Becoming the Writer: Cultural Literacy


Declan Finn, author of Honor at Stake

Declan Finn, author of Honor at Stake

When you start to write, you are putting on the socially significant role of The Storyteller (there ought to be a Tarot card for that.) It’s a little like being a schoolteacher. You are expected to be knowledgeable in a way the Average Joe isn’t.

One name for the kind of knowledge you need is ‘Cultural Literacy.’ It refers to a list of things you need to know in order to pass as an educated person in the American (British, Australian, Serbian, German, Samoan) culture.

Taking on The Storyteller role means that you are claiming to be culturally literate. Even an actually illiterate tribal storyteller in a remote village needs to have high levels of cultural literacy.

To understand cultural literacy, think about its opposite, cultural illiteracy. Imagine a man who had never heard the name of William Shakespeare. Imagine he didn’t know who Zeus and Hera were. That when you mention the Gettysburg Address, he thinks you are talking about a street address, and when you say it was a Lincoln speech, he asks, ‘Who’s Lincoln?’

That’s what cultural illiteracy is— though it need not be quite that bad. Readers do not accept the culturally illiterate as serious writers. At best they might buy from you if you write pornos. And who wants to degrade their writing by using it to write pornos, which is something any idiot with a filthy mind can do?

Even lower-social-class readers who didn’t finish high school, who are culturally illiterate themselves, will be put off by a writer who shows he is culturally illiterate about something THEY know.

Now, some oh-so-special Progressive types decry cultural literacy in education and say they want to replace evil ‘white’ Shakespeare by, say, the collected works of Richard Wright (who was ‘black.’) Only they don’t actually function that way. If a Precious Progressive reviews an author who has managed to show he has no clue what Hamlet and Macbeth were all about, the criticism will be scathing— even though according to the Precious Progressive that author may have been educated the exact right way by a school who has dumped Shakespeare for Richard Wright.

But what about when there is an author who does know his Shakespeare, but who hasn’t read Richard Wright’s Native Son, or his late-in-life collection of haiku? Is there any Precious Progressive on the planet who would actually tag an author as ignorant for not recognizing a quote from Native Son or a Richard Wright haiku? Lesson is this— even people who are against the cultural literacy concept expect you to be culturally literate.

How do you fix the gaps in your cultural literacy? There are a number of books by E. D. Hirsch on cultural literacy aimed at an American audience. Much of what is in this books will also help you out if you are from Finland, Vietnam or Nigeria; you might also look at elementary and secondary school textbooks from your nation to get clues on what cultural literacy means to your own culture. (Note— if you are a Korean, say, who writes in English, you get a pass on some mistakes on English and American cultural literacy because of all the cool Korean cultural literacy stuff you know. Especially if you put some cool Korean stuff in your book.)

Question

How do you rate yourself on the cultural literacy scale? Do you have any plans for improving your cultural literacy level? What are some things you might suggest to others improving their cultural literacy level?

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2 thoughts on “Becoming the Writer: Cultural Literacy

  1. I know Richard Wright and have read the first chapter of “Native Son.” I never knew he wrote haiku though. I consider Shakespeare and those other dead white men to be my undergraduate cultural literacy. I am now working on my “doctorate” in cultural literacy which includes Richard Wright, other African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and some bonafide Africans and Asians. At least translations of them. I love Cry, the Beloved Country.. Okay, so the author was white, but he stood up for the rights of native South Africans even at the cost of his own career. Does he get half-credit for that? 🙂

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