On this Fiction Friday, I’m thinking about the place of place.
In 1956 Eudora Welty wrote a well-known essay, “Place in Fiction,” that appears on pages 116-133 in the collection of her essays and reviews published as The Eye of the Story (Vintage International, 1990). The same essay is found on pages 249-264 of Critical Approaches to Fiction (McGraw-Hill, 1968). Here’s a link to a hardcover copy of that book in a newer edition. If you can overlook the kind of arbitrary line-breaks and typos that often occur when a page of printed text is scanned with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, you can read the essay here or on this page (which is slightly easier to read).
Welty’s essay is worth reading for the first line alone: “Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wing-beating about her chair, and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade” (The Eye of the Story, p. 116).
But reading only the first sentence would miss the main points of Welty’s wisdom. Despite placing place in the shade of feeling, or emotion, Welty argues convincingly for the–dare I hazard another redundancy?–high place of place. She writes: “It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place.” She adds, “The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?’–and that is the heart’s field” (p. 118).
Welty describes how vital place is in making the novel true: “The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work” (p. 121).
She also writes about how place relates to character: “Besides furnishing a plausible abode for the novel’s world of feeling, place has a good deal to do with making the characters real, that is, themselves, and keeping them so” (p. 121). And this gem: “It is a kind of phenomenon of writing that the likeliest character has first to be enclosed inside the bounds of even greater likelihood, or he will fly to pieces” (p. 122). Which leads to: “Place, then, has the most delicate control over character too: by confining character, it defines it” (p. 122).
Then Welty returns to place’s relationship to feeling: “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress” (p. 122).
Writing about the relationship of place to point of view, Welty says: “Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame. Not an empty frame, a brimming one. Point of view is a sort of burning-glass, a product of personal experience and time; it is burnished with feelings and sensibilities, charged from moment to moment with the sun-points of imagination. It is an instrument–one of intensification; it acts, it behaves, it is temperamental” (p. 124). She adds, “One of the most important things the young writer comes to see for himself is that point of view is an instrument, not an end in itself, that is useful as a glass, and not as a mirror to reflect a dear and pensive face” (p. 125).
Welty thinks the “sense of place is as essential to good and honest writing as a logical mind” (p. 128).
Welty’s perspective may well have influenced Larry Woiwode, who wrote this description for his Glen West fiction workshop:
Central to fiction is place, a foundation for every detail of character and action inherent in a short story or novel. I find in place the locus of being, as most stories of creation confirm, a central staff to identity and the ground on which every character must walk and perform. Once place is secure in its setting of prose every other element of narrative tends to fall in place.
From there, a winnowing can begin to sort non-essentials and my mission is to aid writers in solidifying essentials as the best editors I’ve worked with have aided me. I don’t prefer any particular type of story and enter the metaphor of each as a second skin in order to find my way through, using as a guide my efforts and failures as tempered by editors sensitive to blind spots, besides the host of witnesses in the tradition of English fictional prose.
Wouldn’t you love to learn more about place by working with other writers under the direction of Woiwode? I’d like that.