I admit I am hard to shock. As a journalist and a writer and academic, as someone who has spent my entire career working in the creative arts, that’s a given, really. It doesn’t work being a prude when studying art history. Or working in an art gallery. or writing speculative fiction.
Being a practitioner in the creative arts – whatever your medium – means being exposed to ideas and concepts that you may not agree with, but will push your boundaries. That’s why a lot of people fear the arts. That’s why on one hand they are derided as a ‘soft option’ and on the other hand, they are condemned for leading to the breakdown of civilization.
People are confronted by what they see in art galleries, museums, on the stage and on film and certainly between the pages of books, newspapers and magazines. Perhaps even more so than a screen grab on the Internet, where everything goes anyway. The authority held by the printed word still sways, and there is always the sort of person for whom breaking the spine of a ‘salacious’ book and opening the pages of a ‘naughty’ novel is akin to watching someone open their legs. Reading what they consider transgressive material is an act, for them, of promiscuity.
So, if to indulge in transgressive creative arts as a spectator can change you – for the worse – according to those who hold such values, what does it mean to make art that challenges? Do you become tainted by association? What sort of person, in fact, writes certain things in certain ways?
In short, if my fiction includes sexuality – am I what I write? Do people assume that I live the life of my protagonist? While agonising about this with my writing friends, I have had one reaction only. Amazement. Complete amazement that I could be worried about this, that I could consider it an issue.
“Do people assume because I write about killers, that I am a murderer?” asked one woman. By day she is a primary school teacher, married, and a grandmother. After hours she writes very successful True Crime.
We are not what we write. But are we our imagination?
More than one writing friend snorted and added “it’s called fiction for a reason, you are called a creative writer for a reason – no one in their ‘right’ mind would think a ‘writer’ is what they write.”
If you are an actor, do the public assume you are your roles? Many times, yes. Rita Hayworth used to say, “They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”
In a quote from the movie Notting Hill, the 1999 romantic comedy by Richard Curtis, the blurred lines some men have between reality and fiction are deftly explored:
As a writer whose creative and academic practice pushes the boundaries, I felt for actress Dakota Johnson when it was revealed that her mother, the actress Melanie Griffith, was uncomfortable with her star role on the controversial movie Fifty Shades of Grey. I have had people close to me also feel uncomfortable about my work, and to question what it means for me to write work that challenges, to write characters in fiction that transgress, that are frankly outside the moral code of the mainstream. And yes, that worries me, even though my writing cohort say it should not.
The fact is, that if we are writing a work such as Fifty Shades of Grey, we must explore the darker parts of our imagination, and be aware of the secretive, transgressive nature of much sexuality.
But does doing this make us a worse person than the average punter? My Secret Garden, Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking book published more than 40 years ago on women’s sexual fantasies revealed taboos such as:
- Pain and masochism
- The sexuality of terror
- The thrill of the forbidden
- The Zoo
Is a fiction writer who trawls these fantasies in effect simply taking one for the collective unconscious, for popular culture, or art – or the ‘team’ – if you like? Or are they just a nasty pornographer who should keep the door to the room marked ‘other’ firmly locked and away from the prying eyes of the world?
I don’t write or conduct academic research into the areas of the human and animal, the power struggle of the occult, or the bleakness of different aspects of grief and organ donation to shock. Although I know, outside my literary and academic circles, that it does. I do what I do because I want to explore certain aspects of the human psyche, the darkness of the human condition, and the point at which obsession renders the end result more important than the destructive path leading to that final point. My tropes are the about the use and abuse of power, betrayal, and transgression. Hardly the stuff of chick lit and romantic comedy, but the stuff of life.
I have published and presented academic papers on bestiality in science fiction, on issues of body ownership that are very upsetting for people; I have angered internet commentators with my articles relating to pro-choice (despite having published a high risk pregnancy book which explored why women – including myself – are so determined to carry a child to term despite the great risks to their own health), and I have drawn in a room full of bioethicists and scientists wanting to hear how the creative arts can and does shape and inform bioethical debates.
But while journalism and academia are good forums for these discussions, fiction writing is better. For instance, just because science can do something, should humanity follow? I can give no better example for the way than the way that fiction – and science fiction in particular – has spearheaded this debate than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Written by an 18 year old Mary Shelley, no stranger at that age to the searing heartache and near death experience of several miscarriages, the book about a scientist who create a human without the intervention of woman, and if you so chose to call it that – God – is a touchstone for any current debate on stem cell research, and reproductive technology that pushes so many boundaries we no longer talk about two parents, but a myriad of biological entities and processes that will result in a child who has multiple ‘parents’ biological and often social as well.
But just because we can do something – should we? I am not saying any one person has the answer, and am loathe to leave things to the status quo (don’t rock the boat until its ready) but it is important as a society to investigate the social, emotional, and maternal-paternal implications of this, and the creative arts are the place where a narrative can be put on the facts. We all understand things a lot clearer when someone sits down in front of the community at the camp fire and says ‘let me tell you a story…’
It’s embedded in our DNA as humans, this need for stories, and in the Internet age this need for a narrative bleeds across the creative arts. Film is a powerful medium in that it provides the visual along with the story, and that for people is very immediate, engaging – and confronting.
So when Dakota Johnson’s mother says that she can’t see her daughter Dakota’s film Fifty Shades of Grey because of the sexual content, I feel for Dakota, because she is simply part of the story telling process. She is acting out in front of the collective camp fire, putting three dimensional representation to the words from a page. I know what it is like to be judged on your work and the choice of your content. How easy it must be to write inoffensive children’s fiction, or dry political commentary, or paint by numbers commercial fiction which can be read with distraction and no raised eyebrows on public transport. These writers do not have anyone looking over their shoulder, questioning their values, morality or integrity.
Because to push the boundaries as an artist is the be the ultimate outsider – even if society comes around eventually to the place where you are right now – far, far out to sea, waving the flag, saying ‘look, guys, I can see this clearly – it isn’t nice, but I am not scared to look and report back. Meet me at the campfire, and I’ll tell you a story.”
I have been told “you can’t divorce the person from the writing” – meaning – there must be something very dark and ‘wrong’ with me as a person for daring to move my academic research into places that are upsetting, and frightening for some people. Yes, of course, reading and publishing fiction is subjective. But I do not write by committee. Fiction writing is not a democracy. It is a little totalitarian state; my world, and I while listen to criticism – especially from publishers, and I will consider tweaking, changing and rewriting, I am also the first and last person my writing has to please.
Love it or hate it, EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey – and the subsequent film, of which James is Executive Producer – gives women agency over their sexual fantasies. And let’s face it, at the heart of the book, the story of young woman selling her looks and sexuality to an older, wealthy man is a powerplay that goes back to the first campfire stories. But what is remarkable about James – and hats off to her for reaping the financial rewards – is that she has had the guts to stray from the pack of the everyday dissenters and go public with her work, and has found a willing audience.
Those of us who take a risk in the creative arts do so knowing that not everyone in the world at large will be happy with our choices. But what is the alternative? Silence? Pouring waster over the campfire and ordering everyone back into the darkness of the cave, where ideas, both glowing and darkly bitter, can flourish and fester without challenge?