Saturday, 11 October 2014

A tale of Latvian backpackers

I'm going to get a bit nostalgic today.

I'm thinking about one of my great inspirations as a writer, Douglas Adams.

I learnt so much from his books. About how words written on a page can induce serious laughter. About how smart humour can be, getting into the realms of serious satire. About how characters can leap off the page, and dialogue can dance and sparkle.

But beyond the pure fun and enjoyment that I got (and still get) from reading his work, and the ways I try to duplicate that in my own writing (while at the same time trying to come up with my own voice and style, rather than slavishly copying), there's one additional message that I long ago learnt from his writing and which I'm always trying to follow.

It actually comes from one of his lesser known books. It's a non-fiction work titled Last Chance to See which describes his journeys around the world in the company of a zoologist to find a number of endangered species.

At one stage on his travels, they encounter a couple of German backpackers. Douglas Adams becomes really frustrated at the fact that this pair exhibit all the characteristics you would expect of stereotypical German backpackers (e.g. ridiculous efficiency and a strong sense of superiority) and hates the idea that he might be writing anything that would reinforce such stereotypes.

And that's when he decides that he won't. From here on in, these backpackers won't be German, they'll be Latvian instead.

He keeps to his word. In the chapters that follow, there are lots of references to those Latvian backpackers, and their sense of Latvian efficiency and superiority. It's a great part of what is already a great book (and highly recommended).

What did I learn from this? It's the basic idea that writers should not be reinforcing stereotypes. We should always be finding new ways to see the world and the people within it. In my writing, whenever I feel like I'm resorting to some sort of cliche or fixed type, I always try to pull back and think about how I could inject some originality or find some new way to express my ideas, rather than resorting to hoary old stereotypes.

Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes, it's a little bit unavoidable. But it's always something I aspire to. And just another reason to give thanks to the great Douglas Adams.

1 comment:

  1. Stereotypes are a mainstay of humourists. I know Vulcans may believe in the principle of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations but the reality—at least amongst us humans—is far from it and it’s our own fault because although we like the idea of individuality society actively works against us: we are encouraged to conform. The French don’t live of frogs’ legs and most Scots males have never worn a kilt in their life but another ability we humans possess is the need to simplify. It’s an essential tool because we’re faced with such a huge amount of data to input every day. And so we blur things to keep things manageable. Stereotypes aren’t a good or a bad thing. They’re simply a fact of life and although it’s often funny when people behave as you might expect what’s funnier—and this is a fundamental basis for all humour—is when they do things out of character. The Mother-in-Law is a staple of comedians—Les Dawson made a living out of maligning his—but I’m sure none of his audiences really believed the woman was the way he portrayed her. We suspend disbelief. And part of what works with the kind of reductive thinking that keeps stereotypes alive is the knowledge that they’re really caricatures. Yes, somewhere out there the archetypal Scot or Australian or German or even Latvian exists. But he’s very much the exception rather than the norm.