman at last year’s Clarion writer’s workshop about “Americaland” – the bundle of cultural shorthands and cliches that go to make up the fictional USA where British (and other) writers tend to set their stories:

Americaland is real place for British writers, it is built from thousands of fragments of American TV, films, music, comics and other cultural artefacts. It’s a place filled with 1950’s dinners and long desolate highways among other things. And its just as imaginary as a Britain filled with red telephone boxes and bowler hatted business men.

(One draw of Americaland is the British tendency towards naffness…IE…any story that seems fascinating and dark in Americaland becomes utterly naff if you transplant it to the UK. Batman in Gotham = Dark Knight. Batman in Birmingham = mentalist in tights. If you are British and want to write Batman, or any other American archetype, then welcome to Americaland.)

[Batman in Birmingham… I’d buy that comic, personally. DC should give the franchise to Grant Morrison for a few years… “Mentalist in Tights” = Best Tagline Ever.]

Americaland is as much a fantasy world as Middle Earth or Dune. Some of the most fascinating fantasy worlds are the ones that overlap our reality so closely that the reader can almost accept them as real. Perhaps that’s why Americaland, with all its inaccuracies and cliches, can be such a compelling place to set stories in. Whenever I turn my hand to any story of the horrific or dark fantasy variety, I find Americaland creeping in from the edges. However hard I try to root these stories in the Britain I know, American locations and characters crop up again and again. When I turned to my imagination for material this weekend, it gave me a man and woman meeting in a diner and going on a road trip. It’s a story that can only take place in Americaland. So do I accept where my imagination is taking me, for all its flaws, or rail against it and force myself to write in British settings?

It’s a good question – should you only write what you know? And if not, how would you recommend a non-native get a feel for the real USA without the expense of a pair of plane tickets and a few months of travelling? [image by dno1967]

And to our American readers: what are the most egregious Americaland cliches you see in the writing of non-American authors, and how should they be corrected?

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9 Responses to “Americaland: writing the US from beyond its borders”

  1. SMD says:

    I don’t know if it’s possible to capture “real America” without actually coming here. No matter where you look, whether it be in literature, film (fiction and documentary), or music, you’re going to get a selective and hyperreal version missing the key components that make up American life. I didn’t start setting my short stories in England until after I’d visited, and that was because of the problem of hyperreal representations of the country. Now, having been there, I feel more comfortable using it as a setting.

  2. William says:

    Frankly pretty much every time a british writer pretends to know anything about America it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard (notable exception for Hitchens but probably only cuz he wispers sweet nothings in our ears about the revolution). My hate mail to the BBC could probably fill a terabyte. For instance there’s the too often ridiculous notion that there is an “America” in the sense that it is often spoken of. Granted, the US isn’t quite an agglomeration of 50 distinct countries, but nothing’s more obnoxious than Europeans trying to transpose their working associations with nation-hood onto the US. CanadaUS is a vast continent of 330 mil, there’s massive variance and distinction in culture/subculture. Huge, defining lumps, trends and strata. I can’t point out specific cliches, because the way they’re written everything is a cliche — or rather a glaring misinterpretation / misconjunction. If you haven’t lived in a country *as members of that county* for years then pretty much everything you write is going to feel out of place to someone from that country. Of course, conversely, if I set pretty much ANY story in a city I’ve lived in to the point of identifying with, I’d die of shame. The solution is to write what you know insofar as you have to write about the present world but focus on the things that can be generalized between locations. If you choose to write in another country than don’t bother with what they drink or the specifics of how they get on, gloss past that to focus on the culturally global bits. The vast majority of the experiences/attitudes/quirks/challenges of a hacker are going to be the same in Leeds or Portland.

    > And if not, how would you recommend a non-native get a feel for the real USA without the expense of a pair of plane tickets and a few months of travelling?

    Well, as I said, you’re not. Nothing close. But I heartily recommend hopping on Google Streetview, taking an afternoon and walking every street in a couple random cities.

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    I agree with SMD. You just gotta be there. Now I don’t take exception to such stories…I have been so immersed in American culture (probably more so than a Brit would be) that they just pass me by, although there may only be a handful of diners left in the country and a deserted highway is as rare as ivory billed woodpeckers I can read such a story and accept it.

  4. eric rosenfield says:

    Just a quick note: grant morrison is writing batman and robin and has been for a while now. Not set in birmingham, however.

  5. Abbot of Unreason says:

    Re: And to our American readers: what are the most egregious Americaland cliches you see in the writing of non-American authors, and how should they be corrected?

    I haven’t tended to notice the problem in things I’ve read. I wonder if I’m alone in believing that we Americans tend to buy into the reality of Americaland? Or perhaps we just think of ourselves as such a big country that the setting exists somewhere?

  6. Sarah Ennals says:

    Not actually American, but I agree with the Tom and the Abbot. I’ve seen the open road and the deserted diner, at least, in a lot of stuff produced in the US – my guess is that it’s such a useful, as well as archetypal, setting, one can very easily suspend disbelief (and indeed, Canada certainly has its truck-stops, so parts of the US probably do as well.) Something like a very 1930s-style NY neighbourhood in a story with a present-day setting might trip my “huh?” button, though.

  7. Patrick H says:

    “Americaland” dominates the popular imagination of the English-speaking world. We’re steeped in it, esp SF fans, so I don’t think it’s strange to be attracted to it as a setting.

    As for whether it’s a good idea, well, execution is everything but trying to write about a place you only know secondhand puts you at an immediate disadvantage. I wouldn’t say “no” but I might ask why you were making it so hard on yourself.

  8. jon says:

    I’ve also started to see a few future-China settings in modern SF lately (which reminds me of the Japanese-name-dropping of the 80s and 90s) and I wonder how many of those writers have any grasp on the culture, let alone the place, about which they’re writing. At least most English-language writers can relate to North American culture somehow, even if it’s through movies and TV.

    As for experience, I believe you should actually visit a place before trying to write about it. Unless, that is, you’re deliberately trying to create a netherworld with elements of several places.

  9. douglas says:

    Write what you know- of course. but isn’t fiction something you know? Aren’t myth and hyperbole part of our world and consciousness? Of course! Just don’t take your self too seriously when you venture beyond that which you’re intimate with in the real world.