Writing Right with Dmitri: Baggage Handling
This week as I write this (week of 15 June), hilarity has erupted in certain quarters in the US, providing a welcome change from all the gloomy news. The reason? The Fox News organisation, reporting on alleged discord in the ranks of Seattle's Autonomous Zone, spotted this text exchange:
I didn't vote for Raz. I thought we were an autonomous collective?
An anarcho-syndicalist commune at the least. We should take turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.
Fox News gleefully seized upon this post as a sign of dissension in the ranks at CHAZ (=Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone). People who had seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail seized upon the Fox broadcast as proof that nobody at Fox News had ever watched that film. John Cleese was reportedly delighted at this turn of events, which probably cheered him up after the tv people pulled his 'don't mention the war' sketch.
Brits: here's what you don't know. While pretty much everybody in your country knows about Monty Python, because 1) it's a British show, and 2) it's all about Britain, all the time, thus ensuring that you will stay interested in it, only some people in the US are familiar with it. Those people are likely to have university educations and left-of-centre politics. (Don't get excited: most people here regard Bernie Sanders as about as far left as you can get. Bernie Sanders is basically a European-style social democrat.)
The reason for this tendency is a phenomenon that I swear we invented in this country: the Middlebrow. You know, you have Highbrow (likes opera and ballet and knows how to pronounce Dvorak) and Lowbrow (cheers for NASCAR and enjoys monster truck rallies). This is not sufficient for the US. Oh, no. We have university-educated people who like to be trendily 'enlightened'. Among their other tendencies, frequently rumoured to involve frozen gourmet food, they like to support 'public' radio and television. These stations, in return for the support of the 'enlightened' masses, give them prestige coffee mugs and tote bags, and run their favourite upscale programmes.
Middlebrow programming includes Masterpiece Theatre, reruns of the epic and inimitable Lawrence Welk Show, and anything comedic from England. We mean England, not Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. Although they do allow Monarch of the Glen, because it has classy people with titles in.
What you have to understand here is that to Middlebrows, anything British is 'intellectual'. Monty Python? Intellectual. Are You Being Served? Intellectual. Last of the Summer Wine? Intellectual. So help me Hanna. They've been re-running Keeping Up Appearances so long that viewers can quote Patricia Routledge by heart. Just like many of you can Monty Python routines. 'My slimline princess telephone has never been connected to a Chinese takeaway.'
Obviously, Fox News employees don't do Middlebrow. They aren't in tune with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Or they're like a lot of people I know, and never could understand those accents. I used to watch Monty Python as a teenager, secure in the knowledge that the parental units had no idea what was being said and couldn't be upset. (The late 1960s were a touchy era, kind of like now.) It was almost as good as watching a film in German.
See? That's cultural baggage, right there. If you grow up in a particular place at a particular time, you will take this context for granted. If you didn't, or you work for Fox News, you'll need an interpreter.
If you say to a German, 'Hop, hop, hop,' you might set off a song in their head. It's a children's ditty. If you say, 'Thoughts are free,' the German will hear the song 'Die Gedanken sind frei', which has historical resonance. An English speaker won't think of a song unless that English speaker either knows German, or is a Shakespeare scholar. So it goes.
What removes us from cultural baggage is space, time, and language. What makes it possible for us to get there again is good writing – writing that illuminates but doesn't patronise. If you watch Babylon Berlin and you speak German, you will learn a ton about Weimar Germany that you may not have known before. As someone who already knew a fair bit, I can vouch for the astonishing level of accuracy in the cultural baggage area. If you don't speak German, you can pick up a lot, but you won't get all of it, as I've noticed from reading English-language fan blogs. They wonder about odd things, like 'Why is that man eating a hot meal at home in the middle of the day?' Which is a question no German of that time would have asked.
Of course, if the writer is sloppy, or takes things for granted, the result is an insult to everyone. You know: historical drama that plants contemporary people in the past with their attitudes intact. Or that phony-baloney 'steampunk'-wannabe stuff that decides, 'Hey, all we wanted were the cool costumes. We'll have mobile phones in 1812, if we want!' Phooey.
And it isn't all about history. I've got at least one person on this site trying to make sense of Halldór Laxness' Under the Glacier. If you read that book, you not only get a good laugh, but you learn a lot about Iceland, which has a fascinating history and culture, and which adds hugely to the variety on our planet.
That's what you do, as a writer: you add to the human record. You show what the world looks like through your eyes. This is true whether your story takes place yesterday, today, or in an imaginary tomorrow. You've got to deal with your own cultural baggage – the assumptions you take for granted – as well as those of your target audience, and the characters in the space/time of your stories. How well you handle all that is a significant measure of the success of your finished product.