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A Narrow Swathe

August 18, 2008 | 2 Comments

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My family is from a small English village and my parents came to this small Canadian town so although there are obvious differences, like fewer Norwegians, Lake Wobegon seems familiar. I recently had someone laughing uproariously as she described the British television show "The Vicar of Dibley". She wound up by saying "of course it's all so far-fetched". I laughed. It looks silly on TV and then you go to a village in England and you realise they are really quite restrained in making this, and other village life shows like "Last of the Summer Wine" and "Dad's Army". Do people accuse you of telling tall tales about Lake Wobegon? And are you leaving out the really crazy things that happen?

Winnie M.
Invermere, Canada

A storyteller always cuts a narrow swathe, I believe, and stories diminish as they become larger in scope. I leave out a great deal—some craziness of the obsessive variety and also most of the sadness which seems to me to be commonplace and in the end rather dull. This may be a personal failing on my part. I am interested in valiant people who rise up and go cheerfully off to face shame and failure, which is what I do every day and so does every parent. Not so interested in the lonely anguished person you find in so much poetry gazing out at the cruel world, which is just self-pity projected onto a large screen. I'd rather tell about ballplayers or travelers or elderly people fighting to hold on. The new novel, "Liberty," is about ambition and how it separates you from people even if you are ambitious in their behalf. Clint Bunsen, the Chairman of the 4th of July committee, who even as he strives to put on a phenomenal Fourth feels that his whole life is a big fat mistake. He gets over it and the cloud disperses, as clouds tend to do, but I like writing about his ambition which, to some people, seems crazy. A writer should be able to treat insanity as something normal, which it surely is, especially in a small town. A good place for eccentrics, since over time the norms are relaxed and people with even rather dramatic eccentricities—Tourette's people, for example —are taken for granted. But gloom and mopiness are so shallow and trivial and have a numbing effect on a story. They're a standard staple of poetry and poison in prose fiction, and that's why I prefer prose fiction.


Thank you for this, and all you do which supports it: "Not so interested in the lonely anguished person you find in so much poetry gazing out at the cruel world, which is just self-pity projected onto a large screen." Sing it!

Laugh and the world laughs with you;
weep, and you weep alone...
...unless you're a poet,
then you weep alone to an audience.

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