Is the Cliche of the Culturally Insulated American a Myth?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka


Today’s lead article by Emily Williams looks at the question of why so few foreign writers make it into print in the US. It’s by know become well known that approximately 3% of books published in the US are translations (and I would guess that number would be significantly smaller as soon as you factor in self-published books).  Williams asserts that the problem rests as much with the limited number of editors who can read a foreign language, as well as with the complicated dance that is involved with selling books to the US.

Williams view opposes the unflattering stereotype that depicts America — and by extension, its readers and publishers — as ignorant of foreign cultures and lacking in curiosity about the outside world.

My personal experience also goes counter to the cliché of the insulated American. Having lived all over the United States, I’ve encountered people from several dozen, if not hundreds of cultures — in my own hometown of Houston, there are large populations of Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Pakistanis and people from the Middle East; in contrast, when I lived overseas, in any given country I would typically meet people from a handful of cultures — either from neighboring countries or a former colony or colonizer.  America is, if anything, a nation of immigrants; perhaps the perception that we’re not interested in other cultures is because our culture already contains or has assimilated said cultures.

In addition, the most often cited statistic that very few Americans have passports is taken as further indication of American disinterest. I would argue that there’s a relatively simple explanation for this and it comes down to a key difference between the US and many other counties.  First, America is itself geographically large and diverse, meaning there is lots of room to explore and roam. But, of more importance, is the fact that we limit our vacation to just two weeks per year (and if you have any family obligations — say to visit your parents once a year — that eats up half your holidays). With less time off, there’s less time to travel and even less time to travel abroad.

What do you think? Is the cliché about the cultural ignorant and isolated American a myth? Or is it a sad fact? And if so, what can and should be done to remedy the situation?

Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter using hashtag #ppdiscuss.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka is the Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. A former foreign correspondent, he has covered the book business since 2000, serving as daily news editor for Publishers Weekly and columnist for Bloomberg News.