Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cultural cringe (and other random corollaries)

I was pretty proud of myself the other day, for reading a book by an Australian author, a female Melbourne author, what's more.  There's always something quite pleasurable for me in reading books set in Melbourne. I love the instantaneous and deep recognition of cultural references that are possible in local books, and I love knowing the streets and places where the action is set.

But then right after finishing that book,  I made a beeline for (yet) another American book. It had a pink guitar on the cover! And it was set in L.A! L.A!

I am a sucker for American and British books. Unfairly or not, I do regard books written by overseas authors as more exciting, and more current than local ones.  I'm pretty sure I should feel bad about this; there's something a bit self-hating (not to mention untrue) about thinking all that's local is globally irrelevant, uninteresting or inward-looking. After hearing John Green speak recently, I became aware that Australian children's literature has an extremely good reputation overseas, so I can't plead any quality issues.  

But I think part of it can be explained away by my motivation for reading. Arguably, if I was reading solely for recognition and connection, then I would go for Australian writing. But I think I read largely for escape*, in which case I am naturally going to head for those books set in New York City, or mediaeval England, or a futuristic North America, or another planet entirely. 

But it's also not that simple. It in fact might be easier for me to relate to a foreign city-dwelling character than it is for me to relate to an Australian character that lives in the desert, or lived a hundred years ago. Western cities are so alike these days, and the lives of their inhabitants are so similar, that maybe it's only natural that I look to writing from other similar Western nations. Throw into that my preference for young adult fiction, and you have a real mess. Why would I choose to constantly read about characters who are at a completely different stage of life than me?

Anyway, I don't have an answer for this vexing tendency of mine. I'm not even sure I should be worried about it, although I do like the theory of supporting local industry. Perhaps the answer lies in balance: consuming a wide range of literature from Australia and overseas. In which case I think I should probably read more Australian books. 

On another related matter, I always used to feel terribly guilty that most of my favourite authors were male. This gender bias always puzzled me. It felt accidental. Or subconscious. I couldn't explain it. The feminist in me was v.vexed. (I do wonder if any men I know ever worry that they don't read enough female-authored books - do they? Men, do you?) Ever since I have started to read almost exclusively books for children or young adults, thankfully my gender pendulum has swung right back to the middle. I feel happiest in the middle. 

* I may yet blog about my worry that I don't read widely enough, that I don't challenge myself enough with a varied literary diet. That I read more for entertainment than intellectual stimulation. I've been worried about this, and I've been worried about what stories I am going to attempt to write in the future, ever since hearing Mal Peet talk about `chicken nuggets' at the Reading Matters Conference. I don't want to read fast food writing. I don't want to write in a fast food fashion. 

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