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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 August, 2003, 23:33 GMT 00:33 UK
Sense of the City: New York
The BBC is asking novelists who have a profound understanding of the city they live in to reflect on the fiction it has produced and the various works of literature set there.

New York street with the Empire State Building in the background
New York is so rich and so varied that you can find the dark and the light here
Lawrence Block is one of the world's most popular crime writers. Two of his most successful series of novels, featuring the characters of Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr, are set in his home city of New York.

I think New York works superbly well as a setting in fiction.

One reason so many writers have chosen it as a setting is that so many of us have lived at least part of our lives here.

One reason that it works very well for readers, I believe, is that so many people, wherever they live, have at least a surface acquaintance with New York.

Even if they haven't been here, they've seen the iconography of the skyline in innumerable films, they've seen television programmes set there, so there's an immediate identification even for those who have not been here.

New York's certainly thought of as a dark setting for fiction, it's also a setting for some of the lightest, most effervescent work, that of Damon Runyon for example, and Guys and Dolls.

New York is so rich and so varied that you can find the dark and the light here.

I do two series myself that are set in New York, the Matt Scudder novels and the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels, and occasionally I get someone asking could Matt and Bernie ever meet in a single book and I say no - because they live in two very different universes, they both live in a city named New York, but in one it's a very dark place and in the other it's a very light one.

So many writers have indeed written about the city and have done it so well that it's almost impossible to develop a short list of favourites.

New York library
The city permeates the work of a tremendous number of writers
I know the Library of America recently brought out a book called Writing New York, and the list of contributors was virtually a list of who's who in American letters - from O Henry and Damon Runyon and Ed McBain and Evan Hunter - two sides of the same coin; E B White's brilliant essay This is New York. The city permeates the work of a tremendous number of writers.

It's also present very vividly, it seems to me, in the work of writers who are not that much associated with the city.

We think of Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, of writing stories of stedtl life in Poland, yet his books set in the city where he lived the latter portion of his life are very evocative of Second Avenue cafe society.

Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet, some of his finest work is in a book called Poeta en Nueva York, (Poet in New York), with some extraordinary poems set in Harlem, very evocative of the city.

I don't know that New York is particularly an ideal canvas for crime writers as opposed to fiction writers in general, except in so far as the city has an extraordinary intensity.

Times Square
Passers-by take no notice of the human dramas which play out right in front of them
This may be true of the largest city in any country, but it's certainly true of New York.

Things happen rapidly, they happen vividly, and the energy of the city, it seems to me, tends to inform the fiction written about it.

New York I find an extraordinarily rich place and one finds people of all sorts here, including some who I'm sure would remind you of people you've encountered in fiction.

New Yorkers in the main don't notice this - one of the most extraordinary things is the extent to which passers-by take no notice of the human dramas which play out right in front of them.

I remember one time about 15 or 20 years ago I was walking down a street in Greenwich Village and a Sikh in full military regalia, wearing a sword and standing about 6' 8" tall, was striding down the street.

And what was remarkable, even more remarkable than the man's presence, was that no one took a second look at him!

Sense of the City can be heard on the BBC World Service programme The World Today until Friday 8 August, and includes Orhan Pamuk talking about Istanbul.

Lawrence Block
"You can find the dark and the light here"


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