Thursday, October 31, 2013

Close Enough?

by Giselle Renarde

Lucky Me!  I get to write about reading on Halloween.  Mwahahaha....

Last year, I snapped up a copy of High Spirits by Robertson Davies at the Victoria College Book Sale.  I love ghost stories, love tongue-in-cheek Canadian humour, and love-love-love Robertson Davies.  How could I resist this little collection of satirically spooky stories set at Massey College, University of Toronto?

Instead of telling you about these clever little ghost stories, I want to talk about the environment in which they're set. See, Robertson Davies wrote them to read at Massey College's annual Christmas party.  They're all set at the college.

And they're great fun.  And, as alumna of the University of Toronto, I should feel a sense of affinity for the setting, but here's the thing: I don't know Massey College.  I'm a Vic grad, just like Margaret Atwood (I like to mention that as often as possible because I've never actually accomplished anything).  I don't think I've set foot in Massey College.  In fact, I had to look it up on a map just to figure out where it is.  It IS a real place, just not one in which I had any classes.

So here's my question: when we're reading fiction set on this planet, how close is close enough?

When I was younger, I sought out stories of faraway places.  I wanted to read about lands I hadn't been to and cultures I wasn't particularly familiar with: India, China, Japan--anywhere distant from here.  I guess I wanted to learn by immersion, fiction-style.

Now I'm looking at my bookshelf and thinking about the books I've bought in recent years, and I'm realizing how much my tastes have changed.  The last novel I purchased was "The Stubborn Season" by Lauren B. Davis, which is set in Toronto during the Depression.  Pretty much everything I read is set in Southern Ontario. It helps that we have a wealth of outstanding authors in this province.  It's easy to find fiction that plays out close to home.

But I worry that my world is becoming too insular. I write for a living, and I don't leave the apartment most days.  What do I read?  Not books that get me out of my city, out of my province, my country, or even my world.  I suppose I stay close to home because I find comfort in the familiar.

So it's really kind of ridiculous that I'm reading stories set at my Alma Mater and complaining because they don't take place at MY college.

Picky, picky, Giselle...

Though, I supposed the closer you get to real life in the subject matter, the more you need those sparks of recognition to shine with a special brightness.

Giselle Renarde is a queer Canadian, avid volunteer, and contributor to more than 100 short story anthologies, including Best Women’s Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica, Best Bondage Erotica, and Best Lesbian Romance. Ms Renarde has written dozens of juicy books, including Anonymous, Ondine, and Nanny State. Her book The Red Satin Collection won Best Transgender Romance in the 2012 Rainbow Awards. Giselle lives across from a park with two bilingual cats who sleep on her head.


  1. i LOVE Robertson Davies. i also did part of my studies at Victoria College, left after 2nd year to go to U of Waterloo. small world. Amy Lavender Harris has a great book & series of courses called "Imagining Toronto" in which she talks about all the various books etc that are set in Toronto & area. it's fabulous. i don't read just books set in any particular geographical range, but I admit that I enjoy it when they are set in Canada, particularly places I know. I loved Katherine Govier's series of short stories Fables of Brunswick Avenue. i set many of my own stories in Canada: Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto mostly.

  2. "So here's my question: when we're reading fiction set on this planet, how close is close enough?"

    I enjoy fiction with a strong sense of place. Anonymous or made up environments really annoy me (most of the time - a great author can make me forget that pique). It's always a bit of a thrill to recognize a place I've been in the flesh.

    The flip side, of course, is the frustration when an author gets something important wrong.

    And I also love Robertson Davies, at least what I've read of him. Craft, intelligence, subtlety and quiet humor - vastly underrated qualities in these days of hysterical thrillers.

  3. It is pretty cool when we read something set our own geographical area, or an area we're at least familiar with. It's not something I search out, but when it happens, I can relate on a familiarity of place basis. Living in the SF bay area, there's no shortage of material to chose from. I'm currently reading T. Coraghessan Boyle's 'Drop City', parts of it set in Sonoma, just one county over. Not familiar with the authors you mention, Gisselle, but will be on the lookout.

  4. Interesting post, Giselle. Part of the reason I like reading the mystery novels of Anthony Bidulka is because 1) his private investigator is a gay man and 2) he (character) lives in Saskatoon, a small city or town I'm fairly familiar with, and I can recognize local landmarks.

    I have a love-hate relationship with Robertson Davies. :~) I've taught his novel Fifth Business, and it's good for generating discussion, but his patronizing approach to women students (in fiction and in real life) is maddening. I realize that this has a lot to do with the generation he was born into, but that doesn't make it easier to take.

  5. Much of my "reading" for pleasure is a matter of whatever I can find in audio books at the library, so I can listen while I drive. I ws lucky enough to score High Spirits, and enjoyed it very much, not least for the sense of place.


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