Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Sense of Place

By Stuart Sharp

Every story happens somewhere.

It’s something that authors occasionally forget, but readers rarely do. Great characters, great plotlines and excellent pacing all help to produce books worth reading, but a sense of place is just as essential. Where would Wuthering Heights have been without its moorland, or The Lord of the Rings without Middle Earth for its Hobbits to traverse? In these, as with countless other novels, a strong sense of the world in which the novel occurs is absolutely vital.

Detail helps. Tanya Huff’s horror/modern fantasy novels seem different as much because of her ability to convey the detail of Toronto and Vancouver as anything else. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods reads as much like the oddest travelogue ever written as it does a normal novel.

Detail, however, isn’t the same thing as accuracy. Nowhere does this show as much as in fantasy writing. No one is going to claim that Middle Earth, or Discworld, or the lands around Lankhmar are real. It is, therefore, pretty difficult to argue that they’re being portrayed accurately. How would you check? On the other hand, Tolkein, Prachett and Fritz Leiber all portray their imaginary places so vividly that it’s hard to consider you might not be able to find your way around. This applies to real world authors almost as much. According to Bill Bryson’s excellent biography of Shakespeare, the Bard appears to have had serious difficulties when it came to geography. In particular, the geography of Italy seems to have given him trouble, causing him for example to have sailors come from land locked towns. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that he also managed some amazing evocations of place with just a few words from his characters.

There are, in contrast, works of genuine travel-based writing that fall flat despite accurately detailing the places the author passes through. I’m thinking particularly of the sub-genre of the outlandish quest. Some of them manage to tell us little beyond the bare facts in their hurry to be funny. The better ones, like Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pyjamas or Dave Gorman’s Googlewack Adventure, pass on something that seems both less tangible and more important. They convey a sense of each place’s unique feel.

It’s hard to deny that one place will usually feel different from another. If you need proof, think about your hometown for a moment and then about somewhere that you’ve visited. The memories will probably have a very different tone, and not just because you’re less familiar with one of them. Different towns, villages and cities will have different rhythms, different skylines, different patterns of speech, different landmarks and different people. They will also have particular quirks that stick in the mind more than anything. My personal favourite is the tendency of the city of York to creep up on people, so that they end up in the middle of it before they quite expect it.

Conveying this difference in feel is the real test of how well a particular book puts across a sense of place. To return to Neil Gaiman for a moment, his novel Neverwhere spends a lot of time moving through a London that is unreal and fantastic, yet he always manages to maintain something of the feel of that city even in his strangest deviations from it. By the same token Douglas Adams, in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, evokes a feel for Cambridge that chimes perfectly with the place, even though the details are changed.

Of course, this can work the other way around as well. Choosing to set a book in one place rather than another changes the feel of the work dramatically. Jasper Fforde’s decision to work with fictionalised versions of Reading and Swindon, for example, provides a dramatically different feel than London might have. Even though he plays around with the world considerably in the various Thursday Next novels, and is working with a deliberately fictional version of Reading in The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear, the choice instantly provides a less built up, less hectic feel in the background.

In some cases, a place gets so bound up with a particular novel or series that it’s hard to imagine it set anywhere else. The obvious example would be something like James Joyce’s Dubliners. Would Geordies have worked? Could anyone really imagine it set in, for example, Barnsley? That’s just as true when you move a little way down the literary scale. Try to imagine Inspector Morse’s cases set outside of Oxfordshire and the mind draws a blank. Try to imagine P.G. Woodhouse moving Jeeves and Wooster outside of a series of country houses and it works, because he did it on occasion, but take the same characters and throw them into the middle of a major industrial city and it’s a very different story. Again, the feel of the thing is wrong.

Nowhere is this emphasis on the feel of a place so important as in poetry. There just isn’t room for more. There isn’t space to note every detail, or to explore every street. Often, a few details have to stand for the whole place, when the poet bothers with a place at all. That, of course, is one of the differences between prose and poetry. While a story might have to look out of the window and give the reader a setting, a poem can be so focused on something else that the reader never thinks to ask.

When they do look, though, the results can be wonderful. Alan Ross’ collection Death Valley is one of the best examples of this, taking the reader along with him on a tour of the USA in a series of poems that evoke the places he passes through in sharp, biting images. Julia Copus, in her collection In Defence of Adultery, approaches landscapes in a way that is broader and yet somehow also very personal, not connecting images with specific places as overtly, but drawing on personal links to them in a hugely effective way.

I suppose the ultimate demonstration of the power of place within both poetry and prose is the way some locations have stuck in readers’ minds so much that they have to visit them. It’s common enough to visit the birthplaces of authors, to tour past Ann Hathaway’s cottage in search of some connection to her husband, or to think for a moment about the authors who have worked in particular coffee houses, or libraries, or galleries. When we also have people visiting Baker Street after reading Arthur Conan Doyles’ books, or searching ‘Bronte Country’ for every landmark the sisters mentioned in their works, you know they’ve created a sense of place that has been impossible to shake off.

Mind you, I suspect that also has something to do with the palatability of the locations concerned. Trekking through beautifully bleak countryside after reading Jane Eyre is one thing, but you won’t catch many people reading Larkin and then rushing to visit Hull.

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