May 24, 2010

John Steinbeck and Setting

Been thinking about setting a lot lately, especially in my own work. I'm also reading Steinbeck's Once There Was a War which is providing a lot of necessary musing. Setting, or at least its implementation in a story, can be tricky at times--but it seems to have a direct relation to the believability of a character. A way to make them more present.

I tend to use setting as a means to convey an immediate context for a protagonist's actions. Generally, my stories take place in the same town--an older, darker version of where I grew up. I establish social lines and divisions, often using the town's geography and physical landscape as a way to make them more believable. Whether that works or not is up for grabs.

But setting is not just geography or weather or texture. It is also comprised of the social structure within it, the interaction, beliefs, and idiosyncrasies of its inhabitants.

I don't think a writer can afford to take setting for granted. One cannot simply announce the city in which characters are interacting and expect a comprehensive knowledge from the reader. I find a precise picture is necessary, with intentional details with an agenda (though the agenda can be ambiguous at first). At least that's what I gravitate towards.

An overlapping commentary on how setting relates seems to help as well. Washington Ave. may be full of gangs, but knowing their motivations (for at least some of them) helps prevent the sense of broad-stroke generalizing.

Steinbeck's non-fiction accounts of his experiences during the Second World War bring it together nicely for me. In particular, a description and summary of the people of Dover (small UK town facing France along the narrowest point of the English Channel):

Dover, with its castle on the hill and its crooked streets, its big, ugly hotels and its secret and dangerous offensive power, is closest of all to the enemy. Dover is full of memory of Wellington and of Napoleon, of the time when Napoleon came down to Calais and looked across the Channel at England and knew that only this little stretch of water interrupted his conquest of the world.

Then Hitler came to the hill above Calais and looked across at the cliffs, and again only the stretch of water stopped the conquest of the world. It is a very little piece of water. On the clear days you can see the hills about Calais, and with a glass you can see the clock tower of Calais. When the guns of Calais fire you cans see the flash, while with the telescope you can see from the castle the guns themselves, and even the tanks deploying on the beach.

There is a quality in the people of Dover that may well be the key to the coming German disaster. They are incorrigibly, incorruptibly unimpressed. The German, with his uniform and his pageantry and his threats and plans, does not impress these people at all. The Dover man has taken perhaps a little more pounding than most, not in great blitzes, but in every-day bombing and shelling, and still he is not impressed.

Jerry is like the weather to him. He complains about it and then promptly goes about what he was doing. Nothing in the world is as important as his garden and, in other days, his lobster pots. Weather and Jerry are alike in that they are inconvenient and sometimes make messes. Surveying a building wrecked by a big shell, he says, "Jerry was bad last night," as he would discuss a windstorm.


Sam said...

Canadian literary fiction is pretty much all description. I think that's the reason I don't like it. The Toews book so far is thirty pages of just what you're talking about--social relations, atmosphere, ambiance. Who cares? Character is action.

To be fair, description is something I don't do well. But of all the skills not to have, I'm okay with that. I'm happy with one or two telling details. Call me a fool, but I'd rather err with too little than too much.

Harry Tournemille said...

I disagree, Sam. You're flat wrong. Character is not action. Story is propelled by character action, but character itself requires more.

I doubt Can-Lit is the only style (if it is that) to incorporate an abundance of description. I do concede that it certainly runs amuck with it at times.

Last time I read Murakami or Steinbeck or Kundera or McCarthy, they all seemed to recognize the necessity of description and setting.

Not saying it requires 30 pages per se. But one or two "telling details" can't be enough if the piece is 300 plus pages.

I don't think there's a magic number. But a novel is not merely a chain of causal events. A news report maybe is, or a police report. Context changes everything.

I know you like to shit on Can-Lit, which is fine. Preference is preference. And I don't think you're a fool at all.

Sam said...

I don't think Steinbeck or McCarthy devotes much space to description-for-description's sake. You don't find out much about George's finely tousled hair or Lennie's family tree.

The kind of description I wish I could write is when a character describes a place and that description tells you something about that character.

Harry Tournemille said...

Agreed--and not an easy task. I'm trying to do the same, which was what I was trying to say in this post.

Description for description's sake is useless--and frustrating to read.