In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Speechless
  2. Blogging Notes
  3. The Rains Return
  4. Local Detail in Novels
  5. Action! ... Camera! ... Paint!!!
  6. Wretchard's Four Rules of Lying
  7. Something Rotten
  8. Unusual Literary List
  9. N.C. Wyeth: A Close-Up View
  10. Euphony and the Art of Writing

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Action! ... Camera! ... Paint!!! | Main | The Rains Return »

October 25, 2009

Local Detail in Novels

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recently wrote about a book dealing with Russian art and culture in the early 20th century where the focus was on Moscow and St. Petersburg. In passing, I mentioned that it was helpful to have actually visited those cities and viewed some of the works of art discussed in the book.

Which got me to thinking about reading books containing details of places I hadn't visited. Basically, I had only a foggy notion of what was being discussed because I really couldn't visualize the settings.

Given that lots of readers haven't been to all corners of the world, this presents a problem for writers: How much detail and geographical scene-setting should be included?

Historians sometimes have no choice but to report such details. Consider the political maneuverings leading up to the 10 May 1940 replacement of Neville Chamberlain by Winston Churchill as British Prime Minister. It would be difficult indeed to not mention major actors entering, leaving, meeting at, passing through, etc. places such as Whitehall, the Admiralty, 10 Downing Street, the Thames Embankment, the Houses of Parliament, Pall Mall, Buckingham Palace and elsewhere.

Arthur Conan Doyle (or was it Dr. John Watson?), writing about master detective Sherlock Holmes, includes references to many places in London as well as in surrounding counties and even more distant parts of England such as Dartmoor. His primary, magazine-reading audience mostly lived in the Home Counties region and could visualize many of the settings from personal experience. But most foreign readers would have trouble. If Piccadilly Circus was mentioned, some might recall photos of it. And if the action called for Holmes or Watson to stroll from there to Trafalgar Square, no one but those who had visited London could easily picture the relationship of the two places, let alone the sights between them.

My memory of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is getting foggy and I don't have a copy at hand. That said, I think he referenced a number of Paris sites in the parts of the novel set in that city. This was hard to avoid if he wanted to evoke the place. Yet how easily could an untraveled 1928 reader in Dubuque picture Montparnasse and the cafe/bar scene there? Or the Right Bank, where other scenes were placed?

Where the place is only a minor character, the author has the opportunity to be sketchy on local atmosphere, leaving it to the reader to create details from his imagination.

But if a place is a significant character in a story, this poses a serious problem for a writer.

Is there any decent solution to the place-characterization versus ignorant reader dilemma?



posted by Donald at October 25, 2009


I think novelists who pile on the place-specific detail come across as hacks. Good novelists, such as Hemingway, may mention places ... but they don't pile on the detail as if to "prove" they are familiar with the places.

I'm not sure I understand why you think this is a dilemma. Why would a reader need to be familiar with a place where a novel is set? If understanding the nature of the place is important to understand the story, isn't it up to the novelist to bring the reader into the place?

Posted by: James on October 25, 2009 9:26 PM

James: Sometimes the setting is the whole story. I'm currently reading through Nabokov's short stories, and many, like "Spring in Fialta" are narratively propelled by a succession of breathtakingly deft descriptions of cities, blocks, streets and rooms, whose utter singularity in his telling makes them universally recognizable from the poetic heights. If a writer has a knack for description, he shouldn't hold back. But the moment he begins describing something as if fulfilling an obligation, he should drop it and get on with telling his story through human conflict. Let's look at Norman Rockwell -- his corny narratives have blinded critics to his powers of description (of light, of surfaces, of obscure textures), which rival those of any painter in history. Take away Rockwell's narratives and what do you have: a supercharged American Chardin, a Nabokov of painting. I know this jumble of comparisons doesn't add up to an argument. But you know, in the right hands, description rules.

Posted by: Faze on October 26, 2009 7:45 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?