The Path Less Trodden:
from Research to Creative Practice
I think that it is unhelpful to espouse a single theoretical model in academic work. A straightforwardly Marxist or feminist approach can reduce the richness of material selected for analysis, and it can usher in an inductive methodology. In 1980s Britain, for example, the work of Lacan became modish (if not de rigeur) in film studies in circles such as the influential journal Screen. This gave rise to a ludicrously narrow critical orthodoxy and a jargon-riddled coterie which dominated the discipline for a while. Rather, it is important to be catholic in the theoretical models we employ, and to use them eclectically. And creative writing needs to be a “broad church” too. An exclusively Marxist or feminist approach will inevitably produce fiction which is doctrinaire and dry. Reading it will bestow a sense of righteousness but little pleasure, since its business is to close down narrative options, rather than to open them up.
So far so good. I have rehearsed a number of ways in which academic and creative writing can enter into a productive relationship with each other. It is crucial to stress that procedurally the two types of work are quite distinct. Unless we admit that, we cannot really use them to illuminate each other. But if we operate in a mindful way, we can begin to work with the categories of creative scholarship and grounded fiction. The first is a fluid methodology which interprets what it finds, but always with self-awareness and the willingness to be surprised. The second is a type of writing which invents a world, but with a solid consciousness of the author’s own intellectual heritage and narrative methods.
I will now go on to discuss my own fictional work and its academic hinterland. It needs to be stressed yet again that the relationship between the two is not mechanical or hierarchical, but dialectical and dynamic. That means it is often unpredictable. I shall structure the discussion under the headings of adornment, historical documents, assimilations, gender symbolism, and the Numinous. In each section, I’ll refer to stories on my website (www.sueharper.co.uk) and will indicate which Volume they are in.
In my work on the visual languages of film, that of costume was of paramount importance, and I tried to look at the issue of its agency. I tried to analyse not only the production constraints on costume work in British cinema, but also the relative autonomy which the discourse could attain: that is to say, how the (usually female) costume designers dealt with the studio hierarchies, and how they manufactured their own style (Harper 2000, 2012, 2019, 2021). I came to think that costume and adornment (including jewellery and hairstyles) were uniquely placed as cultural forms to carry subliminal messages about gender, class and desire. This work, which was empirical in method (interviews, studio publicity material), was also based upon instinctive responses to textiles and visual texture.
A large number of my stories have the same preoccupation. But the academic concern with the historical agency of the costume designer gets transferred in the fictional stories onto the dresses or ensembles themselves, and they take on a life of their own and often act in a destructive manner. They consume those who create or wear them, and the female body becomes both the site and the instigator of innovation. In my academic work, I investigated the circumstances in which, in film texts, any one discourse can become dominant or autonomous: in the stories, that process has been completed, because I believe that you cannot, in fiction, show discursive struggle on the page without alienating your reader. What I wanted to do in the stories was to do something different: to interrogate the means whereby a visual style has become coherent, while still bearing traces of its own production conditions. And I needed to excavate, in full sight, the pleasures and pains conferred by the world of adornment. I wanted to recognise in print the possibility that flesh is never just an envelope, but rather a soft tissue which bears the imprint of social signs.
I have written some 20 stories in which costume is a major signifier. The Frocks (Volume 4) deals with a young designer who struggles to establish a new style: “the frocks she made were outrageously, mellifluously feminine. The layers, the peplums, the frills were dizzyingly excessive in a way that appealed to those who had unacknowledged hungers.” Her creations devour her clients, welding themselves to their rib-cages. In Fashion Hunger (Volume 5), a doll develops an obsession with couture, and tortures its owner to make miniature models of Dior and Chanel dresses. And in The Fascinator (volume 5), wedding hats take on a life of their own, and they manufacture adornments that are profoundly unsuitable for the occasion. In all the costume stories, both the makers and the wearers of the clothes are rendered utterly helpless in the face of the savage autonomy of the ensembles. They are gruesome little tales: but I hope they demonstrate that the field of fabric and the tactile pleasures of its consumption is fruitful for both researchers and creative writers, who are not as far removed from each other as one might think. It is possible that the theme of dress and adornment might make the stories only attractive to female readers: but I hope not.
History and Documents
My first academic book Picturing the Past was about the representation of history in British cinema in the 30s and 40s, and was based entirely on archival material. What I concluded was that every scrap of paper was something that had survived by accident and could be read in a number of ways. History is not a monolith, but a process, and it bears witness not only to presences (the agency of creators and thinkers) but also to absences (those who got ignored or edited out of the process). In my fiction I tried to develop these ideas, but in a more implicit way. In The Cave Painters (Volume 5), the heroine Sarah scrambles through a slit in a rock to find unknown neolithic cave paintings, which deploy images that are profoundly challenging to a normative view of history: ”whenever this dreamtime was, there was clearly no desire in it for hierarchy or control”. But she cannot find her way back to the cave next day:
These images would have revolutionised people’s views about the mental landscapes of the denizens of the past ... perhaps all that had happened was that a silly woman had simply imagined a teeming, sensuous playground ...That must have been it.
In The Vintage Suitcase (Volume 4), Sarah finds a cache of lead soldiers, and re-stages some of the great battles of history. Somehow the original events get overturned and Napoleon wins the Battle of Waterloo: “Did the vanquished always try to turn the tables? How could she live, if the evidence of her own eyes contradicted that of the authorities?” Many of the stories invite the reader to interrogate received versions of the past, and to take risks with the evidence which is habitually used. This is the case with The Vindolanda Tablets (Volume 5), which uses empathy as a means of picturing the historical as well as the personal past. The heroine receives mysterious missives on bark, just like those excavated from the Roman fort. They have been sent to her by her alter ego, “to test you, to tease you, to push you, to pinch you, to take away the muffle and the baffle, to life the veil.” In my most recent historical story, The Heirloom (Volume 6), I used the model of an aumbry (a type of cupboard) as a way of thinking about how innovation took place in the past. Some people are like a damaged aumbry: “men and women who were awkward and imperfect, prickly and ramshackle, rebarbative and unorthodox. The misfits. It is the misfits who change the world, and who were her kin.”
Every historical researcher has to present the reader with a sense of shock: that this was how things were, and this is how things changed. They have to foster a awareness of immediacy, and also process. They have to offer an explanation for the important transformations in consciousness. And that is what I tried to do in my stories too: to usher the reader into a bewildering world where you must question established evidence. There is always a sense of danger and risk in such an undertaking, and challenges, whether in the academic or fictional field, always engender discomfort. One way of making that bearable in fiction is to use humour. You can rarely use humour in academic work, as it could appear that you are biting the hand that feeds you.