The Path Less Trodden:
from Research to Creative Practice
It was part of my academic remit to think about the ways in which some films are culturally residual: that is to say, those which recycle well-known motifs of historical culture. This makes them ideologically central, but usually without status. When I wanted to think this through in fictional terms, it was clear that I had to allude to the central myths of the culture, but that I had to deal with them in an off-kilter way, if I wanted to avoid repetition and tedium. I had to use humour, extravagant allusiveness and surprise, in order to move my stories out of the “residual” category. Many of them revisit culturally secure motifs from folk-tales or fairy stories: The Blue Shoes (Volume 5) or Rapunzel, (Volume 2), for example. There, the traditional themes are given an anarchic spin. The Mysterious Lover (Volume 1) deals with the familiar topic of the Demon Lover. But in this case, the heroine is not horrified: “actually, it felt quite comfortable ... As long as he didn’t make her do anything too awful, all might yet be well. Perhaps the Prince of Darkness was a gentleman.” And in Autolycus (Volume 5), the “picker-up of unconsidered trifles” gives the heroine a symbol which grants her access to the world of change. I wanted to use traditional residual motifs and breathe fresh life into them. And that means that you are intervening in the material of the culture, rather than mapping it.
All art is referential, and it is part of the researcher’s task to map the networks of influence. Creative writers must do that too, but they also have to challenge the canon in a way that researchers are not required to do. In The Suburbs (Volume 4), I reinterpreted Winterreise for a modern audience, making it into a verbal riff on ageing, death and art. And in The Voice (Volume 3), I took the generally highbrow phenomenon of the counter-tenor repertoire. Christopher’s voice changes from a baritone to a counter-tenor: “suddenly it was as if his body was in a lift, and had soared from the basement to the penthouse. A new voice came roaring out of his mouth ... high, piercing, female and strong.” Fearful of seeming effeminate, Christopher decides, in a moment of sublime camp, to perform the repertoire wearing full cowboy regalia.
Academic researchers have to make an explicit relationship with other writers in their field, and practising fiction writers have to come to a settlement with mainstream literary culture. In the stories, I tried to insert quotations from writers who have influenced me - Blake, Austen, and Shakespeare. But not just to quote them: to show where I came from. Conan Doyle is a dominant influence in mainstream and popular literature, and I have used him creatively as a source many times. But with an edge. In Mrs Hudson’s Tale (Volume 1), she realises that Holmes has syphilis, and treats a rash on his hand with her own tincture: “Every time I effect a minor cure in the long march of his illness, I’ll give my little triumph a name. This one will be called The Speckled Hand.” In Irene Adler at the Reichenbach Falls (Volume 2), I re-configured Professor Moriarty as Irene Adler in disguise:
“Professor Moriarty, the day has come at last”, said he. I took off my tall hat, and laid it on the ground. I ruffled up my hair. I took off my jacket and the tight waistcoat. I pulled off my moustache. I undid my shirt, and showed him my breasts. “Sherlock, it is I”, I said. “I am Irene Adler.” He came at me then. But whether it was out of fear or desire, I never knew.”
Another theme that ran throughout my academic work was that of stylised gender representation. I analysed the way in which sexual symbolism is inscribed within film texts, often in the decor, costume or hairstyles. At one time, it was fashionable to hunt for (and even to celebrate, in a muddle-headed Freudian manner) phallic symbols in art. But I wanted to argue that, in cultural texts aimed at women, it was reasonable to seek and find vaginal or vulval symbols. When I turned to fiction, I wanted to examine the ways in which gender difference could be dealt with on a non-literal level. When I first performed some of the stories live, I well recall the gasps of shock from the audience. I had wanted to be iconoclastic, but I should have been alert to the degree of challenge which the audience was prepared to accommodate. And of course you don’t want to give offence: or not too much. Sexuality (particularly the female kind) is a prime source of anxiety in cultural texts. What I wanted to do was to turn that anxiety into textual pleasure. Accordingly in Chocolate (Volume 4), someone invents a chocolate bar that confers instant orgasm for women “without any stimulation by hand, tongue or penis ... you didn’t have to be polite to the chocolate. But you certainly had to be grateful to it.” The shop had long queues outside “with rather a lot of rosy women lolling against lamp-posts afterwards.” The Growler (Volume 1) is about a talking vagina which is so voluble that its owner has to resort to wearing stout knickers to muffle its cries, and Moby Dick (Volume 3) has a heroine who finds a 30-foot penis washed up an a beach. She decided that “it was indeed sad. She had expected to feel afraid of it. But curiosity was what she felt.” I tried to follow up this theme of sexual compassion with The Viagra Chronicles (Volume 6). In my most recent story on the topic, Sheela-Na-Gig (Volume 5), I wrote about the female gargoyles who display their own sexual parts, and I tried to lighten the tone by having the heroine give birth to something she wants for herself (a Pomeranian puppy) and to something that other people want from her (a Certificate of Total Emotional Commitment). These stories are more challenging than the interpretative writing on gender symbolism in the academic work, so I have tried to lighten the tone by humour and by avoiding descriptions of sexual trauma.
I have produced some more speculative stories which have not arisen directly from my own academic concerns. These work with the idea of an earthly Utopia and the Numinous, and while these have been a rich seam in visual and literary culture, I have never mined it until now. Some stories imagine the heroines passing through a cataclysmic change, and they experience a heightened mode of perception which cannot be accounted for by common sense and the world of empirically-based facts. The Gathering (Volume 3) deals with a huge crowd drawn to Glen Coe to sing, and is inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Stephen Spielberg, 1977). In The Haar (Volume 4), the heroine is engulfed by a life-changing fog at sea: this is taken from The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957). She finds a route to a new world in The Bridge (Volume 5), which makes visual quotations from Lost Horizon (Frank Capra, 1937). The same narrative structures Beyond (Volume 5), which takes images from Tenniell’s illustrations to Alice in Wonderland. The imagined utopias in the stories present a society that has dissolved the boundaries of racial and gender difference. And the boundaries between life and death too. Endings (Volume 6) takes its inspiration from Stanley Spencer’s painting Resurrection in Cookham, and has the heroine devise a technique to arrest putrefaction:
And it worked. At first Sarah saw the fox draw breath, his red flanks rise and fall. The man, the woman stirred a little and struggled to sit up. The little birds, who had been reduced to bone and beak, began to sing. It had been a miracle, performed not by her but through her.
It was not part of my academic intention to imagine a new world, whether on a social or imaginative level: I had to interpret what I found. Fictional speculation is a different order of activity.
I hope I have demonstrated that there can be a fruitful interchange between different creative methodologies, and that it can be an unpredictable and exciting one. But during that journey, what have I learned about what makes a good story? On the most simple level, it should involve change: of either the reader or the protagonist, and preferably both. It should have a clear structure: a beginning, a middle and an end. It should issue from a secret though coherent mythology. It should be familiar enough not to alienate, and novel enough not to baffle.
Fictional work can transport the reader to a new world, whereas historical work can generate a new way of seeing. What I want to argue, with some passion, is that a movement into creative work should not always be seen as a retreat from the academic, but can be a development of it. The mind maps are not necessarily different, and the cultural work required is just as hard. There is a role for the personal and the imaginative in academic writing, and for an examination of the intersections between discursive frameworks in creative writing. Academic and fiction writers both require empathy, rigour, attention to detail, and the courage to address taboos. That is the highway to innovation, even if it is the road less travelled.
The author would like to thank Oliver Gruner (University of Portsmouth) and Justin Smith (de Montfort University) for their valuable help with this paper
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Harper, Sue (2021), ‘From research to practice: The talking frocks’, Film, Fashion and Consumption, 10:2, pp. 425-40.
Harper, Sue and Porter, Vincent (2003), British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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