gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Time and space in all kinds of writing: a rant

My beef-of-the-second is writers who feel they have conquered time. Writers who take a bit of this and a bit of that are capable of annoying me, for some of them completely fail to understand why there's no underlying unity to the this and the that they have welded together in their work. They can't see a difference between nineteenth century England and twenty-first century America, or between Mainz in the eleventh century and in the sixteenth. A lot of history of Jews is written with this approach. Jews are universal, after all*, and so are not culturally confined by time and space in the normal way.

My favourite history books (focussing on any subject) have an acute awareness of the long patterns of time and the short patterns and how geography and status and gender help configure time in a culture and how different people experience all this as themselves, not as projections of theory. My favourite recent book on this is by Elisheva Carlebach (Palaces of Time). It's a masterly study of the kind of things I think writers and historians need to understand.

Right now, I'm reading a study that does the opposite. It contains such good ideas, but the author doesn't have much of an insight into how the cultural contexts of the works she examines actually operate. This means that the text is muddled and the conclusions are muddied and the whole work rests on insecure foundations.

What I think I'm finally realising is that time and space in cultures operate the same way the palette does in painting. They need to be understood at a fairly deep level. They don't always need to be expressed. They help inform a writer's decisions. Quite often a work itself progresses with hardly a mention of them, but the solid understanding is working hard in the background, assisting the story or the argument.

Moving to fiction for a moment - it's not a question of whether a society has clocks or if people travel a lot. It's a question of how time is measured and how time is perceived (both - not either/or) and how space is visualised and used. There are so many different ways a society can operate and still have most of its members limited to a 30 mile radius in their lifetime, for instance. It might be the difference between a housewife in 19th century outback Australia (on a Steele Rudd type property - since these things count) and a cockney woman in 19th century London: the two woman might be born in the same year and travel the same total distance in their lives and still have hugely different spatial awareness. And their lives! So vastly, vastly different.

I suspect that one reason some books are more easily accessible to a wider range of readers is because those books have this awareness informing them. The writers either understand space and time and build their world to manifest that clearly (taking this and that, but taking this and that with scrupulous care), or they select very narrow boundaries and stick so closely to those boundaries that the palette is consistent**.

Some readers (of fiction, of general non-fiction, of academic studies) also lack that time/space cultural understanding. They couldn't care less if the palette jars sensibilities. Some of us care very deeply and things jar easily. Most readers are somewhere in between and a modicum of care and a bit of a reach to develop a palette will make most readers much happier.

And that's an end of my rant. it's a pity, because it only has two footnotes.

*So a popular assumption says, anyhow - I don't feel particularly universal.
**For some books, of course inconsistency is way important. The Adventures of Alianore Audley, for instance (which is where this rant came from - the contrast between Wainwright and the other authors I'm looking at today). It's done intentionally and for comic effect, however - the writer still has a deep understanding of the place and time. It's one of those instances where someone who knows something very well can mock it very effectively.
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