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Why did I do this?

Back in January, Mental Floss listed the "most famous book set in each US state" (and DC, but not Puerto Rico etc). My patriotic European soul was stirred; there are only slightly more European countries than US states, and it must surely be possible, I thought, to find a moderately well-known book set in each.

I also wanted to test the methodology of comparing statistics from Goodreads and LibraryThing, which I have used in other contexts as well, and see what sort of results it delivered for this exercise. To be honest, I couldn't see any other way of actually measuring which the best known books associated with each country might be. Amazon's statistics are notoriously unreliable; there is no central tally of books sold worldwide. At least GR/LT would provide a starting point.

What did I learn?

First, the task was much more difficult for Europe than the United States because of the variations of size of each location that I considered. The largest US state (California) has about fifty times the population of the smallest (Wyoming). Russia has 160,000 times as many inhabitants as the Vatican, and thousands of times more than the other microstates. Not surprisingly, a lot more books have been set in Russia.

Second, the related point that LibraryThing and Goodreads do indeed have a pretty strong Anglosphere bias, which makes it much more difficult to find books set in certain European countries than in any of the United States. I am certain that some of the smaller linguistic markets have pretty vigorous literary traditions that keep themselves to themselves. Online catalogues can be surprisingly deep in places, but not always as wide of reach as one would like. From the literature available in English which is set there, one could easily conclude that only one thing ever happened in Poland.

Third, there is a clear chronological bias to my methodology. Books which were best-sellers in the ages before the internet achieved its present size have often slipped off the radar screens of Goodreads and LibraryThing users. I had a number of grieved comments about this over the course of the project (thanks particularly to Vlatko), and they have a point. Nobel prize winners of past decades are overtaken by more recent airport thrillers. It has been illuminating and a bit depressing to watch this.

Fourth, books which people think of as being associated closely with a particular country are not necessarily set there, and well-known books set in a particular country may not be generally thought of in that way. The Harry Potter novels are strongly associated with England, although most of most of them is set in Hogwarts, which is explicitly in Scotland. The best-known French novels are set in outer space (Le Petit Prince) and Algeria (L'Étranger). Most novels about Armenia address events that took place outside the boundaries of the current state. The Iliad is set in a named place which is today in Turkey. Perhaps I could have considered looking at the best-known book originally written in each European language instead.

What sorts of book were on the list?

The full list is here. It includes:

Cross-cutting categories:
  • Nine books about the second world war - one non-fiction memoir by a writer who died at Belsen (Netherlands), two Holocaust novels (Ukraine, Poland), another five fictional treatments of other theatres of the conflict (Germany, Slovakia, Estonia, Jersey and Guernsey) and two competing memoirs of the resistance in Belarus.
  • Sixteen books of sixty-four are by women: Wales, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Serbia, Finland, Georgia, Bosnia, Albania, Estonia, Guernsey, Andorra, Åland Islands, Svalbard, San Marino. Also Macedonia credits a woman as co-writer. As far as I know, only the writer of the book set in Austria has a non-European family background. Given the parameters of the project, which was more about mapping the existing patterns of reading behaviour than challenging them, it's not very surprising.

It's a little depressing that potboiler thrillers and airport novels are so visible, particular toward the lower end of the list, but I guess that reflects the parameters I set myself. A poorly researched but glamorous Ruritanian setting can often be an attractive prospect to a writer selling in a market where very few people have heard of Ruritania, let alone been there. This is, of course, a tradition that goes back at least as far as Marlowe and Shakespeare; which doesn't make it right.

But where I've been able to identify local writing, it's been very intriguing and made me want to get hold of those books. Carlos Ruiz Zafón was on my to-read list anyway; but I am adding the likes of Sandor Márai, Tea Olbreht, Sofie Oksanen, Arnaldur Indridason, and Ulla-Lena Lundberg, plus various others who have come up in the course of my research. It's been well worth doing this, and thanks to those of you who contributed to the discussion.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 11th, 2015 01:37 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry to hear you are done - I was hoping you were going to do the whole world. It's been interesting.
Apr. 11th, 2015 01:47 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I came across another blog by someone who did try reading a book by a writer from every country in the world. But for San Marino, she had to resort to a tourist guide; and she had a book from São Tomé and Principe specially translated, which is more dedicated than I can be!
Apr. 11th, 2015 03:53 pm (UTC)
Had you stopped arbitrarily at some point, are there countries you would have felt wrong not including? I think you could have got away with stopping after Luxembourg (or Malta or Iceland) and so restricted the list to just 44-46 according to Wikipedia. The ratio would still have been 250:1, but due to the large size of the largest countries, not the small size of the smallest. Luxembourg has in absolute terms a similar population to Wyoming.

I think the larger effect is the one you mention, that European countries are often both non-Anglophone and physically distant from the centres of LT and GR activity.
Apr. 11th, 2015 04:16 pm (UTC)
The Vatican is so culturally significant that it would have felt wrong to leave it out; also I knew that I woud enjoy writing the posts on Liechtenstein and San Marino. (Less so Andorra and Monaco.)

Also, I had a specific request not to neglect the Isle of Man, having started with England, Scotland, Wales and Norn Iron; and if you do the IoM, you have to do the Channel Islands; and in the European context that then also means Gibraltar and the Nordic islands.

I drew the line at generally unrecognised separatist territories. I found a mystery novel set in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a Bildungsroman set in Transnistria, and a post-apocalypse vampire novel set in Abkhazia; but (with all due respect to my Turkish Cypriot and Abkhaz friends) I classified those with Cyprus, Moldova and Georgia respectively, and did not search for works set in South Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh.

Kosovo, which is not a UN member but whose independence is recognised by the vast majority of European states and by more than half of the UN's membership, did get its own entry. The Vojvodina and the Republika Srpska in Bosnia did not, nor did the German or Austrian Länder, nor the separate regions of Belgium, nor the autonomous communities of Spain, nor the separate republics of the Russian Federation, nor the individual Swiss cantons, because life is too short. I hope I can be excused on grounds of local interest for separating out the constituent nations of the UK!

Edited at 2015-04-11 04:16 pm (UTC)
Apr. 11th, 2015 04:43 pm (UTC)
I raised my eyebrows at you breaking out the UK, but like you I confess a selfish interest in the result.
Apr. 11th, 2015 07:24 pm (UTC)
Perhaps I could have considered looking at the best-known book originally written in each European language instead.

That's your next project, surely? ;-)
Apr. 12th, 2015 10:26 am (UTC)
No, no, it's your turn, I insist!!!!
Apr. 11th, 2015 10:44 pm (UTC)
I found this utterly fascinating. Your summary doesn't show as much dominance by takes of WW2 atrocities as seemed prevalent at one pint - I found that more depressing than the airport novels. You could get a very well selling book out of this conceit I suspect..
Apr. 12th, 2015 10:26 am (UTC)
Thanks. The WW2 stuff is pretty dominant for a lot of large and medium-sized countries, of course, and until I tallied up the numbers I would have shared your impression of my findings!

I am pondering the book option. Knocking these posts together and then ebooking them with Scrivener should not take very long. (But where to find the time...)
Apr. 12th, 2015 08:34 am (UTC)
An Anglophone task in keeping with the USA-by-state idea might be British novels by county, although I suspect that the compiler would need to do a lot more active research. LT/GR probably doesn't easily provide a list of "novels set in Dorset", and they would have to pick which definition of county should be used!

(I am now intrigued, living in a city/county with far more than its fair share of novels... But I don't think I have the energy for the project!)

Edited at 2015-04-12 08:35 am (UTC)
Apr. 12th, 2015 10:24 am (UTC)
It would require quite a lot of grinding, as LT and GR are not well set up for this research (LT perhaps a little easier); but at the same time, once you get into the swing of it, it's oddly rewarding!

We discussed your home city before; for Dorset, as it happens, there is a very clear winner on LibraryThing, which is Tess of the d'Urbervilles. You have to allow "South Wessex" as Dorset in disguise, but I think most people would go along with that. Wintoncester is obviously Winchester, but everywhere else is in Dorset, notably Sandbourne = Bournemouth.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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