Sunday, January 8, 2012
A Discussion on Setting and the Attraction of Canada
On the subject of the attraction of Canada:
Being told that the country I live in isn't "sexy", and therefore does not sell products, is odd. Putting aside the triteness of the all-encompassing "sex sells" business maxim...this controversial statement spills over into my own self-image. Am I contributing to the lack of appeal in Canada? Guilt by association, theoretically if all Canadians were sexy then there would be no problem, website posts like these are boring, you're doing it to yourself without even noticing...
...Or is it the varied ecospheres of Canada? The flat prairies, the cold and uninviting north territories, the endless uniform trees?
Is it the fact that we're considered an integrated rather than an assimilated society? And based on that, the idea that we have no real identity of our own and rely on the US and the rest of the globe to further our own cultural progress?
Is it the notion that we're all considered docile and polite, with the exception of middle-aged Canadian women whom are thought to be loud and ignorant?
Is it how some artists based in Canada and trying to break into the US don't outwardly express their Canadian heritage? (which can actually work for Canada's benefit when the band is awful, even though the truth eventually comes out)
Or is it the lack of recognition as to what happens in a Canadian city? Our cities haven't been explored in art and media to the extent that cities like Tokyo or England have. And they lack the mystery which unknown cities like Antananarivo (capital of Madagascar) have. Canadian cities seem to be unknown, but who would want to know them?
On the subject of setting:
Robert McKee writes in Story that a precise setting in a story will give way to more possibilities and appeal, as opposed to a broad and unspecified setting which limits expression.
This is important when trying to write a story about Canada. In my opinion - the crucial aspects of setting are how appealing and relatable it is. The problem is, how do you write about a certain Canadian setting if people won't find it appealing?
My thoughts on these two matters:
The problem of writing an appealing Canadian setting has plagued me for awhile. Of course it's possible to write within a specific, unknown, seemingly boring Canadian setting - Alice Munro has done it repeatedly to great success.
The issue of setting doesn't limit her simply because her stories are so complex and absorbing that people pay the setting no real mind, not thinking to themselves of all the conceptions about Canada which I listed above.
Still, it seems that the odds are weighed against Canadian writers. The Life of Pi for example is considered a Canadian book but describes Canada as full of people with bad haircuts, and not really much else. It takes a lot to have the talent which Alice Munro wields, or yields, I don't know which. To base a story in a boring Canadian landscape and not have it reflect that boredom could be a difficult task. Of course it's a battle.
But it's not impossible to imagine a great love story based in the prairies of Saskatchewan or Alberta. Just because the audience doesn't have an awareness or interest in the prairies, that doesn't mean it can't be instilled if the story is written well enough. To say there's no sexual appeal in the Canadian prairies is inherently ridiculous just because of how it looks on the surface. Canadian authors who base their work solely in, New York City because it's well-known and everyone wants to go there, is weak to me. Of course a Canadian author can base stories in New York, but to try and capitalize on it without any mention of their own country/background is fake.
Any setting can be attractive. It's based on how the characters perceive and interact with it. But - I would argue that a setting doesn't need to be the central part of a story, because if a story focuses too much on a setting which no one really knows, it will eventually become tiresome and alienate the reader.
Of course an author may think, "What can I really do with this setting? What goes on here which is different and dangerous? How can I make this setting something which people will take a step back and re-consider, and actually get into?" It's something I struggle with...trying to write a story in Toronto while not thinking it's only going to appeal to Canadians. That's where research and imagination come in.