Joanna Chambers, readerly detective

I’ve been missing blogging about readerly matters, following the closure of my reader blog.  But it’s cool because I can blog here!  I don’t want to recreate my old blog* but it’s nice to have an outlet.

*(Since I significantly reduced my online activities, my writing productivity has increased.  Of course, that’ll be cold comfort when the nine people who actually know who I am forget me, but what can you do? Something’s got to give.)

So what’s this about my readerly detective-ness? Well, since I started reading a lot (and I do mean a lot) of M/M romance about a year and half ago, I’ve found that a very big proportion of what I read is American contemporary, a setting I really didn’t read much of at all before.

I consider myself relatively well-informed (for a Brit) about the States. (Seriously, to your average Brit/European, ‘America’ is just one big land mass/population.  I had at least a passing knowledge of the basic geography and some of the bigger cultural groups/regions within the States).

My reading over the couple of years has changed that quite a bit.  I’ve read all sorts of American settings now: real and fictional, city and country, north, south, east and west.  I’m not even going to attempt to set down here the things I’ve learned I didn’t know before – it would take too long and would be doomed to incompleteness. 

Anyway, what I’m really interested in, and what the detective notion relates to, is something else.  It’s that sense of place, and of culture that emerges only from fiction.  It’s lots of little increments, all building up into something bigger.  It’s my brain, sorting wheat from chaff. It’s me thinking that no, that doesn’t sound plausible or oh yes! That has the ring of truth!  It’s absorbing and categorising and occasionally having moments where stuff adds up and I go, Oh, riiiight!

It’s like detection in that respect: lots of evidence, some credible, some not. 

The book that kind of prompted this post was False Start by Janey Chapel (which I loved).  As is often the case, there’s a straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back aspect to this particular book being the catalyst i.e. it’s occurred to me loads of other times before but when I read this book I got to a point where my half formed ideas became a bit more definite. 

I’ve read lots of books sent on campuses but Chapel set hers on a local college campus – and it was the local rather than the campus that I noticed here.  I can’t say how accurate her depiction of her particular setting is but it rang true with me and was interesting to me in its sense of individual placedom. 

This is something that’s come up for me before.  The sense, in American set novels, of how the institutions of a place (government, education, law enforcement) are so intimately connected with the place and the people they serve, and with each other.   It’s not a ‘big government’ sort of interconnectedness.  It’s more like each place is a self-determinative little principality, only connected to other places by loose bonds. 

I’m not commenting on here on whether this is a good thing or bad thing or an anything thing.  Just that it’s something I’ve come across in many of the novels I’ve read and it’s begun to feel quite distinctly American to me, even though it wasn’t something I’d noticed before.

I’m just asking to be knocked back and told I don’t know what I’m talking about, aren’t I?  Have at it – I’m happy – nay, eager – to be educated.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Joanna Chambers, readerly detective

  1. Interesting post, and so glad to see you back blogging!

    I’m not sure why you think this is “distinctly American” though, unless I’m misunderstanding you. I think a lot of fiction is shot through with a sense of place, and that sense flows from the interactions of the land, people, and institutions. In British novels it can be the church, or the local pub, or the university, or the council estate, or the police department, or something else.

    What do you see as different in the American-set novels you’re reading?

    • Oh, Sunita, I really struggled to articulate my meaning in this post! In line with my ‘abandoning the council of perfection’ approach I decided, after several attempts to amplify my meaning, just to post and see if anyone commented.

      It’s really difficult to articulate what feels distinctly American to me – everywhere in the world has a sense of the local, after all. The only one I have that is reliable is the one that applies here in Britain. I think of what local means here – in the highly centralised and big-government place that Britain is – and I think of our society, so different to the States. We have so much less need to self-sufficient, rely on the state to a much greater extent, and yet we are not a communal people at all. Everything is about the individual and the home.

      In the American contemp novels I’ve read, I read about police chiefs and other office holders who are elected (alien to me!) They are answerable (elected) in a way many of our officials are not.

      The things you’ve mentioned – the church, the pub, the university,the council estate, the police – I would see none of these in the same way. The church – well, we’re a largely secular society. The pub – well, yes, in Britain, drinking is a religion, lol!, but I don’t think many communities really congregate round one pub. The university – no, these are very distinct entities in themselves. The council estate – well, yes, that is a place where people live but it’s not really, on the whole, an idea people rally around, more a thing to endure. The police department – there are different forces here but there are no elections of officials, and most Brits see them as a single force. So no, none of these to me encapsulate the same thing that I was talking about in the post.

      I feel like I’m still struggling to articulate my thoughts here!

  2. No, you’re actually explaining it quite well! I see what you mean better, I think.

    A lot of it is perspective. When I read Trollope, Thirkell, Neels, even Elizabeth Bowen, I see people enmeshed in social institutions. So, for example, the church seems important not necessarily as a religious center but as a social institution; I still remember helping out at a village fete one summer, for example. You live amongst these institutions so you see their complexity. When I read a book I’m getting the author’s narrower slice, which focuses on those aspects that make it salient in the context of the novel and probably elevates its importance.

    I think you may be doing some of the same when you read American-set fiction. For example, local elections. The turnout in local elections is usually less than 40%, sometimes as low as 15%. So most people couldn’t care less. But if you read fiction that incorporates local elections as part of the plot, they will come across as important. And local institutions are generally more powerful in the US (historically, at least), so they will have a different effect than they do in Britain.

    It doesn’t mean that we’re either of us getting a wrong impression, it’s more a case of how fiction highlights or reinforces certain aspects of culture and ideology that people believe in but don’t necessarily live in their daily lives. If that makes sense. It IS really hard to articulate!

    • Yes, yes!

      fiction highlights or reinforces certain aspects of culture and ideology that people believe in but don’t necessarily live in their daily lives

      That. Exactly that. The truth of fiction is different than the truth of real life but it gets, at its best, to the very bedrock of a place.

      I’m always aware, when I read of Somewhere Else, that this is a view, a slice. That its veracity is not guaranteed. Hence the detective idea.

  3. janeychapel

    Hi Joanna! A Google alert brought me to your blog post, and I wanted to thank you for giving me some food for thought. The location of False Start wasn’t quite made up from whole cloth, but you could say it’s a patchwork quilt. I took bits and pieces of things I know about small college towns in the South, particularly in North Carolina. I’m glad the sense of “place” resonated for you.

    Cheers,
    Janey

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