Monday, May 25, 2015

Places of the mind

David Nicholls writes in the Guardian on the subject of a sense of place in novels. It is of course one of the pleasures, indeed joys, of novels: the creation of a sense of place in which the reader can be immersed - can, in his or her mind's eye, look around and walk with the characters: it's one of the ways in which we can identify with the characters and events of a novel, and in which the characters and events can be made to seem real.

But what do we mean by reality when we are talking about fiction? Nicholls concedes that there are novelists who create a sense of a real place for the reader simply by making places up: writers of fantasy or futuristic fiction, and of historical novels: 'A notepad and camera won't help much if you're trying to conjure up Wolf Hall'. However, he is taxed by the issue of including current real-life places in one's fiction: what if you get the detail wrong? Well, he doesn't exactly spell this out but it can be disaster: if the reader knows more about the place than you do, then the fictional world of the novel, ie the fictional reality, is broken, intruded upon by common-or-garden real-life reality, and you've lost the reader. It's a worry all fiction-writers share when setting events in real-life places they don't know, or don't know intimately. Nicholls reports that he's physically travelled to avoid this problem and more recently has used Google Street View. I've done both of these things, too, but it makes me queasy: I always have the sense that I'm somehow missing the point; it's not only that, as Nicholls admits, one gets a very superficial view of a place this way, but more importantly that there is something wrong, or at least dangerous or diminishing, in so consciously injecting undigested geographic or topographic fact into one's long-digested fictional landscape.

For what is fiction but itself a place of the mind? Fiction isn't a place you go chiefly to find facts; fiction's truth is chiefly emotional, psychological and moral. Yet, in our 'reality'-obsessed culture there does indeed seem to be a tendency to read fiction as fact - witness the rise in confessedly autobiographical novels and the recent, if fading, supremacy of biography over fiction, not to mention the insistence on author profiles and the need to sell a novel on an author's life story - and there does indeed seem to be a current cultural obsession with real-life places in literature. One member of my reading group, who, I think, is pretty representative of many readers who are not particularly literary, especially loves novels about places she knows, and I detect a trend amongst writers towards satisfying this desire for recognition by injecting real-life topographical detail and place-name-checks.

But what about those readers who don't know the place - the street or the cafe - you're name-checking? No same sense of real-life recognition for them. My fellow reading-group member replies that it doesn't matter, it's simply a different experience for the reader who doesn't know the place, but the danger is that that experience will be one of exclusion. As an untravelled working-class teenager reading novels with unexplained or glancing references to upper- or middle-class rituals and foreign locations, I had a sense of exclusion, a sense that others, able to envisage the manners and places and know they were right, were getting more out of the fiction than I was. I could imagine the places but I had a deep sense of not being necessarily right in my imagining; I could look them up in the library, but I hadn't had that recreation of one's own experience that others, reading the same novel, could have.

It's the author's job to create a world with which as many readers as possible will identify, which means either properly recreating a place (which as Nicholls says can be done with a few swift strokes, but needs to be more than just name-checking it) or  fictionalising it, which last, as he says, Hardy did so well in the highly fictionalised area he called Wessex. If we don't do this, fiction becomes parochial, fails its potential for universality. And once we do succeed in doing this, though we may wish for various reasons to name a place in a fiction, it is possible not even to do so: if we are writing about a real place, those who know it will not need it named - maybe, as I have discovered with one of my own stories*, they won't even notice it's not named - and those who don't won't be disrupted by that sense of exclusion. If we are fictionalising places - that is, bending the mere facts about them - real-life names, as Nicholls indicates in his discussion of Hardy, become an impediment.

Furthermore, the so-called reality of real-life places is never that certain. My London is not necessarily your London; his village in Dorset is not her village on the very same spot on the real-life map. One's sense of real-life places is individual, imbued with one's own personal experiences and personality, often at one very particular time. If a reader brings to a novel an association with a place that is inappropriate for the novel's atmosphere or theme, then once again you are stymied: so once again, name-checking is not enough; the author must override that association with his or her own mental landscape of the place.

Not so long ago, for a short story I was writing*, I did exactly what Nicholls says he did for his first novel, One Day: I revisited a place I had once lived, in order to write about an experience I had had there. The first shock was that the place had been completely erased, all the old buildings replaced by new ones or empty parkland spaces, and the whole topography erased and realigned in such a way that I didn't even realise at first that it was the place, and when I did felt completely disorientated. This was the place (that's a quote from the story), and yet it wasn't: the real place, the place with meaning for me, and which I wanted to convey in my story, existed only in my memory. My memory would have to be enough. Yet the new space, quotidian and alien, somehow shattered and displaced my very evocative memory. In a desperate bid to hang on to it, I went to a nearby suburb that I had also known well, and which I found unchanged. But here was the second shock: this place, though clearly unchanged, was not how I remembered it, and once again I found my sense of it all threatened. The place I wanted to explore and portray was after all a place of the mind. So the story came to be about precisely that: a protagonist walking with a map that fails to conform either to her memory or, it appears, to the present topography, towards this realisation: that places can only ever, in the ultimate analysis, be places of the mind.

And this is the power of fiction: its universality lies precisely in its capacity to give us landscapes of the mind.

*The first of my own stories referred to here is 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told', first published in The View From Here and reprinted in Best British British Short Stories 2014 (Salt), ed. Nicholas Royle.
The second is 'Looking for the Castle', to be published on 20th June in Unthology 7 (Unthank), ed. Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones. (Pre-order here.)
Both stories will be included in my new collection, Used to Be, to be published in September by Salt.
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