Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Crossroads of Circumstance: Setting in Southern Literature by Susan Cushman

One of the optional themes for this cycle of posts here at A Good Blog is “setting.” (I’ll get to another suggested theme later, “Who is your favorite author?”)

Setting: “The manner, position, or direction in which something is set.”

That’s the first of three definitions of “setting,” according to Webster.  In fact, you have to read down to part b of the third definition to get to setting as it pertains to writing: the time and place of the action of a literary, dramatic, or cinematic work.”

But I think Webster had it right the first time, even from a literary standpoint. Why? Because the “setting,”—the time and place of a story—does much to set the manner, position, or direction of the story.

And since this blog is about how Southern authors spin their stories, I was curious to see what my fellow Jackson, Mississippi, native, Eudora Welty has to say about setting:

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?...”

I think this is true, but only in a broad sense, geographically. To Kill a Mockingbird, set in a small town in Alabama, would not have worked in another part of the country, but it could have worked in a small Mississippi town, don’t you think? My friend, Tom Franklin, was banking on this when he did just that—he changed the setting of his New York Times best-seller, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, from a small town in Alabama to a town just over the state line in Mississippi. Why? According to Tom, it was in order to make the book fit the title he came up with. Most everyone recognizes “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” as part of the sing-song method of teaching children to spell Mississippi:

M i crooked letter crooked letter i crooked letter crooked letter i hump back hump back i

Yes, he did that. A smart marketing move? Probably so. But knowing Tom, it was purely aesthetics. And it worked. (On October 15 it was number 24 on the NYT Best Sellers List.)

My favorite author is Pat Conroy. And though some folks say he’s made his fortune with a cottage industry built on stories about his dysfunctional family, (and yes, I’m drawn to those stories) his literary genius is what keeps me coming back for more. And part of that genius is his use of setting

“My wound is geography.” These are the first four words in my favorite book of all time, Conroy’s The Prince of Tides.

And he does it again with the opening sentence in South of Broad

“It was my father who called the city the mansion on the river.” This time he’s writing about Charleston. (Watch Pat talk about South of Broad and read from it in this video.) 

Conroy’s stories probably could not have been set anywhere but in the low country that gives them their very life. For his stories, setting is a leading character—in the case of South of Broad, that character is the city of Charleston.  His protagonist, Leo, says of Charleston, "I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk."

Maybe it’s risky for me to set my novel-in-progress in a state in which I’ve never lived (Georgia) rather than my home state of Mississippi, but like Tom Franklin, there’s a method to my madness. My protagonist needs the small town rural environs of the northern part of the state of Georgia for her childhood as well as the Southern College of Art and Design (SCAD) and the eclectic city of Savannah as the setting for certain stages of her story. And yes, she’ll even make a visit to Conroy’s beloved Charleston, but it won’t be her wound. And that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.

I’ve only addressed one aspect of setting so far—place. What about the other aspect that’s often included in its definition—time?  I’m not a scholar, but it seems that where place is integral to the characters and plot, time has more to do with technique. It’s the author’s choice to use chronological time, flashbacks, jump around from chapter to chapter, or other techniques for dealing with time. In my work-in-progress, I’m playing with stream-of-consciousness—a la Faulkner, Woolf, and most recently, Michael Cunningham, in his work, The Hours. I love interior monologue as a vehicle for unpacking the complexity of human lives. I’m hoping to weave those monologues through the lives of three women from very different times and places, whose destinies intersect in a mystical way. (I introduced this idea in my first post at A Good Blog, back in March.) 

As an author or as a reader, how much do you pay attention to setting in a story? Is it something you actively consider, or it is just there, holding up the work like an invisible stage-hand? I’d love to read your comments.

P.S. I’m writing this post while packing for a month-long writing “retreat” at Seagrove Beach, Florida, which starts tomorrow, Wednesday, October 27! I’ll be blogging from the beach over at my personal blog, Pen and Palette,so please subscribe and follow my progress.

Susan's essays have been published in The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal (2007 finalist), First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life,  Southern Women’s Review, Mom Writers Literary Journal, and Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. Later this year, her essay, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” will appear in the second volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan’s blog, Pen and Palette, was recently voted one of 50 Top Creative Writing Blogs of 2010 by Awarding the Web. She is co-director of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference scheduled for November 11-14 in Oxford, Mississippi.


Kat said...

Interesting question. As a reader, I find myself drawn to stories set in the South. Not a conscious decision, but it happens time and time again. I would add James Lee Burke to your list of authors who use place as a "character" with spectacular results. As a writer, my stories almost always end up being set in the small Mississippi town of my father's family. And I haven't lived there since I was 6. Again, not a conscious choice, they just end up there no matter what I do! Kat

K. Harrington said...

Excellent post, Susan. Setting is as much a character as anything else and I love a great book, rich with a palpable setting.

Your retreat sounds marvelous. Have fun!

Peggy Webb said...

Eudora Welty's strong sense of place resonates with me. In my writing, characters are so intricately woven with place that it hard to imagine relocating them.

The Pulpwood Queen said...

Loved this blog and you hit all my favorite read buttons. Have fun on your retreat and can't wait to see what you have to say!
Also so everybody knows, Pat Conroy will be here for my annual 11th Anniversary Girlfriend Weekend and I am just adding a 50th Anniverary "To Kill a Mockingbird" film festival to the program on Sunday! Stay tuned at www.beautyandthebook.com

Karin Gillespie said...

A lovely post! Have fun on your retreat.

nreddick said...

Very interesting post, Susan. I would have to agree that setting and place do almost become character. I think in some Southern work, writers have literally made part of the setting a character (I'm thinking Clyde Edgerton's novel where the vine tells part of the story in the cemetery). I love Franklin's new title, and I look forward to yours. After all, Savannah is my favorite place. Niles

JLC said...

Fascinating subject and wonderful discussion of it. To show my agreement, I'll just say that my second novel is a book about place and the people it affects inescapably. I must confess that though I'm now a southern writer, MAIDEN RUN is set in 1930s Ohio.

c.a. Marks said...

Awesome article, and I too LOVE Pat Conroy. My current project has the main character somewhere between the deep south (current residency) and southern Ohio (hometown). I wonder how this will come off?! LOL

Anonymous said...

My opinion on place and setting: As a avid reader, adventurer, and a sometimes-writer, setting is everything to me. It's a dimension that grounds a story. As Elizabeth Bowen said "nothing happens nowhere." It's the one dimension that can cause a reader to lose respect of the writer. If the writer places their character in a specific geographical place, they better get the details correct (fauna, flora, weather, topography, language, etc). For instance, if I am reading a story set in the high desert/chaparral of the west and the author fails to mention the fragrance of the sagebrush, the authority of the writing is lost and I don't turn the page because I know the author has never been there.

The best stories come from those authors who have immersed themselves in the character so well that they can't be separated from their environment without a dramatic change. Southern writing (for the most part) tends to have characters closely tied to the landscape. In some ways, I think this might go back to our Scots/Irish ancestry...we are forever tied to our land and our clan and cannot be separated from them because they shaped our ethos. It really IS who we are and what we know, because it is US.

Any good writer can set a story inside the confines of a doctor's office and make it interesting and place it in any geographical setting, but only a great writer puts us in the chair with the patient and makes us connect with the character in such a way that we reconsider our own doctor's appointment (eg. 'The Use of Force' by William Carlos Williams).

I pay close attention to how an author uses the basic writing rule of 'don't tell me, show me' as I read a story or novel. I love reading clues between the lines and letting my imagination add to the theme/plot as I read along...and I especially love it when a story is completely unpredictable.

If an author zooms my mind out to the signature of the wide expanse of the landscape (even if it's only a tiny room or box), then reels me in to the lonely room of their heart, only then, as a reader, will I never let them go.

Jolene, writing from Eugene, OR (born and bred in the Blue Ridge Mtns. of North Carolina).

JLC said...

Jolene, you should be writing literary criticism! And don't you find, wherever you have memories from the earliest part of your life, is the place that is forever home--at least in part?

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Pretty helpful material, thanks so much for the article.