In contemporary fiction, there’s a balance that has to be struck between fantasy and reality. The fictional world resembles our own, but sometimes extraordinary things happen for the sake of telling an interesting story.
New York is a popular setting for a lot of fiction, including many iconic movies and television shows. I am, in fact, currently sitting in my living room in front of an old episode of Friends. It gets some flak for not being an accurate portrayal of life in New York, although it’s gritty compared to Sex and the City. I view a lot of New York shows, the ones that glamorize life in the city, as being about an alternate universe New York. Parts are familiar, but parts also seem completely foreign. Or Carrie Bradshaw and Rachel Green live in a different plane of New York existence than I do, where your dream job lands in your lap with a high enough salary to afford all the shoes and idle time you could ever desire.
I’ve longed for something more realistic, a portrayal of New York City that reflects my reality, but I wonder if anyone else would read or watch that. Is the New York those of us who live here know too boring for fiction? I personally don’t think so; New York is absurd and difficult and wonderful and unlike any other place I’ve ever lived, which is why it makes such a compelling backdrop for so many stories.
I live in Brooklyn, in Prospect Heights specifically, which, for those of you unfamiliar, is what I think of as a small brownstone neighborhood, lately full of young families and babies. Along with neighboring Park Slope, the neighborhood has a burgeoning literary community, and it’s not hard to guess why: there are a lot of beautiful houses on tree-lined streets, the area is full of little independently owned cafes, there are lots of interesting people, and we’re near Prospect Park.
I’d say there’s never a dull moment, but the highlight of my day today was that the deli that I eat lunch at almost every day gave me a free sandwich, just because. I love this deli, incidentally. One of the guys who works there, a 40-something guy named Bob, knows my sandwich. I almost always get roast beef and mozzarella on a bagel, and Bob almost always comments on how tasty roast beef on a bagel is. One time, I ordered said sandwich and Bob looked at me and said, “You’re Irish, aren’t you?” Well, yeah, although I don’t know that I look especially Irish. (Or maybe I do. Pasty skin, blue eyes, medium-dark hair, check check check.) But Bob made this determination based on the fact that the Irish love their roast beef (true) and that many an Irish person has ordered their roast beef sandwich on a bagel. Bob’s kind of weird. But usually he gives me extra pickles.
On the other hand, it sounds like someone out on the street in front of my building is playing a steel drum, which is kind of unusual. Otherwise, tonight it’s just me and my cat in front of the TV. Not so scintillating.
The other thing is that I tend not to write about ordinary people. Or I do, but the characters are hyper-real, or have jobs I think are really cool, and are usually successful enough at whatever they do that they can afford to inhabit my stories. I don’t like dwelling on financial issues, I guess, I want money not to be an issue for my characters. Not that these people are stocking up on Manolos (although I do own 3 pairs of Fluevogs, so I don’t begrudge Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe addiction). Brooklyn residents I’ve written about, for example, are cops and successful writers and actors.
So is the real world just not compelling enough for a novel? Reading and writing are escapist endeavors. I like to write fiction that takes place on familiar turf, but I don’t necessarily want to dwell in the mundane. Still, I think there’s something to be said for tropes we recognize, for finding the same people we see on the streets every day in the fiction we read.