Tuesday 30 July 2019

Writing for an American Audience: Why do Authors Compromise?

Short post this week.

Did you know that many independent authors go out of their way to appeal to an American audience?

It's true, and it's more prevalent than you think. It can be as simple as a South African or British author going out of their way to use American English, including trying to match their unique phrasings. Or it could be a case of such an author deliberately setting their story in the United States.

I understand the reasoning: as a self-published author, the vast majority of your sales are going to come from casual browsers on online stores, and it's a fact that most such browsers are going to be American, and you want those people to identify with your words.

The thing is, when the author is not American and has never been to America, they sometimes get it wrong. Americans don't just spell certain words differently to every other English-speaking country in the world, they use certain words and phrases completely differently, too. What we call a "handbag", Americans call a "purse". What we call a "pavement", they call a "sidewalk". And when we "career" towards something, they "careen" towards it instead.

And even if they don't get it wrong, I'm sure it works just fine for those random American browsers. But what about when you know for a fact that the author in question isn't American? Doesn't it strike you as odd? Perhaps a little... inauthentic? Why would a South African author not set their story in South Africa, using South African English? Are they ashamed?

Like I said, I understand why. I've heard tales of non-American authors being raked over the coals by American reviewers because they don't know how to spell the word "color" (no "u"), or they don't know what a "sidewalk" is.

Because of this, some authors have disclaimers in the front of their books, saying they use British English, and cautioning the reader against assuming something's a misspelling. As if they're apologising for the variant of English they use. But even that often doesn't help.

If you want your work to be acceptable to the world at large, it seems, it needs to be American.

Now, I've never heard of an American book making any such disclaimer, or even an American author going out of their way to sound British... or South African. So all I can think of is: Are Americans so (how shall I put this) dense?

Or maybe they're just so cloistered. We often like to joke about Americans believing they're the only country in the world, and although they've globalised somewhat over the years, many "average" Americans still believe Africa is a country!

How does the quote go? Something along the lines of, "There is no such thing as 'American English'. There is 'English', and there are mistakes."

I kid, of course. I certainly don't think any of my American friends are dense. And of course, I believe you should be free to speak or write in whatever flavour of the English language as you like and be understood. I just sometimes wonder if I might be the only person who believes that....

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