Archive for the ‘Setting’ Category

☞ Should a fictionist write about places he has never been to? Is “Shakespeare did it” an acceptable excuse? But why shouldn’t a fictionist be doing this? To extend the questions beyond the boundaries of Jay Neugeboren’s essay below, does one know places one has been to — or, for that matter, the place that one lives in — better than some places that one recreates in a work of fiction, even if one has no recourse to the actual first-hand experience of these places?

“My novel, The Other Side of the World, published this winter, contains a 100-page novel-within-the-novel set entirely in Singapore and Borneo. I’ve never been to Singapore and/or Borneo, or to any other place in Asia, and when people ask me about the book, and discover this is so, they seem bewildered. As in: How can you write about a place you’ve never seen or been to?

To this point no one, including friends and reviewers who have been to Singapore and Borneo, has questioned the credibility of the Singapore and Borneo I’ve conjured up. But why should people believe that a fiction writer has to go to a place in order to write about it? An earlier novel of mine, The Stolen Jew, begins in Israel, on a beach in Herzlia, and I wrote this novel before I’d ever been to Israel. The Stolen Jew also contains several sections set in the Soviet Union, both in time-present (about smuggling out a Jewish dissident), and in the 19th century (about a Jewish boy kidnapped to take the place of another Jewish boy for 25 year service in the Tsar’s army — the dread cantonist gzeyra).

I have never been to the Soviet Union. The list of writers who have written about places they’ve never been to is long, beginning with Shakespeare (his many plays set in Italy: OthelloTwo Gentlemen of VeronaRomeo and JulietThe Merchant of Venice, etc.), and includes Saul Bellow (Henderson the Rain King, set in Africa, which Bellow had never visited), Franz Kafka (Amerika, set on our shores, which Kafka never saw), Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities, an imaginary dialogue set in China between Kublai Kahn and Marco Polo). And Shakespeare, I note, never met a Jew, for they were banished from England during his lifetime, yet he created Shylock.”

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