I find the noted English spellings/slang particularly annoying. Europeans simply deal with Americanisms without making a fuss about them. We don't find it worth mentioning. Why can't Americans do the same?
We received the comment above in our recent survey. It is a reasonable complaint. If I was from the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, or any other non-US, English speaking country, I might also find this annoying. Although I’ve explained the rationale for why we highlight this and other items in the past, it has always been in the comments of a specific review, and I thought it might be a good idea to do so in a post.
While I’ll concentrate on language, this post is really about the entire FYI section of our reviews.
England and America are two countries separated by a common language. – George Bernard Shaw
My initial inclination was to apologize for my compatriots. I’m well aware of the stereotype of the “ugly American,” and know we are sometimes perceived as insular, with a sense of entitlement. I’ve experienced firsthand the greater knowledge that the average Canadian has about the world outside of their country- and even current events in the US- as compared to my peers. I’ve been guilty of some of these faults myself. It would be easy to view this section as more of the same. But none of this is the reason for why our reviews mention this. My main reason for including this is, and always has been, one of education.
To understand this, a brief explanation about how traditional publishing has worked in the US for as long as I’ve been reading might help. When a publisher contracts with an author for a book in English, it is typically for rights to publish and distribute the book in a specific region. While I believe this can vary, the US (or North America) is one of those regions, with Australia, the UK and other English speaking European countries, and potentially Canada as others. US publishers routinely re-edit books from other regions, changing spelling to US conventions and often changing the wording to remove regional slang, generally Americanizing the book. Some people have described the process as akin to a foreign translation.
I won’t even attempt to justify this process. I’m sure the publishers see it as a good marketing move, aimed at satisfying the lowest-common denominator of readers. The result has been that while many, if not most, Americans are familiar with some British and Australian slang, it is almost entirely from TV and movies, and limited. Their exposure to spelling differences between different English speaking countries is often non-existent.
With Indie authors publishing their own books, this regionalization is no longer happening. Personally, I see this as a positive, with the language differences adding character and color, giving a much stronger sense of place. However, for readers who haven’t experienced this before, it is easy to perceive the spelling and sometimes the differences in language usage as being in error. I’ve seen many Amazon reviews complaining about just these kind of things on books that I know are virtually error free, but use Australian or UK spelling conventions.
Educating readers and setting expectations for those who don’t realize there are differences is my primary reason for mentioning this in our reviews. I realize there might be some readers who aren’t willing to buy a book that hasn’t been Americanized for them. While my decision would be different, and I think they are missing out, it is also not my decision to make. Knowing has helped that reader, and helping as many readers as possible is the reason for our reviews, and has benefited the author who might otherwise have an unhappy customer that might give a negative review for a bogus reason.
What language differences are not okay?
As I mention above, I think the language differences add to the character of a book. When one of Vicki Tyley’s characters in Fatal Liaison is looking for a car park or Naomi Kramer’s Maisy May says, “no you can’t have my bloody bag,” it helps put me in Australia. When Helen Smith, in her book Three Sisters, describes coloured lights as “like Midget Gems,” I’ll suspect I’m no longer in Kansas, even if I have no idea what Midget Gems are. (If you’re interested, they are small chewy sweets, or candy to we Yanks.)
When language differences are not okay is when the language doesn’t fit the character. A Brit, fresh off his British Airways flight, asking a New York doorman to point him to the elevator, is going to be suspect to many readers. An American pre-teen girl telling a friend she wishes her “bloody father would sod off,” isn’t going to fly, at least for an American reader, unless she’s watching an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, or both well-traveled and a bit pretentious. Just as subtle differences in language can enhance a book, getting them wrong can detract.
This can present a problem for an author with characters from English speaking countries other than their own. If you’re such an author, the right editor or mix of beta readers might save you from making a significant gaffe.
Let’s Talk about Sex
And politics and religion. These three subjects are hot button issues for many people. Some percentage of readers abandoned reading this post or never started reading it at all because it mentions sex. For those readers who prefer that their romances be sweet or that book characters have sex behind closed doors, we try to let them know if a book isn’t a good fit. For those who like their reading to turn up the heat, we like to clue you in, too. If strong language makes you blush or conversely if you want the characters you read about to be like real people who sometimes use salty language, we want you to know about that too. Just as with language comments, this is to help match readers to books they are more likely to enjoy, based on their unique tastes.
What I want to make clear is that the intention of the FYI section is not to make a value judgment. Not every reader has the same taste. This section is a place to clue potential readers into things that might be a good or bad fit for their personal taste, but are irrelevant to the quality of the book under review.