Monday, October 10, 2011

Why is Russia a hard sell?

Earlier this week a comment was left on a previous post, and I think it deserves a long-ish response.

The comment was left by Margaret Piton:
I too am trying to sell a novel, suspense variety, set in Russia in the 1990s. I have tons of credentials in non-fiction, but the novel is going nowhere so far. Why do you think Russia is such a hard sell?
 Well, I have some thoughts on this, but they are by no means "the answer".

First and foremost, I think a big part of the problem is pronunciation of names and words. For example, SCHEGOLEVATYH, SHESHUKOV, ZMYZGOV, DJAVAHISHVILI. These are all last names pulled from a Russian surname website that I refer to when creating characters. I can pronounce all of them--albeit slowly--but I'd wager most Americans can't.

Second, for many Christian fiction readers, publishers, and editors, Russia was the enemy for much of their lives. Russia was the antithesis of freedom and democracy. In some ways it still is. I was 6 when the Berlin Wall came down, and had just turned 10 when Boris Yeltsin and his tanks took down the Soviet Union. I don't remember the "Red Menace". I understand why it was important to get rid of it, but my fascination with Russia coincided with their rediscovery of the treasures of the Russian Empire.

Third, the Russian mindset is so foreign to Americans. We don't understand why Russians think the way they do, why they revere Stalin and deny the existence of the gulag. We don't understand Russian societal and class structure. There is no understanding of basic human rights from property to religion to freedom of speech. Winston Churchill wasn't kidding when he said Russia is a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." It's also true that the only real danger to the Russian people is the Russian people. They have not been conquered by an outside invader since Genghis Khan. And they overthrew Khan control many decades before everyone else.

It takes time and thought and more than a little fascination and study to even begin to grasp the Russian mindset. Most Americans simply aren't willing to spend time on something like that. In most ways, it's the opposite of the American mindset. We value our right to private property, whether it be land or personal possessions. Until 1860, there was no concept of private property in Russia. The average Russian had no idea it was possible to own your own land, instead of renting it from the nobles, who in turn usually rented it from the tsar.

So why do a few of us continue to write about Russia, even though it's the closest thing to an impossible sell in existence? Simple. We dug past the surface, found a culture rich beyond belief, and got sucked through the looking glass. Totally and completely. For me there is no going back to pre-Russia obsession, or even the desire to go back. It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't taken the time to go past the surface taught in history class.

Most never make it past the riddle of Russia. Those of us who do are quickly caught in the mystery, and it's a very short hop to enigma. For me, the more I read and study, the more I want to know.

There's also the whole religion aspect, particularly when dealing with a historical. To be historically accurate, you have one choice: Russian Orthodox. You can find ways to make them other things, but it requires a lot of careful set-up and back story. There exists a huge bias against Catholic and Orthodox characters within Christian publishing. I don't understand why, but it is definitely there.

So there you have it. My thoughts on why Russia is such a hard sell. Unless your name is Michael Phillips, Judith Pella or Tom Clancy, it is extremely difficult to sell a book set in Russia. But I will continue to try. Even if I have to eventually go the small press route.

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