Lecture 3

[Janet Frame (1924-2004)]

Week 3:

Lecture 3

Fiction: Setting


In certain types of genre fiction, the setting can be more of a star than the actual characters. In Science Fiction, for example, authors are often more interested in exploring the details of alien or futuristic environments than in the emotional problems of their inhabitants.

The same applies to historical novels which aim to convey a lot of factual information in a relatively painless way; also romance novels set in romantic foreign parts where the destination is more of a lure than the fairly routine personnel (tall dark stranger, innocent young girl etc.)

Certainly the stress you put on your setting should be motivated by the importance it has in your story.

I guess the rule of thumb, in fiction, tends to be something like:

emphasis on background = sketchy characters

emphasis on character = sketchy background

However, the effect of a setting can be far more complex and interesting than that. Take, for example, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa:

[La Gioconda (1503-6)]

The background is misty and understated, but almost infinitely detailed. Why? Is it his intention to distract us from the central figure in the painting? How does this assist him in conveying the mystery which so many see as underlying the mood and facial expression of his sitter?

In Andy Warhol's multiple images of Marilyn Monroe, however, the background is as empty and sketchy as can be: a simple plane of colour which can be used to motivate ever more discordant variations on the basic flesh-toned palate of a human face.

Warhol's artistic intention is clearly different from Leonardo's. Where the Madonna Lisa comes across to us a unique and intriguing individual, Marilyn Monroe appears as a marketable, interchangeable commodity: the tinting of her portrait as arbitrary as her ersatz Hollywood screen persona.

[The Dream (1910)]

In Douanier Rousseau's "The Dream", by contrast, the emphasis is clearly all on the setting itself. The figure is almost as sketchy and childlike as one of Warhol's monochrome backdrops.

Let's move on to how different settings operate to colour stories, though. To appreciate Michael Morrissey's "Jack Kerouac Sat Down beside the Wanganui River & Wept" fully, I think it's necessary both to have heard of the Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and to be aware of his persona as a hitchhiking drifter - as in his classic novel On the Road (1957).

[Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)]

And yet, is that enough? Isn't it also important to have some conception of the landscape of the Central North Island? Of the Wanganui / Whanganui river? To be aware also of the identity of the poet whose birthday Jack is hoping to celebrate? Isn't it the combination of setting + character which creates the plot in this case?

For the record, Jack Kerouac never visited New Zealand (or not officially, at any rate). He was dead himself by the time of James K. Baxter's funeral at Jerusalem. The story, then, is clearly not intended to be taken entirely literally - in case any of you were tempted to do so ...

[James K. Baxter (1926-1972)]

What about the other stories you've read for this session? Are they really imaginable apart from their settings? How specific do those settings have to be?

Some writers (J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis) can become so preoccupied with the backdrop and minutiae of their stories that they invent whole imaginary regions to house them. Why? What effect does this have?

I would suggest that the reasons for creating a new country (or world) to house your narrative are as various as are the reasons for putting it in some version of recognisable everyday "reality."

The question remains the same: What are the intentions of your piece as a whole, and how will the details of setting you put in help you to achieve them?

[J. R. R. Tolkien]

Imaginary Countries


Atlantis - Atlantic Ocean - Plato (360 BC)
El Dorado - South America - J. R. Freyle (1636)
Erewhon - New Zealand - Samuel Butler (1872)
Lemuria - Indian Ocean - Philip Sclater (1864)
Lilliput - Pacific Ocean - Jonathan Swift (1726)
Middle-earth - Northern Europe - J. R. R. Tolkien (c.1918-73)
Mu - Pacific Ocean - A. Le Plongeon (1873-85)
Narnia - Northern Europe - C. S. Lewis (1950-6)
Pellucidar - Earth’s Core - E. R. Burroughs (1914-63)
Shangri-La - Tibet - James Hilton (1933)
Xanadu - China - S. T. Coleridge (1797-1816)

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