In the eyes of certain members of my immediate family, now-elderly super-best-selling author Wilbur Smith has long reigned surpreme. The author of a great-great-GREAT number of books — many the thickness of a good-sized brick that could easily smash through double-glazing — there really isn’t much Wilbur doesn’t know about South Africa, elephants, and writing the kind of fiction that weaves between history, action, more bloody elephants and the timeless kind of traditional adventure that has fascinated all ages for as long as books have existed. Not that I know any of this from experience, I should say — I’ve never read a Wilbur Smith book, and until recently — when grandad gave me his copy of When The Lion Feeds, Wilbur’s debut novel — I had no intention of reading them. And I don’t mean that in a negative way; I’m sure they’re great books, and I’m certain Wilbur Smith deserves the accolades so often bestowed upon him by elephant fanatics…it’s just that my dad and grandad have read every book he’s ever written and told me about every single one at least several times (all subtly different versions of the same basic premise, as far as I can tell, nearly always involving poaching, elephants or South Africa). It’s a curse, you see: without even having read more than a page, I feel I know the work intimately already — I don’t of course, that’s ridiculous, but the illusion remains and illusions are strong. Besides that, alarm bills ring immediately whenever my dad advises me to read any fiction. We’ve always had different tastes, and while he’s a fan of John-Grisham-style thrillers, I prefer books with a humorous theme rather than ones which follow the same generic formula as so many others.
Try telling my dad or grandad that other books exist outside of the realm of Wilbur Smith, and you are instantly put in your place. “I’ll tell you something,” says grandad. “He’s the master of storytelling. The way he writes about South Africa is really very good, very descriptive.” What hope have I got of grandad reading my debut novel? It isn’t set in South Afirca, doesn’t contain any elephant-themed content, and is about as far away from serious in some places that it’s hard to believe I am not actually about twelve years old.
Naturally though, I don’t doubt Wilbur’s descriptive ability. After having written probably in the region of 100 books, the man damn well should be able to describe an elephant by now.
My point is, there are thousands of authors out there as well as Wilbur Smith. Hear that dad? How about you Grandad? (He actually would hear it, he has exceptional hearing for a man of his age, as well as killer Bryll-creme hair that would woo any older ladies on the dance-floor — sorry nana.) I’m not saying my dad or grandad has to give up their mission to read every single book three times cover to cover, I’m just suggesting that they see what else is out there. Surely that’s reasonable, isn’t it?
It’s a futile effort, of course — one which is now relegated to jokey digs from my side (I mean them) and what appear to be serious attempts to coerce me from the mens’ side (they definitely mean them. The mind boggles why they think these would ever have any kind of effect). These men have succumbed to the curse of Wilbur and the evidence suggests that nothing will be able to reverse it now or soon. Tragic? I think so, I genuinely do. If we only ever read the work of one author, the world is flat and words become a form of conditioning that excludes the hunger for anything else that’s different.
Also, I am sick of elephants!