I was at a consultation event in libraries as part of my day job, when a woman approached, wanting to complain about a book. A new local crime writer had written a novel set in the town we were in. The woman was disgusted at the way the writer had portrayed it, as a seedy, crime-ridden seaside town. Curious, I read the book and although I thought the seediness had been a little overplayed to correspond with the gritty genre in which the author was writing, I recognised many of the negative things that were said about the town as realistic.
But the woman’s passionate complaint did make me wonder what responsibility we, as writers and artists, have towards the places we portray? That we have a responsibility to the people we portray is possibly more clear cut, whether in terms of the risk of libel, or just in terms of a moral responsibility. But do we have the same moral responsibilities in relation to using real places as the settings for our work?
In my day job, I manage a tourist information service, one of the objects of which is to promote the local area as a destination and give visitors a great first impression so that they’ll visit again. While this is partly about encouraging visitors to take advantage of what the area has to offer, ultimately it’s also about supporting the local economy. There are many examples of regions that have used works of art or fiction to promote an area so that it becomes a tourist destination: locally, the selling of an area as, for example, ‘Bronte country’ or the wealth of gothic events and shops in Whitby, exploiting the Dracula connection. In many cases these result from marketing people maximising even the most tenuous links to works that have become famous and have little to do with the writer’s original intention.
So should the way we present a place even be a consideration for a writer or an artist who is portraying what they know? There will be some locals who abhor the romanticising of their home if it leads to an overload of tourists and the narrowing of a place’s attributes to what is only a single view. Nevertheless, there are obvious advantages to a population in painting their location in a romantic light which then encourages a positive view and people to visit. But what about when we give a more negative view, whether completely real or slightly over-egged? Would it really stop people from coming, or have a significant impact on the way the area is viewed? And does it matter?
I come from a region where the locals strongly identify with their place. The area has much to offer in terms of beauty, diversity and welcoming people. But because it’s in the north, it’s an area that has seen major economic decline and has had to contend with the usual myths that it is more backward than areas closer to the capital. Generally, we’re proud of our place, so if it’s disparaged, we can take it personally. That’s the context in which I think we should have an awareness about how we portray a place. Because people often are their place. They identify with it, so they feel it’s not so much the place that’s being disparaged as the people who live in it. But I think it does also depend on the place itself: a place and population that has confidence in itself will be less affected by a few negative portrayals. Descriptions of seedy parts of New York City or London aren’t going to put anyone off going there, because those cities have a confidence and a presence that makes people want to visit regardless. A small seaside town in the north of England is another matter.
But, while I think we should be aware of the potential impact of our words or pictures, I don’t think that should stop us portraying a place as we see it, or fictionalising it to make a better setting for a story. Because we also have a responsibility to illustrate the world and our place in it through our art. Whether the impression we give is good or bad may be all about the place itself or it may be all about our own view of the world, but then isn’t that what art is all about?