On Censorship and S@xualised Violence In Fiction

Don’t Tell Me What I Can and Can’t Write About

This is a post that maybe useful to other fiction writers who wonder whether they over-analyse. I don’t think so. There’s no such thing as overdoing it. It reveals the day-to-day  obsessively analytical and torturous thought processes that go into getting thirty plus stories and poems published all over the web. It’s a proper old job.

How’s The Punished been received, Cy?

My book, The Punished, a coming-of-age novel about two defiant women, was released by Crooked Cat Books, Sept 2017. Six months on, it’s all good news. The omens are good. Very good. No one’s asked for their money back at least (that’s an ironic joke).

Any feedback so far?

People have told me:

  • “It skips over a lot at the end” – During the editing process, I was told I was guilty of telling the whole second world war. So, I cut 20000 words. With historical events, the temptation is to put the whole thing in context, from the year dot. The context of 1943 was rich, and I had to skip to 1945 quickly for the sake of the plot and the pace, which was breakneck throughout.
  • “It’s a dark book, darker than I expected” – Yup. War. What is it good for?
  • “I know Rhydymwyn, in North Wales” – But did you know MS Valley factory produced mustard gas there? It really did.
  • “Did you make up BLISS?” – Two people have asked this, and yes I did.

So what’s eating Cy Forrest?

I’m not sure. It’s a feeling I have. I feel I’ve walked into a minefield with The Punished. I feel I’ve talked about things that I shouldn’t have mentioned: single mothers, teenage pregnancy, r@pe, male domination, sex bias cases. I feel I’ve written about things that haven’t passed the dinner party test.

Is anyone really telling you what you can and can’t write, Cy?

Not to my face, or even in writing, but that doesn’t matter. These days, what’s deemed ‘polite’, is conveyed on the ether using the gentle vectors of soft power. It’s a writer’s job to detect change in the air, and I think I detect something old and patriarchal. Plenty of people are writing about this new feeling of censorship. For example, Kit De Waal has a great piece in the Guardian about the anti-everything movement, noting you must stick to cliched topics: misery memoirs, girl or boy done good, escape from your roots, working class teenage pregnancy, the kitchen sink etc.

At Goldsmith’s, the rookie writer was typified as the self-pitying teen whose goldfish just died, all nonsense of course. No one wrote about their goldfish dying. But now, it’s more toxic. These are things we should be writing about (not goldfish) . We need to be writing about these things more than ever.

You try to write a realistic story, you get accused of trying to write a realistic story. You can’t win. I have the words of an editor haunting me: “There are forces at work preventing the truth getting out” and, “writers often shy away from court room cases”. Why? Are sex bias case really such a no-no in fiction? What’s going on? As if I need to ask.

And s@xualised violence?

I read an excellent article by Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of London, and it made me think about The Punished. In The Guardian, she wrote about #MeToo and the Great Male Narcissist writers, Updike, Mailer, Roth, about male writers who wrote s@xualised violence for their own gratification. I detest those writers, and they’re all American writers anyway, but even so, it made me think about the 114 rejections and the professional editorial advice I received and what they were really saying to me.

How so?

As well as a sex bias case, I wrote a r@pe scene in The Punished. I’m all ears to the things people tell me, and one day, someone told me about their horrific experience.  I wrote the account as a scene in the vernacular, single point-of-view style, which, like everything I write, is not about me putting myself into the minds of characters, but me inviting the reader to get closer to the characters. I kept it on file for years. In 2012, I brought it into The Punished, rape and war being synonymous with each other. It’s such un-sexualised account, a professional editor advised I add the words, ‘and he raped her’ at the end of the section to avoid any doubt in anyone’s mind what actually transpired. Obviously, I have no control over individual reader’s responses, but, if you’re looking for a titillating rape scene, DON’T read The Punished. Stick to Game of Thrones.

So, this ad campaign?

So, I came up with a defiant sounding ad campaign that captures the spirit of the main characters Gin and Alexis, ‘Don’t tell me what I can and can’t write about’.  I’m going to extract sections of the book, little teasers that touch on the subjects I’ve discussed, that I now suspect are off limits to try to say, Hey! We need to talk about these things. You don’t put me off by ignoring me. My fearless and wonderful publisher has no such qualms about the content of my work, but then he’s not a London based publisher. Oneworld published two Booker winners by seizing on books considered untouchable by the mainstream. Just a thought.

The Punished – An Excerpt

St Thomas’s Hospice, Maidenhead, Nov 1st, 1982

It was on the tip of her tongue, the question she wanted to ask, but never did.

Who was he?

Gin smiled. “And then the weather turned cold and you’d even welcome the sound of a mouse warming itself inside your airing cupboard.”

Her soft words drifted in the air and Alexis leaned back and clasped hands.

“A mouse?” she asked. “Why a mouse?”

“Because there’s one small clue in every day. Even in the worst adversity, there’s one small patch of warmth to hang on to, even if it’s an uninvited mouse.”

“How do you know?” Alexis asked.

“I’ve experienced it many times,” mum replied.

“Where?”

“In the kitchen.”

“But there never was a mouse in your spotless kitchen, mum,” Alexis added, seeing Gin’s eyes close, the single word trailing off into a world Alexis knew nothing about.

Mum’s world.

Who was he, her biological father?

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t write about.” – Cy Forrest

The Punished – defiant, coming-of-age.

Access Cy Forrest’s publications here.

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One thought on “On Censorship and S@xualised Violence In Fiction

  1. Loved this article/essay. We do live in ‘interesting times’, it’s true. A couple of days ago, I was excluded (at the very last minute — 6:30 am on the first day!) of a week-long seminar because of an evaluation piece I wrote on my experiences at this seminar in 2017. I was asked to write the piece for my peers and the article was sent to the organisers (in England) by a third party. These folks come to Australia once a year and spend a week sharing their wisdom. On the whole, it was fun, but there was also a sense of ‘having a paid holiday in Australia’ (which I didn’t include in my article). The seminar cost money and there was a major mistake by the organisers that caused a bunch of us to waste our time on a section that we were all familiar with. Mostly, I had a good time, learned a lot and shelled out my hard earned to go again.
    People don’t always get what we write — sometimes they flat out don’t like what we write, but that isn’t our concern.
    Write what you damn well want to write and be damned. Terry

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