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“When we return nothing has changed”: on the joy of fictional places

A fictional place is a wonderful, singular thing. It has no history, beyond what has been invented for it. Its hands are clean. Life is distilled into the essentials: there are no murderers, corrupt politicians or natural disasters, unless they service the plot. There are no real life politics to instruct it and, unlike real life, everything in a fictional place happens for a reason.

Some exist as a frozen microcosm of wider society, where its inhabitants do not have to age or be held accountable (see: The Simpsons’ Springfield). Others are an entirely different universe unto themselves (see: Game of Thrones’ Westeros). Either way, we can neglect to visit them for years, and when we return nothing has changed. You might think Westeros is one of the exceptions, but revisit it in five years, and you’ll see what I mean. By its very nature, it promises stability.

JK Rowling recently announced the release of four more Harry Potter universe books. As a lifelong reader, watcher and devotee of Harry Potter my reaction was: “Christ on a bike, really?” Hogwarts is a home to me. It is to a lot of us. When Rowling demonstrates how much she knows about it, she is really informing us of how little we do. That is not the point, and not what we want.

The idea of a second home is that we know it as well as our first. In his classic essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes asserted that the writing and creator of a text are unrelated, and that reading and criticism should not rely on the author’s identity. With her constant additions and revisions, Rowling does not permit this. Our ownership, and therefore our comfort, is tested.

Hogwarts aside, two of the safest places I retreat alone to when under stress are Stars Hollow, home of the Gilmore Girls; and Pawnee, Indiana, the fictional town in which Parks and Recreation is set. They only exist to me for as long as I am in them. They feel sacred to me because it is not possible for anybody to walk around and disrupt them. I know everything that has happened in them. Even though they were built for mass consumption, I feel autonomy over them. (This is, I am realising, perhaps part of the appeal of video games.)


Fiction set in an existing place rarely achieves this for me. Even regarding fantasy or science fiction, it is more complex than mere escapism. For some, space itself is arguably more familiar as a work of fiction than reality. A “galaxy far, far away” is nearer and dearer to them than the nothingness that encloses us.

I didn’t watch Parks and Rec until I was in my twenties. I didn’t grow up with it the way I grew up with Friends, where perhaps my allegiance should be. But New York exists, and I cannot claim it as my own. It has also been shared: so many films and shows bled into each other and created a tangled web of landmarks, establishing shots and cultural touchstones into which I cannot comfortably retreat.

In Pawnee I can relax. I am a benign visitor, soothed with light entertainment, but I am omniscient. In Stars Hollow, the fictional place is so absurdly small I could give you a guided tour. I know the townsfolk better than the neighbours I soundly ignored while growing up in rural Cheshire. Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has gone on to create the far superior The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. It’s set in New York. It’ll never be the same.

Are my sanctuaries examples of great art? Yes, in their own small ways. For me, the fictional place has to be widely and elaborately developed. (I do not feel this way about Jay Gatsby’s West Egg, for example, despite being a frequent visitor. I don’t know enough.) Are they a bit childish, or twee? Perhaps. Crucially, I don’t care. So are our childhood bedrooms, and first email addresses.

My fictional homes are not perfect: they are, by and large, very white and heteronormative. I hope everybody has a fictional home to call home.
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