Preconceived Culture

The depiction of culture is essential to any well-constructed novel. In order for the author to create a believable “world” or “society,” they have to describe culture. Usually writers are good at this, however, the description of various cultures throughout literature may lead to preconceived ideas or even stereotypical ideas of a race, social group, state, city, or nation.

Duke University Press produces a triannual peer-reviewed journal entitled Novel: A Forum on Fiction which goes into detail about various struggles plaguing writers and readers of fiction alike. In the past few issues, the topics of culture and sociology have played a major role in the publication. According to its mission, Novel “publishes essays concerned with the novel’s role in engaging and shaping the world (Duke).” The means that the way in which we as readers and students perceive the world is A) important and B) influenced by the books we read.

We matter!

The most recent issue of Novel includes an article called “A Picture of Europe: Possession Trance in Heart of Darkness” written by Nidesh Lawtoo. The article focuses on Conrad’s stereotypical depiction of African people, especially the activity of dancing to the “sound of drums in a state of frenzy.” Lawtoo uses this article as a means of proving Conrad’s racism but ponders whether the dramatized description may also function as a “means to realize the dreadfulness of ritual frenzy in any place.” Regardless of Lawtoo’s conclusion, it  is clear that he is investigating how an author’s portrayal of a place or people can drastically alter how the reader perceives them.

In Lisa Zunshine’s article “Sociocognitive Complexity” she explores how the mind of fictional characters interacts with the reader. This relates to culture because the way in which certain characters perceive events that happen to them throughout a piece of literature may influence the reader’s perception of the same events, places, or people. The idea of historicism comes into play in her article as well as she explores the history of psychological understanding and progress of mental states.

Nathan Hansley discusses the shift in historicism and how cultural forms come about at the end of the “imperial life cycles.” Although Hansley focuses on three canonical works, the idea of historicism as in flux is applicable to most literature, including contemporary fiction. It correlates nicely with the idea of cultural depictions throughout literary history as well, because the same area, event, or people may be described differently depending on what the author thinks or the time during which he or she writes their work.

Finally, Christopher Douglas focuses on the depiction of multiculturalism in America – dealing specifically with Christianity. He bases his article upon “Gilead” bu Marilynne Robinson, because he sees it as different from most American fiction written today. Although religion may not play a major role in all literature, there are other defining characters aside from religion that may define a character, country, or other aspect of a literary work. He focuses on how contemporary American fiction leans toward an agnostic viewpoint but Robinson’s work focuses on the difference between spirituality and politicized religion. Again, this relates to the reader’s perception of the subject at hand.

Novel provided me with several different perspectives concerning how an author’s idea of a place, concept, event, or culture can drastically alter the reader’s own perception.

While it is important to allow the author’s views to permeate our thoughts as readers, it is essential to look at the opposing claim, play devil’s advocate when reading, and discover our individual understandings of  the subjects at hand.




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