Culture Tells Stories

Recently I read an article in The Guardian by a Cairo-based scholar named Jonathan Guyer. The article was entitled “The Arab Whodunnit: Crime Fiction Makes a Comeback In the Middle East.” I highly suggest you take a look at and read it, but I’m not going to talk exactly about what the article talks about. The article is more concerned with what caused this rise in, what Guyer calls, the “neo-noir revolution” sweeping Middle Eastern fiction.

While the article is well worth the read, what stood out to me was something much simpler. It was the basic fact that what culture is like influences, and as this article might suggest, perhaps defines what sorts of stories we get. At one point in the article, Guyer quotes another writer saying, “Cairo is the perfect setting for noir: sleaze, glitz, inequality, corruption, lawlessness. It’s got it all.”

Isn’t that sad? Because of the culture of the Middle East and its recent history it isn’t the best place, to put it lightly. In fact, there’s quite a lot of trouble and apparently that’s spawned this rise in the noir novel.

It’s been observed before, but I still can’t help but think it again when I read this article. Culture tells stories. The genres and characters that are popular seem to be determined by what the cultural conversation is. Of course, this is to be expected. The writers aren’t writing in vacuums–they’re observing, absorbing, and sometimes engaging in this conversation as well. And thus it simply fits that the stories we tell reflect who we are as a society.

Which makes me think of something else: how have my stories been influenced by the culture I’ve grown up in? How have yours? Probably a good deal of how and why we tell stories is a result of the circles we’ve walked in. Again, we don’t write in a vacuum. My stories, for example, have a slight philosophical bent that manifests itself from time to time. The people I’ve grown up with and the culture I’ve grown up in tends to be more philosophical, and so it makes sense for me to tell those kinds of stories.

I’m sure there are exceptions to this, and I don’t pretend to be making any sort of argument here. Many people have observed that writers are influenced by their cultures, and so I’m not trying to make an argument for that conclusion. I’m simply looking at the conclusion, and asking what the results of it are.

And so the question must be asked, and is asked. How does the culture of, say, the Middle East determine what stories it tells? How do the cultures we grow up in influence the stories we tell? But ultimately, I think, if we accept that cultures tell stories, we are led to two questions: What stories will our culture tell? And what will we think of them when they are told?

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