Transcultural Fiction

"Write about what you know" is an advice often given to fiction writers. Yet, some writers are successful with books about countries and cultures other than their own (or in any event, other than the country and culture where they grew up) -- James Clavell, Pearl S. Buck and Robert van Gulik wrote about Japan and China, Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes write mysteries set in England, Alexander McCall Smith writes about a ladies' detectives agency in Botswana, Tony Hillerman's heroes were Navajos and other Native Americans, Lion Feuchtwanger wrote novels set in, inter alia, Spain, France, and Old-Testament Israel, and Marguerite Yourcenar's and Trevanian's books were practically all over the place, from Japan to France, ancient Rome (in Yourcenar's case) and beyond. So is the old adage just plain wrong -- can you credibly write about what you don't know after all -- or are these books successful just because their respective writers do intimately understand the cultures they write about? Or does it matter whether the author at least comes from a country/ cultural system that is similar to the one (s)he describes?

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369 books · 245 voters · list created September 22nd, 2009 by Themis-Athena (Lioness at Large) (votes) .
65 likes · 
Lists are re-scored approximately every 5 minutes.


Themis-Athena (Lioness at Large) 546 books
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Susanna - Censored by GoodReads 3060 books
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Es 0 books
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Greyweather 2650 books
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Gary 396 books
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Lobstergirl 4416 books
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Thom 6023 books
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Laura 11079 books
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More voters…


Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Lobstergirl (new)

Lobstergirl I have to qualify my Elizabeth George votes. I think she is a mediocre writer (the poor man's P.D. James, someone on this site once said). I haven't given her books more than 3 stars. But I will always read another Lynley as long as she writes them because I like Lynley and Havers. So that's the spirit in which I cast votes for her.


Themis-Athena (Lioness at Large) Are there even any specific criteria for casting votes on a given list at all? I think what matters mostly is whether a given book topically fits the criteria indicated in the list's title and description (if any). When I created this particular list, for example, I included a number of books that don't work particularly well for me, either (McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe series, for one) -- yet they seem to appeal to plenty of others. So do vote away on Elizabeth George's books, in whichever spirit it may be ... ;)


message 3: by Lobstergirl (new)

Lobstergirl Themis-Athena wrote: "Are there even any specific criteria for casting votes on a given list at all? I think what matters mostly is whether a given book topically fits the criteria indicated in the list's title and des..."

Yes, I think you're right for the most part, unless the criteria specifically mentions loving, hating, liking, favorite, etc. Although I almost always try to avoid voting for books that are so popular they always gravitate to the top of the list. Harry Potter, Twilight, that one about a Mockingbird. Let's give some other books a chance. And the only reason I really mentioned E. George is that I have such a resistance to clicking on that VOTE button when it comes to her. (Yet I read her stuff.)


Themis-Athena (Lioness at Large) Yeah, "let's give some other books a chance" -- I very much second that. All in all I'm glad they fixed the counters, but one of the things I actually liked about Goodreads' temporary "broken-counter" state was that you just HAD to go through every list in its entirety to see the most recent votes and additions. That way, for once, books that would otherwise have had a tougher time staying on page one (or at least, page two) actually did manage to remain in the spotlight at least for a couple of days!


message 5: by Lobstergirl (new)

Lobstergirl Having reread The Good Earth, I remember that Pearl Buck did grow up in China, so that was what she knew. Do you mean for people to vote on only books where the author was not intimately familiar with the country/culture being described? So for example Cry, the Beloved Country would not belong on the list since the author was South African and was writing specifically about the society and culture he knew.


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