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:
- One collection of humorous short stories, presented as autobiographical (Armenia).
- Two ancient epic poems (Greece and Turkey).
- Two graphic stories (Macedonia and Austria).
- Two romance novels – a Mills & Boon set in San Marino, and a historical romance set in Andorra. (A time-travel romance in Scotland narrowly lost out.)
- Four nineteenth century classics (Russia, France, Belgium, Switzerland
- Five books for children (Switzerland, Wales, Finland, Norway, Liechtenstein)
- Five plays – three by William Shakespeare (Scotland, Denmark, Cyprus), one by Christopher Marlowe (Malta) and one by George Bernard Shaw (Bulgaria). NB that the Estonia winner also began life as a play.
- Seven non-fiction works from six countries, two about growing up in horrible circumstances (Ireland, the Netherlands), two non-fiction studies of a particular incident in Belarus, two sports-related travel memoirs (Moldova and Liechtenstein) and a historical study of a Vatican artwork.
- Nine works of SF, fantasy or horror (England, Romania, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Finland, Georgia, Wales, Sark and Svalbard).
- Eight crime/mystery novels (Croatia, Latvia, Northern Ireland, Montenegro, Iceland, Isle of Man, Gibraltar, Monaco) and another five which could be classified as thrillers (Italy, Sweden, Albania, Kosovo, Jersey)
- Seventeen books from sixteen countries which are non-genre fiction. These include two novels (Ukraine, Poland) explicitly about the Holocaust, another four fictional treatments of the second world war (Germany, Slovakia, Estonia, Guernsey) and eleven others from ten countries (Spain, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lithuania, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Faroe Islands, Åland Islands).
- 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.