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Reader Identification

Yesterday, in this post, sdelmonte brought to my attention a new project from Randy Cohen, a writer for the New York Times.

In his essay, We'll Map Manhattan (the link should work even without registration), Cohen explains that he wants to create a "literary map" of Manhattan, which will list the homes and other important locations associated with characters from literary works.

I'm personally fascinated and delighted by this project. On a self-serving note, I'm scouring my own minor bibliography to see what Manhattan locations my own characters used. On the other hand, I grew up in New York City and love reading about the city and its history, so such a project would naturally appeal to me. But on a broader scale, what delights me about this whole project is the concept of reader identification.

Lawrence Block discusses this concept in his essay "Mirror, Mirror on the Page," which can be found in his book Spider, Spin Me a Web: Lawrence Block on Writing Fiction. A bookstore proprietor recommended a book to him once set in Santa Barbara, with the promise that it was filled with local color. Block discovered that the book's story could have been set anywhere, but by identifying specific parts of Santa Barbara, the writer had managed to appeal to people from that city.

I think we all experience that in some way, and not just in books. I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and am bizzarely proud of the fact that so did Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man). When gnomi and I went to see the first Spider-Man movie here in the Boston area, I jumped out of my seat when I saw Parker running through the intersection of Austin Street and Ascan Avenue, three blocks from where I grew up (and where, coincidentally, the first comic book store I patronized was located). I've often joked with people by saying that we used to see Spider-Man swinging through the streets on his way home from Manhattan.

Why does this identification with place resonante so vividly? Block suggests a few explanations, but the one that resonates most with me is this one: "...the presence of real parts of our own real world helps convince us that the writer knows what he's talking about... The more I can accept the idea that the author knows whereof he writes, the easier it is for me to believe further that the fictional story he's relating is true -- and it is upon this voluntary suspension of disbelief that fiction depends for much of its power to move us."


Very very few (actually none at all) of the books I read as a child were set anywhere I knew. At about the age of 13 or 14 I came across a book by Damien Broderick, which IIRC had a character trapped in the Safeways on Carlisle St. Now, by the time I read this, there was no longer a Safeways on Carlisle St, but I knew exactly where it used to be, and you're right, that did make the story special.
1. When I was a kid, I got a similar thril as you did when reading a comic. In thiscase it was DC's Firestorm, and the thrill was learning that Martin Stein, one half of the team that fused to form the title hero, lived in Jackson Heights, down by the 7 train. It was just so cool seeing my neighborhood mentioned in something. (No doubt this was Queens native Gerry Conway showing his knowlegde of his hometown, years after he left for LA.)

2. The problem with using real places is that when the writer gets it wrong, it takes the native reader right back out of the story. An example is any time that Donald Westlake, once a resident of NYC, gets a detail wrong. He has a regular character working at a Safeway in Manhattan, which I can never get used to. And he has gotten details about Long Isalnd wrong frequently. I love Westlake's work, and he is usually a very careful writer, so when he goofs, it stands out.

There is also the example of how Stephen King, in the second Dark Tower novel, places Co-Op City in Brooklyn. It's a silly mistake, one easily corrected by a decent copy editor, and there it sits, dragging me out of the moment. King, to his credit, fesses up to the mistake in later books in the series (where he is himself a character) and even uses the mistake as part of the story, but I always wonder just how such a basic error can happen. (It also seems to prove that King, another author I love, really is not edited that closely and never has been.)
King was edited, in his early years. Honest! But you're right, I don't think anyone has touched his stuff editorially in a good 15-20 years.

The second Spider-Man movie threw me out of the story briefly, because there are no "el" trains inside Manhattan...but I had advance warning when the filming took place here in Chicago. A friend of mine was an "extra" that never got on camera, so I spent the scene looking for my friend on the platforms whizzing by instead of watching the fight. ;)

And speaking of Long Island...ask me how much I freaked out when I did the "math" after reading The Great Gatsby and realised that I grew up in East Egg! A later edition that included a map confirmed this (although they called it "Manhasset Neck," which was never it's name...it was once called Cow's Neck, true. But it went directly from that to the name Port Washington, when our esteemed first president paid a visit. Manhasset is down at the joint between the two "eggs," Great Neck and P.W.) But it was really freaky, in a good way! ;)

I have to admit that the presence of an elevated train in modern-day Manhattan also threw me out of Spider-Man 2 briefly, but oddly enough, I was able to forgive them because the scene just worked so well.
Me too!
As did in the first movie when they used Low Library as a science building. But then again, I always get a kick out seeing my Alma Mater on the big screen. Even when they get it wrong (like in The Mirror has Two Faces.)
I saw Ghostbusters at a theater in Rochester, NY. When the giant marshmallow man stepped on the church next to Sigourney Weaver's apartent building, I exclaimed aloud, "That's my church!" And were my friends ever embarrassed . . .

In fact, I had just moved away from NYC, where I had been attending that church (Holy Trinity Lutheran on Central Park West). Oddly, after many years, about a year ago I started attending the same church again.
I saw Coming to America in a theatre deep in the heart of Queens. When they got to the lines,

"But where will we find a mate fit for a King?"


the audience cheered.

I've also enjoyed applauding when Rick Blaine warns Major Strasser in Casablanca that there are certain parts of New York City he should avoid invading...
To show you how tenuous this sort of thing can get, I remember applause in the audience in Ghostbusters, in Halifax, for the line where Rick Moranis mentions that he has Nova Scotia lobster for his party. Or something like that. Obviously it's a trivial line and I don't remember it exactly.
Patch Adams is a very strange film to me, since while it's set at a Virginia medical school it was filmed at my undergrad college. So all the background shots look very familiar to me without it being supposed to call up those feelings.

Now, add to that that a favorite professor of mine was an extra and very prominently shown as a juror type in the climatic scene for several minutes and it's really weird to watch.
The movie With Honors was set and filmed at Harvard, but the graduation ceremony in it was clearly not a Harvard one. Threw me out of the story at the end.
For me, seeing A Beautiful Mind did it; I was yelping every other scene, "That's where Uri cracked his head playing football! That's where we go for pancakes!" And Block is right that real details of any sort, location, profession, etc., help ground a story. But I think it can be something a little deeper.

Maybe it's just that I've spent so much time in Princeton, New York, and Jerusalem, but I feel like places have their own distinct and organic personalities, that where something is set changes what is told. Noir set in New York is very different from Noir set in LA. Urban fantasy in Chicago would be hell and gone from urban fantasy set in Jerusalem. For Joss Whedon, the ship is a character, but for me, I guess the city takes that role.
I agree. I have a few novel ideas in mind where New York City is the main character...
I started to write you a comment about this, but it got so long that I wrote my own post about it instead. Thanks for setting me off on the subject!
There are a bunch of 'em for me. A throwaway bit in Marc Steigler's David's Sling, where two characters have lunch practically next door to my parents' house; Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, which nails Boston completely; the bit in WarGames where they run down the, er, boat launching ramp but still manage to jump on the ferryboat, etc.

December 2016

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