I took a look at the new Ethan Canin novel, America America, in spite of the rather negative NYTBR review because I have a soft spot for Canin (who was very nice to me in a bookstore once, back in about 1992). I was surprised to see he's set his book in my home territory of Western New York, even though he's not from there and doesn't live there. In fact, the town he's invented is described as being an hour south of Buffalo and twenty minutes from Lake Erie -- right on top of my parents' house, actually.
But he also describes it as "not much farther" from Lake Ontario. That point on the map is almost two hours from Lake Ontario -- so far that if you're from there, it's not on your radar at all. Also, he talks about the Dutch pioneers (there were some Dutch there, but mostly they weren't) and gives a feel to the area that is decidedly downstate or Hudson River. He mentions horse farms and estates. It's more like Indian reservations, grape farms, and gutted-out factories. (I only read the beginning of the book, so maybe it gets more accurate later.)
Okay, whatever. He's making a place up, and that's a perfectly acceptable thing to do. But it really did chap my butt that he chose my little chunk of the map to super-impose his world over. As if there was nothing there to begin with.
And while we're at it, let me get this off my chest: for years Joyce Carol Oates has pissed me off by taking place names from my part of New York (Chautauqua County) and moving them to hers (Lockport area). Yes, we have some cool place names, but she's a writer with a terrific imagination. Why can't she make some up instead of looting ours?
I'm aware that this seems petty. But I'm writing this because I feel genuinely angry and offended. In fact, my feelings surprise me. Here in upstate New York, we don't have a lot of regionalist tendencies. Unlike other places I've lived in (the South, the West), we don't have a literature, much of a cuisine, or a hatred of outsiders. Our economy is bad, our accent is hard to pinpoint, our architecture is utilitarian. But it is a real place, with a history and a way of being.
When I sit down to write something, where the thing takes place is incredibly important. A Montana novel is not a Wales novel. Things that can happen in Louisiana will not happen in Western New York. Fiction is -- almost always -- tightly bound to its setting.
And I also think it's okay to make a place up -- but not to bulldoze a real place beneath it.
Maybe I'm mad because I feel like I should be writing about Western New York myself, and instead I'm spending my freetime doing things like razor-blading soap scum out of my kids' bathtub and reading the beginnings of other people's novels.