A few columns back, I mentioned that I’d read a Wilbur Smith novel as a youngster. I was being slightly economical with the truth – in fact, I’ve read a lot of Wilbur Smith novels. Yes, I know – you’re judging me. Hell, I’m judging me.
I remember the high-school English teacher who took a look at the list of texts I’d chosen to write book reviews on, snorted contemptuously, and asked, “Adams, why do you read junk?” Of course, he was also a religious fundamentalist who believed that planet Earth had actually stopped revolving for six hours once upon a time, so that the Israelites could continue a particularly bloody genocide, and nobody had fallen over or been slammed so hard into a wall that they had to be buried in an envelope, so I didn’t find his judgment especially trustworthy.
It was only years later, upon sober, mature reflection, that I realised he was right (about my reading tastes, not the planet stopping suddenly on its axis). Wilbur is junk. But like fruit-flavoured Mentos and heroin*, it’s incredibly more-ish junk. (I once bought a three-pack of Mentos so that, you know, I could have two or three per day for a week. Ha! Guess how that ended?) I claim the defence that everyone else uses when revealing a Wilbur habit – he writes a rattling good plot. He knows how to set up a story with huge stakes, then mix in the action set-pieces, the comic relief, the sex and the glorious vistas of “unspoilt Africa” in just the right proportions to keep you turning the pages. I want to know how it ends; so sue me.
A few columns back, I mentioned that I’d read a Wilbur Smith novel as a youngster. I was being slightly economical with the truth – in fact, I’ve read a lot of
You’ll be happy to know my reading tastes have broadened since high school – I’ve added lots of “serious” fiction and non-fiction. I can see what’s wrong with Wilbur now; the lack of character arcs being one thing. People complain that he has a “racist” habit of creating only two types of black people: noble savages and treacherous quislings. But read the books, folks – it’s not just black people: Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and even the master race, Englishmen, only come in those two categories, too. Except European and Arabic heroes aren’t “savages”, of course – they’re just “noble”.
Women are either pure-hearted hero support, or duplicitous sluts who exploit men, disgracing their sex by behaving like, well, um... men. Do not go reading Wilbur to find an honest, multi-level exploration of complex human motivations, of character growth and personal maturation – character arcs get in the way of the plot, so forget it. The closest he comes to identifiable human experience is the constant yearning of his heroes for their fathers’ approval – you can almost hear the ten-year-old sobbing in the boarding-school dormitory after lights-out.
I also blame the boarding school for the adolescent prurience of the sex scenes, but they don’t irritate me nearly as much as the fast-and-loose treatment of astronomy – a full moon rises at sunset? It’s basic geometry, man!
But I shall no doubt continue to read them for those page-turning plots, while fuming sporadically about all of the above – until someone starts writing stories that combine Wilbur’s un-put-downability with an African view of Africans, capable of being actors rather than reactors in their own lives, who don’t need rescuing by the paternalistic guidance of the great white hunter. I’d love a bold new writer to pen some rip-snorting historical yarns in which Africans have more to teach Europeans than the names of animals or medicinal plants. I await them eagerly.
*Judging by what I’ve read. I have no personal experience of heroin.