“I gasp, and I’m Eve in the Garden of Eden, and he’s the serpent, and I cannot resist.” This quote, from E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey, is not only as creative as recycling, but, more painfully for a sensationally successful novel, it is drenched in cliché. An unpardonable crime in literature. Unpardonable, but it is it understandable?
Look a bit more closely. Why is it cliché? It links together sex, a timeless, profoundly human topic, with a Biblical reference. The Bible was written 2,000 years ago, and, for at least 1, 500 years, Biblical references have proliferated in literature. Why? It is a book that is near and dear to many millions of peoples hearts and, more importantly, it is a reference that a quarter of the world’s population will understand.
Imagine if I do a bit of rewriting, but keeping the same meaning of the sentence. “I gasp, and I’m the lion jealous of the ostrich’s voice, and I cannot resist.” Does that make sense to you? It oughtn’t, as the reference is taken from a folk story told by the San bushmen of the Kalahari desert. Yet, looked at objectively, is it any inferior, in a literary sense, to the Biblical reference?
(For a change) This isn’t about the Bible. It’s about the accumulation of cultural references that litter world literature. Metaphors rely on these cultural references. I cannot call a woman angelic if your culture never conceived of angels. And I cannot have a character say ‘rock and roll!’ if you don’t know what rock’n’roll is. This can at times make certain classics outdated if you don’t understand the references they make. And, as crucial as they are, as a writer, I have grown weary of them.
I have begun writing a novel set entirely in the Palaeolithic period, roughly 70, 000 years ago, on the coast of Africa. And I have done this quite deliberately: I want to strip writing down to the bone. I want to free myself from the dangers of cliche and return it to a purer more organic form. Storytelling, as I have written before, is a defining trait of humanity, it has been around since the dawn of man and will never disappear so long as humanity is still around. Whether it be stories around the hearth or 50 Shades of Grey in ebook format, we are addicted to story.
However, as with any other major industry around today, I feel too much of literature has become too capitalistic, bland, and bereft of meaning. Of course there are exceptions – from Salman Rushdie to Vladimir Nabokov to Khaleid Hosseini – but looking at the dirge of repetitive, openly cashing-in fan fiction from the pit of Twilight clones to regurgitated 21st century Sherlock Holmes’ thrillers. Most of them have nothing to say about the world we live in, teach nothing, and are entertaining only if you can penetrate the overly done writing. But, of course, they have professional covers, great reviews, and high rankings.
In response I have been indulging myself in the oral stories of hunter-gatherer tribes such as the aforementioned San bushmen, the pygmies of West Africa and the Aboriginal people of Australia. The stories might at first seem impenetrable. I have never lived side by side with lions and kangaroos, so how can I relate to the stories they told? I can’t. But I could appreciate the direct, free, genuine manner in which the stories are told. Stories where myth and everyday fact mingle in one reality. And, more than that, I can appreciate the importance of stories in day to day lives. Stories are told to teach youngsters, to pass the time, to pass on morals, and even for nocturnal entertainment. Story, I have come to understand, is not a commodity but a constant companion.
So I have set myself the challenge of writing just such a story which will mix reality and the wondrous seamlessly, eliciting the magic of the world we live in, and the hyperbolic poetry of the everyday. The novel will be written as if it is an oral story being told by a grandfather to his grandchildren. However, this does not make the story abstracted and out of touch. The novel will tackle issues we are all facing today: mass migration, climate change, religious fanaticism and human nature.
A World of Our Own Making is a double-edged title, referring to the beauty of myths we have conceived to explain the world around us, and, a cynical reminder that the troubles we face today are of our own making.