This marks the first in a series (hopefully, depending on how well I get my act together) of Sunday Salon posts discussing different aspects of a novel and how important they are: setting, characters, language, plot, theme... er, anything else I may be missing? Let me know and I'll add it to my list!
Setting is the time and place that an event occurs. For the purpose of this post, it's the time and place that a book's action happens. It can be modern-day Chicago, 17th century India, the planet Mars in 2500 or a fantasy parallel universe that we'll never encounter.
To me, setting never seems like a very important aspect of a novel's success until I read a book that does it very well or very poorly. For example, I think Carlos Ruiz-Zafon brings wartime Barcelona to life. I love ancient Rome as portrayed by Lindsey Davis. I think Salman Rushdie does magical realism in the Mughal court very well. And Hilary Mantel brought revolutionary Paris to amazing life in A Place of Greater Safety. And I think my love of Georgette Heyer and her sense of place is well-known to most people. I am focusing on historical novels, but even those set in modern-day can have a great sense of place. And fantasy, in my opinion, can be make or break, depending on how plausible the setting is. Guy Gavriel Kay has a wonderful ability of bringing a world so similar to ours but not quite there to his readers. Joe Abercrombie does it well, too, with a much harsher and gritty take on the world. And in non-fiction, setting is very key, particularly if you are writing about travel or a very turbulent period. The Eyes of Willie McGee really made 1950s America vivid for me- in contrast, Rising Road did very little for me.
Depending on the era, an inaccurate setting can bother me. For example, I think I know the Regency era in English history pretty well, and inaccuracies in language or history or general deportment in novels set in that period really get on my nerves. However, as I know next to nothing about, say, 4th Dynasty China, I wouldn't notice any discrepancies. Similarly, I can be very hard to please with books on the Indian immigrant experience, comparing those stories to my own and being skeptical when they don't seem to measure up.
So for me, setting is important in that if it's done well, it can bring a story very much to life, and if it's done poorly, it can ruin a book for me. Usually, it's something in between and I don't get a great sense of setting. (In Room, the setting was very strong in that there was a room, and then there was a hospital, but it was hard to get a sense of where in the world the story was taking place.) I guess I only notice setting when it's at one extreme or the other.
What about you? Do you pay attention to setting? How important is it to your enjoyment of a book?