Thursday, February 17, 2011

Washington, D.C.: Place or Idea?

A current fad in literature is place-based fiction. "Fad" is probably too harsh a word, but the choice of noun efficiently lets you know my opinion.

Sometimes I like reading a book that takes me to a physical place, and it doesn't matter if I have been there or not. The Scottish highlands, Patagonia, New Orleans, Antarctica, Cuba, Paris. There are many wonderful places to go. But places don't make fiction. Ideas do. Feelings do. Dialog and characters do. And, most of all, story makes fiction.

Stories do not have to be tied down to places to be good. Exhibit A: Jose Saramago's The Cave. Exhibit B: Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. These stories could take place anywhere.

Setting is certainly an element of a great story. But setting doesn't have to be a recognizable place. It can be a dining room table. It can be a hospital. It can be a police station. A beach. A factory. A car. A cliff. A mine shaft. Anonymous things on which a story can build itself. A story that touches something universal, something that does not have baggage.

The Wshington Post magazine had a great article last Sunday about Richard Peabody, the publisher of Gargoyle literary magazine. Peabody thinks Washington D.C. is a great literary town. Jonathan Yardley, the Post's book critic, disagrees. The article says: "According to Yardley, Washington's enduring status as a literary backwater derives from the lack of an 'indigenous literary community.' Many of the serious fiction writers living here came from elsewhere, while writers with roots deep enough to produce the kind of stellar place-based fiction that puts a literary community on the map have failed to explore the narrative riches to be found in the lives of ordinary Washingtonians."

That makes my blood boil. Not for the same reasons Peabody is upset, but because, of all places, Washington is a city of ideas. To reduce it to a place is to strip it of what makes it unique. Politics, power, hope, poverty...these things make the landscape of Washington.

If so prominent a figure as Yardley doesn't see this, I am heartsick about the future of the publishing industry.

(The photo is from Obama's inaguration.)