Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Other Hand, by Chris Cleave

This book was very well-written -- so well-written, in fact, that the ending could not match the buildup of the characters. I was disappointed with it; but, to be fair, I knew that there was probably no way the ending could satisfy me. Unless it involved some glorious act by Batman. (Seriously. He's in the book.)

But here's what I'm wondering (and this isn't a rhetorical question, a springboard off which I plan to jump into some diatribe or some cultural, philosophical musing; I really want to know what you think): Why must so many of our books, especially those considered "literary" or "good" books, deal with foreign cultures so extensively? Is there some reason that staying domestic (from an American perspective) isn't considered good enough?

Before I get jumped on, let me clarify: I don't think this is, in itself, a bad thing. I don't think that western, natively English-speaking cultures are in any way better, superior to, or richer sources for literature than other places, peoples, and cultures. But nor do I think that they are in any way worse, inferior to, or poorer sources for the same types of literature.

Maybe it's just what I've been reading lately. Look down the blog -- so many of the books involve German, Middle Eastern, Ukrainian settings and characters and themes. Obviously the books are in English (either originally or translated), and many of them involve the collision or blending or some other form of meeting between these cultures and American or English ones. But I feel like this isn't just a falsely perceived trend, nor do I think my observation is a result of my spending a year in Europe.

(And although this article isn't about what authors include in their works, but rather where they come from, I think it's relevant. If Americans aren't good enough for the Nobel Prize, maybe they aren't good enough to be written about, either.)

I said this wasn't my chance to jump into speculations, so I'll leave it to you all -- and I will continue the conversations in the comments section.
UPDATE: I just discovered that this book was released in the United States as Little Bee. Apparently I bought the British release in Germany. Go figure.


  1. I was tossing around your question, and then I asked myself, 'What are some examples of good/literary books?' The first five that I thought of were: Catch 22, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Fountainhead (I know, weird, but I was just talking to Jon yesterday about Atlas Shrugged), Catcher in the Rye, and Ender's Game (because I was recently talking to Dani about how she should read the series.)

    By my count none of these are dealing particularly with foreign cultures. I'm wondering if just as my experiences have led me to read more 'domestic' books, yours have led to books that include foreign cultures.

    What's a trustworthy "good book list" with which we could calculate some ratio?

  2. Hmm, good point, Andrew. What I noticed about your list first (other than "yup, those are all damn good books, whether you like them or not") is that none of them was published after 1985 (Ender's Game), and none of the rest after 1961.

    And on thinking about it for a little bit, I think maybe there's been some sort of shift in recent years (how many, I don't have any idea -- 5? 10?) away from writing about "normal" Americans -- soldiers, students, architects, little boys leading armies against aliens in outer space -- and toward writing about other cultures. Could that thought have some merit?

    I'm trying to think of a decent "good book list," but none of them I can think of (usually "books of the century" type things) would have enough recent books to weigh out those from the middle of the 20th century. Maybe some of the annual book awards, going back several decades? The Pulitzer, etc?

  3. Maybe it's because there is a fascination about writing about a culture that is different than one's own. People seem to put more effort in and have their imagination and inspiration sparked more by something they don't experience and encounter every day.

    Also, while none of the books mentioned by Andrew are necessarily culture specific, they also are of different time periods than the current one. When you factor in the setting of time, that changes the culture associated with it significantly I think.

    Writing about one's present culture or era is sort of lackluster. We (readers, not the royal "we") see a lot of books written during the now as books you find in airports, Walmart book sections etc. We also tend to consider those books as trash reading and not worthy of critical acclaim that other, more "literary" books are.

    I don't know...maybe I'm rambling and unclear, but that's the sort of feeling I get about it.

  4. No, Kim, you're perfectly clear. And I'll be the last one to criticize anyone for rambling!

    I think you make a very valid point about the fascination of foreign cultures. And I completely understand that appeal, both in literature and in life -- reading abroad, traveling abroad, studying abroad (or two!), and living abroad all help one to grow in ways one perhaps cannot when contained only in one's own culture.

    But what has to be lackluster about one's own culture? Can characters not have realizations as magnanimous, thoughts and experiences as outrageous, in a culture similar to that of the reader?

    I think they can. But I also think that such a book has to be very well written to accomplish a "literary" feat, and to rise above what you call "trash reading" and "Walmart book sections."

    One other question, to everyone, and relating to the Nobel article I linked to in the post: What is it about American literature that makes it so hard to accept as "literature"? I think when we're talking about these "other cultures," we really mean anything but American. (It doesn't help that all the commenters so far are American.) Why is there this tendency to view American writing, especially after the era of books Andrew mentions, as somehow inferior? (Or do you think that this perception only exists in the eyes of the Nobel commission and me?)