Sunday, July 11, 2010

TSS: How important is SETTING to you?

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?


  1. I enjoyed this post, and really thought about it. Funny, even though I haven't recognized this, I think book settings have been making a difference for me while I read. There are some books that feel like something's missing, and I would guess now, that it's setting descriptions, or even mentions. Right now I couldn't give and example, but there have been times when I finished a book and although there may be a mention of say a character's ethnicity, house, place where they live, etc, there is practically nothing else written about those things. A character might make a big deal in the beginning about being a country or following certain beliefs but make no other attempt throughout the book to explaink, or even mention these things. I now realize that has been vaguely bothering me. For me setting is more than just a place, it's the way a character lives, how they follow beliefs, and some of what they wear (please, just some - no reason to overdue ala LKH)

    All this has been vague for me, because I'm notorius for just sitting back and reading the story, not really thinking or analysin much past that. Most of the time it allows me to enjoy a story without over thinking it, just to be able to accept a character or plot line, but sometimes there's something that vaguely bothers me about a book, and I can't say what it is. pros and cons.

    You mentions your own Indian Immigrant experience. Does this mean you came over from India? As a child or adult? I work with a woman (for 10 years now) - we see each other only occasionally since it's lunch duty at a school, but we've had some fun conversations about such subjects as widows, hairlength, nose rings (she's the only one that didn't bat an eye when I had my left nostril pierced with two piercings). For the longest time I never saw her with her nose ring in, and just recently she's been wearing hers - she didn't think it would be allowed, and when I wore mine, she saw no one complained about it, so now she wears hers. I'd love to read more about India and your experience.

  2. It depends. Sometimes I like good settings, at others, I prefer good characterization.

    Here is my TSS post!

  3. I'll be honest and say I don't think about setting too much unless, as you say, it's done really well or really badly. I'd never say it's one of a crucial parts of a book for me - but it's true that if I'm in a mood for a certain setting, nowhere else will really do, and if I'm tired of one, I'll find it incredibly difficult to fully enjoy a book set in that time period.

    I'm also finicky with places I know, and knowing a little too much English history has actually ruined certain time periods in fiction for me. But I enjoy those I know little about, especially when they're well done, and a really good setting in fiction can make me eager to read non-fiction about the same place.

  4. You know what I hate, I read this book set in teh 11th century and they swore and said fuck, and used these kinds of words that I am pretty sure had not been "invented" yet

  5. I don't like the setting to be too prominant in a book. One of the things that will turn me off historical fiction as well as certain classic time periods such as pastoral is the over-emphasis of place or time period. The setting to me should be integrated into the rest of the book and not focused on specifically. I can understand it being the latter if the setting counts as a character (like in Thomas Hardy) but even then I don't often *enjoy* reading that. In books, I look more for character, tone, and thematic elements.

  6. I already love this series! :)

    I agree with Amanda that too much setting can be overbearing and distract from the story - especially in historical fiction books when the author seems determined to wedge every piece of her research into the book. Whereas someone like Sarah Waters strikes (to me) the perfect balance between history and story in bringing her historical settings to life.

    I don't know if I've thought of it in those terms before, but I love what you say about setting in fantasy books having the ability to make or break the book. So true. I think it must be unbelievably difficult to construct a fictional world and then introduce it to an audience for the first time along with your characters and story premise and everything else. This may be why I tend to prefer fantasy that's set at least partly in our world, or fantasy that uses alternate history.

  7. Setting for me is part of the overall package. It needs to be there but it should not overshadow the plot or characters. I have read books that don't give a time or place and done well this is fine. It is meant to show the timelessness of the story.

    I'm reading The Eyes of Willie McGee right now in tandem with To Kill a Mockingbird.

  8. How interesting! I love the idea of this series, and this was a great start. I think I am kind of like you - I don't notice setting usually, unless it is great or horrible. Of course I can't think of any examples right now :)

  9. Anonymous7/11/2010

    great idea for posts ,I enjoy settings very much to be taken out of my world some where else is wonderful ,like going to places that have been feature in books ,was at castle howard which is partly the base for brideshead revisted and loved looking round it ,earlier in year read girl with glass feet which had great settings not name but evoked many places ,all the best stu

  10. This is an intriguing idea...especially since I've noticed the absence of settings details in some recent books I've been reading. I like to know enough about the setting so that I have a context into which to place the events and the characters. The absence of setting makes me feel...adrift, I guess. One book I was reading didn't mention the city or the state or give any clues about setting...and I went searching frantically to see what I might have missed. This distracted me from the story, which is not a good feeling.

    I love writers that make you feel as though you are right there with the characters. Some Southern writers I've been reading lately, like Karen White and Diane Chamberlain, paint a vivid backdrop of the South for their characters and their story.

    My favorite writers do this well, so I'm thinking that setting is very important to me.

    Thanks for sharing this idea...

    My salon:

  11. I think setting really counts for mysteries, because there are a million mysteries, and few of them are more memorable than something-to-do-in-the-airport, so setting can make a difference. If it is in a place that I've lived in or visited, I am not only more apt to enjoy the story, but more apt to remember it after the plane lands! :--)

  12. Mardel- Well, I'm glad the post got you thinking! I don't often think about the separate components of a story, either, so I thought it might be interesting to take them apart and see what people think.

    I did not come over from India- my parents did, but I was born here in the States. And yes, nose rings are very popular with women there. My mom had one, though she doesn't wear it any more. I don't *think* my parents would mind at all if I had one. Every time I read a book (not as often now as in the 80s and 90s) about the rite of passage of a girl asking her parents to get her ears pierced, and that subsequent battle... I can't relate at ALL. My parents got my ears pierced probably when I was about 4 months old. And when I asked for a second hole (which has sadly since closed up), there was no argument at all.

    Gautami- Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Meghan- I think I am like you with that, too- perhaps it's because the both of us may experience histfict fatigue?

    Blodeuedd- Ugh, that would really annoy me, too. Though I think the f-bomb has been around longer than we suspect!

    Amanda- I can see that as being a large part of why you dislike historical fiction. I agree setting should be integrated- you should know when and where a book is, but you shouldn't be hit in the face with it. Another book that I think hit you in the face with its setting (though to me in a somewhat agreeable manner as I'm from there) is Time Traveler's Wife with all the Chicago references.

    Jenny- Yay :-) I think Waters does a good job, too. It's not slapping you over the head with Victorian England, but it's there. I absolutely think fantasy is crucial in fantasy novels. Though ironically, the opposite effect happens to me- I think I prefer books set not in our time or world but elsewhere. Though most use some form of history that makes sense to me.

    bookmagic- Oh, I hope you enjoy Eyes of Willie McGee as much as I did! And I never thought about the timelessness of a story. I think many stories (To Kill a Mockingbird, to use the book you're reading now) is pretty timeless, though very firmly entrenched in its setting. And others that are classics could be set at any time and still be relevant.

    Amy- Thanks! I look forward to doing more with the series.

    Winstonsdad- Yes, I think a lot of people visit Castle Howard for that! They also visit Chatsworth for Pemberley (though ironically, if one is reasonable, there is no way Darcy could live in a place like Chatsworth). I also really enjoyed Girl with the Glass Feet and I agree- a very strong sense of setting there!

    Laurel-Rain- I guess for me, I don't so much feel adrift as confused that I must have missed something! I agree Southern writers often have a very strong setting!

    rhapsody- I've never considered that, but you're so right! Mysteries are a dime a dozen. Actually one series particularly interests me to check out solely BECAUSE of its setting- Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, which are set in a fantasy underworld of Chicago. That sounds great to me!

  13. For me, setting is something I only notice if it's ridiculously underdeveloped or beautifully integrated. Most of the time it's just not something I focus on.

  14. I think you're right on the money regarding setting being important when done well - we all learned in Lit 101 that the Mississippi River is actually a character in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and that's how I try to think about setting when it's particularly well done. The best example in recent fiction, I think, is New York City in Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin. New York is clearly a living, breathing thing in the novel - and McCann is so good at connecting his late '70s setting with contemporary New York. Great topic, Aarti!

  15. Setting is very important to me, and it is one of the first things I consider when I pick a book to read. There are certain time periods and places that I have NO interest in reading about whatsoever, no matter how brilliant the writer is. For instance, I feel that I have been steeped enough in black history (I am African-American) that I can't bring myself to read one more book set in the deep south in the 1950s with black characters. It makes me feel like I'm being beat over the head with a dark time in my race's history.

    I am also sensitive to inaccuracies in relation to a setting. That's why I prefer to read books written in the 1940s than modern books set in the 1940s. The modern books often feel too contemporary for the setting.

  16. Anonymous7/11/2010

    This is a really good idea for a series. I don't notice setting usually, but I do when it's a historical novel set in a time I know a lot about. It can easily distract me from the actual story.

  17. Trisha- It seems like most of us are that way!

    Greg- I haven't read that one, but I think you're right- particularly in those big epic books. I assume in Edward Rutherford's London, for example, that London is a pretty big character.

    Dani- I can completely understand that. I veer away from certain plots for the same reason- I feel like I get enough of some stories from my own life.

    Iris- I'm the same way! I think sometimes it's probably to my detriment, but hey... people should research correctly!

  18. I'm a little odd about setting. There are times when I barely notice it and others where it makes or breaks the book. A brilliant setting can turn a good story into an excellent one. I love a really good, evocative setting that makes me feel like I'm right there with the characters. Very few of my favourite books don't have deep, complex settings.

    I can't think of a book where a poorly-realized setting destroyed the story for me, but I do like a certain degree of historical accuracy and/or emotional authenticity. The place has to feel the same way as the story, or it can take me out of the book just enough that a good book becomes a so-so one.

  19. I think I'm like Meghan - I mostly notice setting when it's done really well or really badly. I don't read for setting, but then again I can think of at least an author I really like whose work is mostly setting-based (that's China MiƩville - dude loves his imaginary lands :P). I don't want setting to be too distracting, but a rich and complex setting can really enhance the book.

  20. Sometimes, if the writing about the setting is spectacular I can come to care less about the plot, it's the descriptions of the location and the feeling that I could imagine myself there that becomes more important.

    I think if you know the setting well already (like you say you know Regency era) then it doesn't matter so much, but I'm often put off when something isn't detailed enough or detailed badly so that I'm imagining characters but can't understand why they're having problems etc because the problems relate to the period.

  21. Anonymous7/12/2010

    I agree with others who have said that they don't read for setting - though there are a few that I'm particularly drawn to. More important than the actual setting to me is how the author builds the setting. Balance is important. Overdoing it can lead to a boring book while under-doing it can make events difficult to visualize, which is important to me.

  22. I think I am much like you. I don't really notice setting unless it's very bad or very good. One of the best novels I've ever read, in terms of setting was Perdido Street Station, bu China Mieville. In that book, the setting was so fantastically bizarre that it was almost a character in itself. Now that I am thinking on it, there are some settings that I am just not that interested in, and some that I feel have been done to death. In particular, I think that I am just so burnt out any setting involving WWII, and for the moment, I am actively avoiding books like that. In terms of enjoying a book, I think that setting is one of the least important aspects for me. It's almost like the backdrop doesn't matter as much, as long as the characters, messages, or plot is good. Very interesting topic to think about. I had never really examined my thoughts about this before!

  23. Sometimes what I love most about a book is its setting, the sense of it having transported me completely elsewhere.

    For instance, Kate Grenville's The Secret River: there's a book that oozes else-where-ness. And (also because so many parts of that novel are devastatingly vivid and sorrow-soaked) the setting is what held the heart of Grenville's novel for me. The landscape felt like the main character to me.

    Other stand-out settings in contemporary fiction that have impressed me: Linda Hogan's Power, Hilary Jordan's Mudbound, Richard Russo's Empire Falls. Yup, I'm big on setting!

  24. Memory- Yes, sometimes setting can really set a book apart. I wonder if that's because so much evocative language can be used to set a scene?

    Nymeth- It seems like Mievelle is quite popular for setting, so I will have to look him up asap!

    Charlie- Yes, exactly- sometimes those descriptions can be so amazing!

    everybook- Yes, you're right. There has been many a long, involved descriptive passage that I've skimmed!

    Zibilee- Again with Mievelle- must read him! I like books like that, in which the setting itself is so integral to the plot.

    Buried in Print- As a HUGE fan of The Secret River, I know exactly what you mean. LOVE that book.

  25. My first inclination is to say "No! It doesn't matter." But I think your answer would be closer to the truth for me as well. When it's done badly, it's glaring. Absolutely horrid!

    I'm reading The Passage right now, and in that book setting certainly does matter a great deal as it shifts from place to place and time period to time period. Luckily, Cronin does it well, in my opinion, and he's living in TX so I even saw my area appear. Fun!

  26. Anonymous7/12/2010

    I think the book setting is very important for me. I've noticed that I tend to like books that are set in somewhat exotic locations, and also if I feel that I am learning something new about a place or a time.

  27. At first I thought the setting wasn't important to me but on reflection, I tend not to pick up books set in other worlds unless I have lots of time to read - I can get deeply lost trying to figure out where everything is - and like Dani and Zibilee, there are some time periods/places I just don't do.

  28. I will often go out of my way to read a book if it's set in a place I've been to/have lived in, regardless of how good the actual story is. I too like Zafon's Shadow of the Wind for it's descriptions of Barcelona, I once even bought a book by Rosamunde Pilcher because she described a part of Cornwall I lived in for years (Coming Home) - I'm not a Pilcher fan, normally! Don't laugh, but I even read a book by Alan Titchmarsh because it was set in Cornwall (The Last Lighthouse Keeper)

  29. Andi- I love seeing areas I know well show up in books!

    nishitak- I don't think I have really read books set in what I would deem "exotic" locations, but I could see the appeal.

    Carrie- Yes, I like maps for fantasy novels!

    Tracy- I don't judge you at all, mostly because I have no idea who Alan Titchmarsh is :-)

  30. I'm noticing that readers of Fantasy say they notice setting, and I think that goes double for science fiction readers. I read some SF novels primarily for the strangeness of the setting--the most recent SF novel I read, Flood, is like that.

  31. I agree with everyone; this is a very interesting one...

    To pick a few things:


    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.

    Absolutely. One of the reasons (or, let's be honest, pretty much the *only* reason) I sometimes heretically opine that The Fionavar Tapestry is better than The Lord of the Rings is that Kay's setting (and in particular, the fact that he acknowledges that women have a place in his world) makes me more inclined to hang up my disbelief at the relevant points...

    [Re. Abercrombie, I know you've recommended him to me before: I have managed to coincide many hours on a train next month with stocking up at an import bookshop: The Blade Itself will be keeping me company -- hooray!]

    The setting not being noticed unless done really well or really badly is an intersting one too, since the effect can ('as you know, Bob!') depend on the author's intention. E.g. the subtle diversions from actual history in Mary Gentle's Ash, say, will mean more to those who notice such things, although such people will (or may) be the same folk qualified to say, "Now, hang on!".)

    This doesn't matter, of course, in deliberate counterfactuals, although, as Zibelee says above regarding WWII-set novels, it can be conterproductive, since someone with her knowledge of what really happened is, simultaneously, the perfect sort of person to appreciate, say, the way Christopher Priest plays around with actual history in The Separation, and the most likely person to be put off by the whole concept...

    Also, while China Meiville is getting shout-outs: The City and The City: brilliant!


  32. Also, tied into the "done really well or done really poorly" thing is sheer force of storytelling:

    E.g. if, like me, you retain a fondness for Robert E. Howard, then the way that, as John Clute puts it in his introduction to the Penguin Classics 2009 collection of his short stories, that he was capable of "shouting the tale into the night as he works", and "singing us across the Styx", is more than enough to delay questions of, say, whether the economics of the Zingaran pirate economy are anything approaching valid until it's far too late...

    In other words, perhaps it not so much that that a poor setting is noticed, it's that if the other elements of the story don't carry you past a poor setting, then that's what you notice...


  33. The other thing about setting, which I've always meant to post something on, is how the physical setting you read something in can influence you...

    For example, I came very late to Jane Austen, and first read Persuasion during a sun-filled holiday in Egypt: I was subequently somewhat surprised when people suggested I'd overestimated how funny it was...


  34. And it's always fun to read a book when you are intimately familiar with the setting and they get it right.

  35. Fantastic question and I am so late for it! First boo at inaccuracies (when I know they are there, obviously when it's a time period or location I know nothing about I don't to mind). But what about the school of thought that says Charles Dickens essentially invented our belief about what the Victorian London was like to the extent that to stray too far from his conception in a pastiche renders the reader unfamiliar with the setting? His vision of London may not be totally accurate for the time, but it feels 'right' to us now - how much do we want books that feel right in the way they describe setting rather than accurate settings? I'd suggest this only applies when readers don't know much about that setting - very little knowledge about Victorian geography and environment myself, except what I've learned in novels.

    Anyway...setting is very important to me when it comes to certain kinds of novels. Historicals etc as you say. And sometimes I want a focus on setting by itself, just for the chance to soak up the beauty of it. EM Forster is very good about cretaing such descriptions. I also love when a setting has a part to play in the story, love when a novel features nature, or architecture in sympathy with the mood of the book for example.

    But give me a modern novel without a sense of place and I'm perfectly happy. Sometimesit's nice to have no clues given from the landscape as to how I'm suppoused to feel about a book. I'd actually like to see someone write an experimental novel which blanks out setting and place, just to see what kind of assumptions it removes, or creates.


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