I was quoted in a recent Emerging Writers Network newsletter and thought I'd share what I said here. Dan Wickett, intreprid EWN founder, had sent out this question: Do you find that the importance of setting or placediffers greatly between poetry, short stories, and/or novels?
Here is my answer:
Hi Dan! Thanks for an intriguing question! It's a timely one for me,
too - I'm teaching setting in my Novel I class right now, so I have place on the brain. I love all three genres you mentioned - both as a reader and as a writer. As a reader, I am always grateful when place plays a role in any work, be it poem or short story or novel; it grounds me, orients me, give me a physical touchstone. I find that, for me, place is most important within a novel, though. Poems can be very internal, very surreal - they often exist in a place that's not really a place, more like inner space or previously unexplored space. I love poems that plumb the natural (and unnatural) world in a rich sensorial way, but I also like abstract poems, poems that play with language and ideas, poems not necessarily rooted to the earth. Short stories have a similar freedom -I love when a short story explores place in a deeply detailed way, but I also love stories that are less rooted, more heady. A novel, on the other hand, seems to need to have a sense of place- otherwise, the reader can get lost. It would be hard to spend 300 pages without having a specific place to grasp on. The landscape, the environment, in a novel can act as a frame, a bass note, a way to connect the characters to the larger world.
The first novel I wrote (which I'm sure will foreverremain unpublished) was set in an unnamed city. The story really suffered as a result - as a writer, I didn't have a firm grasp of where the story was located, what sort of weather, what sort of geography,what sort of culture, the characters had to contend with, and I think the story was sort of vague and claustrophobic as a result. I've found that place has become more and more important to me as a writer over time. I've just started to write a new novel set in Chicago, where I grew up; it's a real pleasure to return to the streets and trees of my childhood on the page. Poems can thrive in unnamed cities, short stories can thrive in unnamed cities, but novels will have a hard time surviving without a zip code (or many zip codes) to call home.