Dispatches | December 03, 2010

For an essay I’m currently working on, I’ve been thinking a lot about place in fiction. I’ve never been a reader who’s drawn to a book specifically because of geography. I absolutely enjoy literature that sheds light on regions and cultures about which I previously knew little. It’s just that I don’t choose fiction with the express purpose of learning about a particular place. I recently read Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Gorky Park, but not because of an abiding interest in 80s-era Moscow. Rather, a friend recommended it as a superb detective novel. (I agree—it is.) I don’t know whether the Moscow represented in Gorky Park is anything like the real Moscow, but neither do I particularly care, because it was Cruz’s Moscow that the story demanded.

Tobias Wolff once said in an interview, “The London of Charles Dickens is not London, it’s a London that is in his mind and his spirit, his way of looking at the world. That’s his London.” Wolff’s words imply that place in fiction, even in a work of realism, is an imaginative, subjective construction. We’d be foolish to rely only on fiction to teach us about a real place. There’s no requirement, in fact, that fiction teach us anything. Or rather, the only pedagogical imperative of fiction is that it teach the reader how to read the work currently being read.

So my questions are: a) How important is geographical setting to other readers? b) Are there certain places—cities, countries—that in a work of fiction inherently draw you in or drive you away?

Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time, forthcoming in February 2011 from Press 53. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is michaelkardos.com.