This week, I finally got around to reading Julian Barnes’ brief but potent 2011 novel, The Sense of an Ending, in which the first-person narrator, middle-aged retiree Tony Webster, takes account of his youthful past some forty years hence. Not only did I enjoy the read, but it got me brainstorming about time, memory, and the 1960s—three of my favorite subjects.
In a very general sense, it is a story about personal history and the ways that people come to understand it: firstly as a direct experience, but then again later—and in Webster’s case, much later—through a drawing-up process, whereby the historical event ascends, as it were, through filters of recollection, and we apply the inevitable interpretations and revisions that reveal as much, if not more, about present-day circumstances as they do the “remembered” past.
Barnes’ book is dense with tantalizing observations along these lines, but one point in particular resonated with my own thinking as both a historian and a writer of fiction. Early in the book, Tony Webster muses on the popular notion of the 1960s as a stereotypically-definable phenomenon—a time of nearly universal rebellion in all of its outward forms. Of course, in reality, nothing of the sort was ever the case across-the-board, a point that Webster explains in memorable terms. While not denying that cultural upheavals occurred in his British homeland and elsewhere during the era, he nevertheless stipulates that they achieved their fullest manifestation “only for some people,” and “only in certain parts of the country.” And not only that, but the timing was frequently off by a number of years. “If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson,” he adds cheekily at one point, “most people didn’t experience ‘the sixties’ until the seventies.”
In this passage, Barnes, through the voice of his narrator, is referring specifically to the loosening of moral strictures regarding sex; but the argument could just as well apply to other aspects of the period that have become stereotyped over the decades—drug use, hippies, and the like. And it also reveals a potential trap that we fiction writers must be aware of in our own work.
The trap in this case lies in the creation of setting. As we know, setting is the backdrop of a fictional work. It establishes the story’s social, historical, and geographical context: the “who,” “when,” and “where” that illuminate, and in many ways define, the story arc–namely, the “what” and “why.”
To be sure, a moderate amount of generalized references can be helpful. For example, it bodes well for us to populate our character pool with at least a few recognizable archetypes. Likewise, when we bestow our fictional world with specific physical and temporal clues, we ground the reader in place and time. To ignore these necessities would be folly.
The problem arises when we place so much emphasis on these things that verisimilitude suffers, and we jar the reader from the story. And I would argue that this is especially true if the historical setting of the piece is an era that many living people remember from personal experience. If our own tale of the 1960s, for example, is so full of hippies and revolutionaries that the presence of a regular Joe or Jane stands out as an exception, we might be overdoing things. And doubtless, people born before a certain year will sense our heavy-handedness.
I committed this very mistake recently, in fact, in a short story draft that I ran through workshop. It was the tale of two young American men, both from working class backgrounds, who embark on a whirlwind tour of sorts through a rather predictable sixties milieu—beginning with the JFK assassination and proceeding chronologically through the rest of the decade. In 1966, for instance, they hitchhike west, to San Francisco, where they indulge in LSD and see all the great shows at the Avalon and Fillmore. Then, after getting busted and sent back east, they join the Marines and—you guessed it—fight in the Vietnam War, from which they eventually return to the states damaged, drug addicted, and morally diminished. And so on, and on, and on.
While I enjoyed (and still enjoy) the first-person narrative voice that I developed, I now realize that the story itself was, to put it mildly, garbage—one-hundred percent clichéd garbage. I ought to have stuck to what I know truly, which is how to craft emotionally engaging, character-driven fiction. Instead, I allowed stereotype to run amok in the attempt to create a recognizable setting, and I ended up with a cast of stick-figure characters and a story that went nowhere.
As a writer, I should have held myself in check with some reminder that all is not as legend would have it to be. Perhaps I could have kept a personal photograph on hand that depicted my own experience of the 1960s, which—if only in terms of conforming to establishment norms—was closer to the remembered past that Barnes fleshes out in his novel.
I was born in 1963, and grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in western Wisconsin—a block of mostly ranch houses with well-kept lawns. There were no “true” hippies living among us. In fact, the closest thing to long hair on boys were the bangs that some, and I do mean some, of the more daring older kids wore. Our neighborhood demographic, and that of our entire city in fact, was homogeneously Caucasian. There may have been a handful of minorities attending the state college there, but I never knew of them. Consequently, my only connection to the Civil Rights struggle was through television, primarily the CBS News with Walter Cronkite. The same goes for the war in Vietnam. The only individual I knew personally that was serving in Southeast Asia then was my babysitter’s son—an Army MP stationed in Thailand. I remember staring at a framed photograph in the woman’s home: the young man standing at attention next to Lyndon Johnson’s presidential limousine.
Needless to say, there were no Haight-Ashbury trips during my 1960s. On the whole, it was a pretty square scene. Of course if I had grown up in Madison, or across the state in Milwaukee, my experience would doubtless have been different, and perhaps radically so. But it wasn’t. And this is why Barnes’ analysis piqued my interest as much as it did. One’s actual and remembered experience of the sixties—or any era really—truly depends on who you are and where you were.
Of course, to be fair, I may well have just interpreted my own past through the lens of the present. I was just a kid, after all, with limited perspective. Now I’m fifty—endowed with a greater store of accumulated experience, including the knowledge that my own “sixties,” in terms of long-haired rebellion and exploration, didn’t actually start until the early 1980s, when I played the role of an outsider: a wiggy anachronism amid the cynical punks and New Wavers of my generation.
But here I go again, drawing up my past through filters—in short, stereotyping the characteristics of a particular era in order to make a comparison and, hopefully, a point.
Which is essentially what we do in creating setting, isn’t it? Only let’s not go nuts with it. Placing recognizable clues in a story is not bad, per se, if all we want to do is ground the reader more comfortably in time and place. In fact, it’s advisable. But if we allow the temporal and physical details to navigate the journey from beginning to end, we will inevitably ride the downward slope of stereotype, and do grave disservice to both our work and our intended audience.
And that would be, like, a bum trip, man.