Monday, June 30, 2008

Squatters' Rights

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.


Anonymous said...

About ten years ago I was working in a building in Melbourne that was exactly where Eliot Perlman had set part of his novel, Three Dollars. As I read the novel, I kept thinking "oh, I know those stairs/that back alley/that rubbish bin, etc. I walk past there twice a day"

I don't know that it enhanced my enjoyment of the book, being so close to the action. It sure distracted me a bit, as I mapped out the scenes, and noted their slight variance from reality, while perhaps paying less attention than I should have to a lot of very good writing.

Anonymous said...

Then again, this probably happens all the time to New York City residents (considering the 'New York Books' post a while back), and they seem to get by OK.

Erin said...

As a WNY expat in NYC exurbs, I feel the same way. There's a real perception around here that if you've been to upper Westchester County, you've seen most of New York State. I go back a couple of times a year and am always reminded of what a ridiculous notion that is, for so many reasons.

Anonymous said...

You just don't see Buffalo Bills clothing east of Roscoe.

5 Red Pandas said...

When I was in school in Albany I noticed Western NY accents and phrasing, so I think there is a regionalism that isn't as pronounced as what you'd find in the South, but it still exists to some extent. Their accents stood out because they were distinct compared to the people who came from Albany and the Hudson River region.

Speaking of naming of places, what bothers me more than names in fiction- mainly because it is fiction- is the re-naming of real places to suit real estate goals. Once white people and affluent people started moving to my part of Washington Heights in greater numbers, the real estate offices started calling it "Hudson Heights," which irks me to the point where I'll cross it off on fliers and write in Washington Heights. People want to distance themselves from the history of crack in this neighborhood, and they also want to distance themselves from the parts of the neighborhood that are still predominantly Dominican and less affluent. If the neighborhood is good enough for you now, then the name should be good enough for you too. Instead of renaming the place, simply reclaim it from all the negative things that once existed (like crack and gangs) without alienating all the people who've lived here for years.

Of course this happens all over the place, but this is the one place where I can use my sharpie to set the record straight.

rmellis said...

Myles -- I really like reading about places I know! Maybe that's why the Canin novel was such a disappointment: it pretended it was about a place I know, but it wasn't.

Gnomeloaf -- We're in the Fingerlakes now, and that's yet another thing...

Pandas -- That's appalling! Good for you and your sharpie.

AC said...

I was talking with a guy from India not long ago who doesn't believe there are any significant variations in American culture. He sees the US as one homogenous culture from coast to coast.

That's funny, because I think my cousins from Cattaraugus County have an accent and culture that's different from my Rochester ways. And moving from Rochester to Philadelphia was total culture shock.

Seeing someone get the details wrong is intensely irritating, but apparently you have to be very close to the details to even perceive them.

rmellis said...

It's true you have to be close to the details to see them -- but that's what being a writer's all about: details!

(I met a German woman when I was in Wales once. She said, "America -- it's just a TV culture!" Yeah, I said, you think that because you get your info FROM TV. Though she had a point.)

x said...

I lived in way upstate New York for two years, just south of the Canadian border, across from Vermont, where Albany was considered "downstate". The cultures and accents and lifestyles could not have been more different from Vermont. To me, coming from the Boston area, it was a different country, North Country for that matter. I've been working on a story that I started then, but I've lost the feel of the accent, kind of half French Canadian and half something like Fargo, with it's own unique expressions. I'd have to go back there for a summer to capture it again. Writing about a place you've never been really oversteps the limitations of fiction.

Anonymous said...

I'm a resident of Omaha, Nebraska, and although we have a vibrant arts and music scene here (The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is one of the largest artist-in-residency programs in the world and our indie music scene is one of the best in the country), anyone not plugged into either scene would assume any place in Nebraska is all farmland and Husker red. I'm not saying it's not, we definitely have diehard college football fans and plenty of agriculture, but there's so much more. Also, there has yet to be a decent book written about contemporary Nebraska.

Matt said...

It doesn't seem petty at all. IMHO, a writer has a responsibility when placing their environment somewhere not-quite-fictional to do more than just Google the bloody geography. If they don't have the means to go there and do some due diligence they could at least make an effort to not simply transpose an entirely unrealistic terrain onto an area which has its own character and merit.

I write about Toronto (mostly). I don't hide it. The trick is to be accurate without, well, being boring/tedious. There's a lot of pressure on Toronto-based (and writers from other parts of Canada) to "universalize" the city they choose to write about (i.e. neuter it for mass consumption). So, instead of referring to Spadina Avenue, we "should be less specific" so that people from outside of Canada can understand. Which is patent nonsense if you're a skilled writer in the first place.

Squatter's rights indeed. Good post.

Anonymous said...

it's a long way from joyce writing from the continent to ask about the plumbing in dublin. place in fiction is extremely important to me -- like faulkner said, the history isn't ever history, and, being a man of the south, it burns me up when i geography appropriated by people who don't have the remotest idea of what they're talking about.

i feel your pain.

bookboy28 said...

I enjoy a good bit of Stephen King's work, partly because he tells a great story, but probably too because he grew up about 20 minutes from my hometown. Most of his early work took place in places I knew pretty well.

It's funny because I just read THE MIST, which takes place in Naples, Maine, for the first . And I just got back from spending the weekend up at Naples.

I have been vacationing along a lake in Naples for several years now, but I couldn't help thinking back to THE MIST as I rolled into town for the first time this year.

King made up the name of the store where most of the action took place, and it was written over twenty years ago, so the town probably has changed a great deal, but I couldn't help shiver a little when I passed the little corner store similar to the one King describes.

I totally agree with you that in most stories the setting is a major part of the make up of the story.

Great Blog!