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Reading and Writing Culture

20 November, 2013

Storytelling with shadow puppets (Wiki Commons)

 We seldom realize . . . that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. 

˜Alan Watts

The power of our cultural lens

The term cultural lens refers to our culture-based perspective, which helps us make sense of what we experience, both directly and indirectly, e.g.,  via movies, books, computer games.

The above quote identifies culture’s strong effect on writers and their material. How easily readers connect with our writing depends in part on the extent that their cultural lens matches ours.   

Cultural content 

Cultural difference between writers and their readers or viewers can be a minefield.  Our cultural perspective leads us to accept  one fictive world as intimately familiar, another as more distant, and another as  strange, even incomprehensible. I once read a non-western whodunnit, where the baddie’s  modus operandi  turned out to be voodoo. It was presented as a plausible explanation. But because voodoo is beyond my mental schema about what is realistic in my culture, I found the story unsatisfying. 

Humour writer, Garrison Keillor, drew on his Midwestern background to write stories about the mythical Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon.  I found his tales delightful— and familiar. Having grown up in the Midwest, I understood his characters’ ways of thinking, talking and acting. These ways  were in my enculturated blood. His stories were  also popular in Australia, presented on the radio show, Prairie Home Companion. But because of my cultural background, I picked up more nuances and references than most Aussie listeners. 

Our cultural lens can affect a number of writing choices:  setting, plot, characters. We can choose elements that fit our culture’s familiar social ‘rules’ and values. We draw on what’s familiar in our culture or sub-culture when we select story elements such cause and effect, relevant actions, and characters’ speech patterns and non-verbal communication.  

Or we can do the reverse, consciously subverting our culture’s norms. For example, we may develop characters as ones who do  not follow the usual cultural blueprint  in terms of their gender, age, education, or profession. 

When we watch a film or read a book from a culture alien to our own, we may feel lost. Even if we can follow the what of the story—its action—we may  find it difficult know the why  that underpins and makes sense of the action. For anyone interested in such cultural differences in storytelling, I recommend the essay,  Shakespeare in the Bush. An anthropologist relates the story of  Hamlet to a group of African tribal elders. Using their cultural lens, they provide  an enchantingly different interpretation. 

Tell not show? Show not tell?

Culture also affects less obvious writing choices. One is the amount of telling. In modern western culture, writers are often instructed to show, don’t tell.  Rather than telling readers what a character feels—Mary was angry—it is considered better to give an action:   Mary slammed the door so hard the glass panel shattered. 

But the telling taboo is not universal. In a culture with a rich oral tradition, written stories may focus on telling. Actions may be surrounded, even overwhelmed, by commentary, admonishment, foreshadowing, interpretation.

The next time you dig into another culture as a reader or viewer, consider the cultural forces at work. Doing so may give you a new perspective on your own writing, plus some new ideas to play with.

Bohannan, Laura. Shakespeare in the Bush. Accessed 20 Nov 2013. 

© Marsha Durham, WritingCompanion blog.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 November, 2013 8:48 am

    I had an interesting cultural perspective myself – I picked up Huckleberry Finn the other day, and coasted past the reference to “Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim” without having taken offence. Then later that day I heard a comment on the radio about a new edition of the book which had replaced the 217 references to what you should now apparently call the “N-word” with “slave” (even when referring to freed men). There is also an edition called The Hipster Huckleberry Finn in which the N-word is replaced with “hipster” so Huck’s adventures “are now neither offensive nor uncool”.


    • 21 November, 2013 4:50 pm

      This has my head spinning! I’m not in favour of bowdlerisation, but accept that terms considered neutral then may be highly charged or offensive now. But where to draw the line? Should old texts with out-moded, limiting stereotypes of women be rewritten? I’m happy to read original texts because they represent the time, or at least the author’s views at the time. Modern readers get an idea of how much life and language have changed. But the ‘hipster’ replacement–that’s just bizarre.


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