tirsdag den 30. marts 2010

A City is a City is a City

When English readers read Scandinavian crime fiction, they sometimes ask for a stronger sense of place. As someone dwelling in the area I cannot help thinking that Copenhagen and Stockholm are cities like any other so what do people expect? (Can´t help it, but I am basically a country person).

Right now I am enjoying a crime novel set in Christchurch, New Zealand. The language is fine and the plot promising.

A taste of Christchurch:

“I drive through the city thinking that Christchurch and technology go together like drinking and driving: they don´t mix well, but some still think it´s a good idea. Everything here looks old, and for the most part it is. People living in the past have set historical values on buildings dating back over a hundred years, and have had them protected from the future. Investors can´t come along and replace them with high-rises and apartment complexes. It´s a cold-looking city made to look even colder in the dreary weather. Everything looks so damn archaic. Even the hookers look fifty years old.”

A fine and well-written description, but to me mainly another city.

How important is the setting to you?
What kind of setting do you prefer? City or country, the exotic forest or the safe and recognizable town?

See my review of Paul Cleave´s Cemetery Lake on Saturday.

21 kommentarer:

Bernadette sagde ...

I like all kinds of settings. I'm a city girl through and through and I like to read books set in places similar to where I live but I also like to read books set in worlds very different to the one I inhabit. I love remote settings even though I don't want to visit most of those places let alone live in them.

As far as how a book can display a sense of its place I'm not sure it always has to do only with geography - I think it's a combination of that plus the language used, the behaviour depicted and that sort of thing. For example I recently read A CARRION DEATH which is set in Botswana and part of the strong sense of place came from the descriptions of the family gatherings and relationships with extended family that the main character had which were quite unique to Botswana versus neighbouring South Africa.

One of the 'problems' that I think might result from translated fiction for those of us who are mono lingual is that the translators tend to use a fairly standard/generic kind of English - there's rarely any dialects or slang or things like that. Whereas reading a book written in English by an American vs an English person vs an Aussie vs a South African would all be recognisably different just because of the language choices each would make.

As for one city being much like another that can certainly be true and I think publishers often push for it, especially if the book is not set in the US because Americans are less likely than others to read about places outside their country (don't blame me, I've heard this from lots of writers plus my American relatives would say it's true though of course there are exceptions to the rule). However, cities don't all have to feel the same in fiction, to my mind the Los Angeles that Michael Connelly depicts is a world away from the London that Mark Billingham depicts or the Stokholm that Stieg Larsson showed us.

OK I will stop blathering now

Tim sagde ...

Of course all cities tend to resemble each other to some extent. Nevertheless there's quite a big difference between Bangkok and Stockholm, and probably a noticable one between Gothenburg and London, for example. At a finer level, there are big differences between areas of London -- think posh, metro, Islington versus Brixton south of the river.

Dorte H sagde ...

Bernadette, I love people blathering on my blog!

My problem is probably that I know so few cities. We hardly have any in Denmark. I can just about appreciate a London setting because I know some of the parks, and of course I notice differences between European cities and African cities, but it is so much easier for me to relate to a country or small-town setting.

Jose Ignacio Escribano sagde ...

I'm glad to have you around in New Zealand Dorte. I'm in Mataura the setting of Vanda Symon debut novel Overkill. Regarding your question I love every setting either city or country.

Anonym sagde ...

Dorte - An excellent question and a fine post : ). I don't have a real prference for reading about cities or the country or the village or small town. For me, what matters more is an authentic sense of place. If the story takes place in Hong Kong, it should "feel like" Hong Kong. If the story takes place in Auckland, I should get that sense of place. That's true of smaller places as well. Louise Penny's Three Pines, Quebec is different from Caroline Graham's Causton, and certainly "feels" different.

R/T sagde ...

I tend to favor settings where I have either lived or visited. Perhaps that makes me less than adventurous.

Felicity Grace Terry sagde ...

Food for thought indeed Dorte, what an interesting question to ask.
To be honest setting isn't really too important to me though I suppose I do read lots of historical books that are set in recognisible places of years gone by.
However that said, I also am quite enjoying books set in out of this world places at the moment.
You really have got me thinking now.

pattinase (abbott) sagde ...

Setting is very important if I read novels set in other countries--not so important in my own. Right now I am reading Fred Vargas in the hopes of getting some Paris-I love the book but there is very little separating it from a book set in London or anywhere European.

R/T sagde ...

Patti raises an interesting point about a setting, Paris, not being well distinguished from other possible settings. By contrast, Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic novels featuring Inspector Erlendur are unique in that the reader is fully immersed in the singular setting; in fact, stretching the point a bit, Iceland becomes a something like an indispensable "character" in Indridason's novels. Donna Leon's Venetian novels with Commissario Guido Brunetti are similarly strong in setting, but the hands-down winner is Indridason. Perhaps other readers will have other ideas.

Dorte H sagde ...

Tim: you are right, but I think it confirms my theory that continents are different whereas the cities & capitals of ONE continent may be rather similar. And the central city may be different from the suburbs and the working-class blocks, but that is also the case in Copenhagen and Gothenburg.

Margot & Jose: I like the idea of ´being´ in New Zealand, it is just that Christchurch doesn´t feel very different from several other cities.

Dorte H sagde ...

R.T.: that is just like my preference for historical fiction from periods that I know fairly well. I like being able to evaluate their research :)
Good point about Indridason and Donna Leon, but then I am sure Venice and Reykjavik ARE different from Copenhagen.

Patti: that was exactly my idea; many Western European cities are very alike, and the same goes for Eastern European cities, African cities etc. I know you could say the same about the Irish or Scottish countryside (which are not very different from my own underdeveloped village); it is just that *I* prefer the country.

R/T sagde ...

Dorte, you make an interesting point about continents and cities. I would, however, make a couple of points in furtherance of your point. Donna Leon's Venice is an exception, particularly since the city is so unique (i.e., there is no other like it anywhere). Arnaldur Indridason's novels embrace all of Iceland even though Rejkyavik is the principal setting; my experience in Iceland (more than a year) tells me that Icelanders would make only small distinctions between city and country, which means that any singularity of the city setting in Indridason's novels is swallowed up by the larger vision of Iceland as a whole. Does that make sense?
Perhaps another example is worth mentioning: Colin Dexter's Morse novels are set in Oxford, and no reader could miss the singularity of that setting. Now, though, I am perhaps rambling. So it is time to let others weigh in with their ideas.

Rob Kitchin sagde ...

Well as a professional geographer, I have to say that I don't agree that a city is a city, is a city. There is a huge diversity of cities across regions, countries and continents. Manchester and Liverpool, two large cities only 30 miles apart are very different in terms of their form, meanings, cultures, traditions, history, ethnic mix, sense of place, etc. And the difference between Liverpool and Oxford or Cambridge or Brighton or Norwich or London or Edinburgh is even more pronounced. This is the same everywhere. Columbus, Ohio, has a very different rhythm and feel to New York, and indeed to Columbus, Sri Lanka. I would hope that most writers seek to capture how the geographies and histories of the places in which their stories unfold make a difference to the lives lived there. If they don't then there I would feel that something vital is missing. I think that writers who are good at capturing a place (urban or rural) and making them a vital part of their stories include Ian Rankin (Edinburgh), Daniel Woodrell (Ozarks), Michael Connelly (LA), Colin Dexter (Oxford), Matt Benyon Rees (occupied territories in Israel), Joe Lansdale (East Texas), and there are loads more.

Dorte H sagde ...

R.T.: it certainly makes sense, and I just enjoy seeing my readers discuss the subject.

Rob: ah, great to have the geographer´s point of view! I think there are two important points: first, the personal interest. I have already admitted that cities are neither my hobby nor my ´field´.

Second, as you say there are some writers "who are good at capturing a place", while others are better at capturing characters or planning an exciting plot.

And a final observation: I´d say your own "The Rule Book" is an excellent example of a novel that conveys a strong sense of Dublin (one of my favourite capitals).

Kelly sagde ...

You pose an interesting question to which I've never really given any thought before. Although not much of a "city person" in real life, I don't mind visiting cities in my books at all.

Perhaps geographical location has played more of a part in my book choices than city vs. rural. I've read books set in area from across the world, but lean more towards European or North American settings.

Interesting discussion here!!

Dorte H sagde ...

Kelly: yes, isn´t it great when so many readers contribute with ideas and views?

Like you, I tend to lean towards European and North American settings which is one of the reasons why I came up with my global reading challenge.

Martin Edwards sagde ...

Setting is very important for me. In my youth, I was a bit parochial, and didn't read many books set outside the English speaking world, but for a long time now, I've enjoyed a wide range of unfamiliar settings. And city or countryside, I don't mind, either as a reader or a writer, as long as the story and characters are appealing.

R/T sagde ...

I did not mention this earlier as well I should have, but Martin Edwards' comments reminded me of the kinds of settings that work best for me as a reader: when the setting nearly becomes a "character" in that it (1) contributes to or mitigates the conflict, (2) contributes to or interferes with the protagonist's trajectory, or (3) becomes integral to the machinations of plotting, then the writer has chosen and developed setting wisely.

Maxine Clarke sagde ...

Peter Temple really makes Melbourne a unique character in his novels, I think, particularly the Jack Irish ones. And the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly, identified by Bernadette, are one long love affair with LA (as well as other themes). But I agree, it seems very hard for an author to make "a city" come alive in a unique way.

I love novels with a sense of place - for one thing they mean you don't actually have to go there ;-). I don't mind if it is a city or not, if it is done well. The Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri are perfect examples of conveying a strong sense of place. In my opinion, native Italian authors are much better at this aspect (eg also Carofiglio's novels set in Bali)than expats like Donna Leon. Although I like her novels (some of them very much) I always have the feeling she is writing "about" her characters and their lives, rather than "from within" as you sense with, eg Camilleri and Carofiglio, which are much more naturalistic in their ability to absorb the reader in location and atmosphere.

I feel similarly about Elizabeth George's and Deborah Crombie's novels set in the UK - they are often good books, but not set in the UK as we know it.

Dorte H sagde ...

R.T.: you are absolutely right. Unfortunately I don´t think it happpens that often.

Maxine: Peter Temple is a fine example. On the whole I think it is very difficult to describe a place properly if you haven´t lived there for ages.
And the problem about Elizabeth George is that she writes as if Peter Wimsey was still young.

Dorte H sagde ...

Martin: I also like different settings now and then, but I like knowing a bit about the place so I am able to judge if the descriptions are realistic or not.