Why Do Different Cultures Love The Same Books by Mhairi Simpson

I’ve been thinking this morning. (By some miracle nothing exploded.) I was thinking about how authors write books that so many people like.

I mean, comparatively speaking very few books are massively popular, but those that are go around the world. They get translated into dozens of languages, read in dozens of different cultures, and loved. By all those different people.

How does that happen?

The example that produced this train of thought came up the other day when Peter V. Brett tweeted the Chinese covers of The Desert Spear. (They’re beautiful, by the way.) Apparently the books debuted at the top of the bestseller lists in, oh, I don’t know, Japan and Taiwan? Something like that.

Really, how does that happen? Mr. Brett is obviously a good writer, but he is American and as such presumably has a certain outlook on the world which would be different if he had been born in, say, Tibet. Or Somalia. ‘East meets West’ is a very old and fairly well accepted thing – there are a lot of different cultures in the world, and the further you go from one, the more different the cultures you encounter will be.

So how do writers write books that appeal to all these different cultures?

People like to say, well, deep down we’re all the same. With the same hopes, fears, dreams, etc. But are we? Maybe. I’m white, blonde, female, a native English speaker. All of which dictate my outlook on life to a certain extent. I’m really not going to apologise for thinking that a flushing toilet is a very basic building block of what I would call ‘civilisation’.

I did have a point, but I’ve forgotten what it is. Maybe we’ll find it by the end of this post.

I expect I’ve been wondering about all this because, of course, my book is getting closer to being ready and I’m trying not to think too hard about whether people will like it. In the end, there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is write the story. It’s up to other people whether they like it or not.

And yet, I wonder, what is it that makes people like certain stories? I love the Dresden Files, to the point where I was sorely tempted to buy the hardback of Ghost Story. I restrained myself. So far that is an honour which I have bestowed on Sir Terry Pratchett, whose stuff I also love, obviously. I really enjoy Clive Cussler’s stuff. But only the proper ones with the original Dirk Pitt, not the later ones with Dirk Pitt #2.

Why? I can’t relate to anything that involves scuba-diving or piloting underwater craft. Up to a year ago I didn’t even have a driving licence. Nor can I relate to blasting fire from my hands. Ye gods, I really wish I could! But I can’t. It’s sad. Something else I try not to think about.

So what is it that I can relate to in these stories? That desire to never give up, no matter how many people are trying to kill you? Or in my case, tell me I can’t do something. Quite a few of those around. What about the need to win? And I love that these guys get girls, because I don’t get guys and I have to live vicariously through someone. Why not a character in a book?

Maybe that’s what appeals to us – books enable us to experience things we will never otherwise get to do. There’s a fantastic passage in Matilda (Roald Dahl) that encompasses this:

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

And let’s not forget that, when you go on sailing ships, at least in books, you usually experience the most dreadful storms where the rain came horizontal and waves crashed over the deck, sweeping men to their watery graves. Masts broke, sails tore, and the ship drifted under the merciless sun for days until enough repairs could be done to catch a breeze. With Rudyard Kipling you also learnt about the intricacies of polo from the Maltese Cat (one of my most favourite stories in the world EVER) and what it feels like to fall off a horse at thirty miles an hour (health tip: don’t do this).

Through books we can experience the joy, wonder, fury, horror, sorrow, excitement and pain of lives we will never get to live. And we don’t even care, because there will always be another book. So maybe the key is the fact that, no matter what culture we grew up in, or live in now, we all wish our lives were just a bit more interesting, and books give us the fun we crave.


Real life is just too real, which is why Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available in autumn 2011.

2 thoughts on “Why Do Different Cultures Love The Same Books by Mhairi Simpson”

  1. We as humans want many of the same things in stories. An escape to another world, with delightful people, or better yet, who change to become more delightful, who have the courage to battle their enemies. It inspires us and gives us hope in a world that is too often devoid of justice.

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