Cultural Writing: Why the Author Matters

I am a huge fan of writings from other cultures, whether written in English or translated into English from the original language. My favorite cultural literature is Asian; the cultural history is extraordinary and unique in every category (family, fashion, women’s rights, etc.), and the style of writing is very distinctive, even if translated into English. In fact, the writing style is so distinctive that I can always tell whether Asian literature is written by an Asian author or not. When someone from another culture writes an Asian novel, it’s easy to hear the lack of authenticity in the writing style even if the author has heavily studied Asian literature and culture.

A good example of this is Lisa See’s writings. Although See is Chinese-American, she is an American writer, and this can clearly be heard in books like Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. While these books are enjoyable, they are not the same kind of enjoyable as true Asian literature. The style leans more towards American; historical references are peppered throughout on purpose even when they don’t fit to give the effect of an Asian writer (they end up sticking out too much); and descriptions are stiffly studded with references to Asian-specific things that don’t always fit or are over explained (peonies, the color red, good fortune, etc.).

All in all, writings from one culture’s perspective should be written by that culture in order for it to be authentic. While this seems redundant, it has yet to be accepted by those who still try to write in another culture’s voice. Here are some excellent examples of cultural writings which hit the mark:

– Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
– Bette Bao Lord’s Spring Moon
– Pa Chin’s Family

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Tangents and Pedantic Tendencies in Classic Literature

I’ve noticed that in many pieces of classic literature, the authors tend to go off on long tangents and/or repeat things far too often.

Moby Dick has entire chapters that go off on tangents, i.e. chapter 24, “The Advocate” (Ishmael makes his very long case for being a whale-hunter) and chapter 25, “Postscript” (Ishmael continues to make his case for being a whale-hunter). None of this really forwards the story, although it provides insight into his choice of profession, and it could be done in a much shorter amount of time. This is only one (short) example of a pedantic tangent. Chapter 9, “The Sermon”, is far worse.

Atlas Shrugged has long, repetitive speeches from characters which explain their philosophies three times over, just in case you didn’t get it in the first sentence…or paragraph…or chapter. It also has long, boring descriptions which tend to repeat what has already been said.

Dracula has too many repetitive mentions of people crossing themselves and bad omens, and I’ve only read up to page 20.

While I am massively in favor of descriptions which lend themselves to symbolism, in-depth analysis, and greater, deeper understanding of the work as a whole (or even the author), sometimes there’s simply too much unnecessary description.

Do you think that in most cases, the author is too caught up in trying to make the reader understand his/her point and drive it home? Or do you think this type of description is indeed necessary so that every type of person can grasp the author’s intentions?