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The Controversial Writer

  • Published in Writing

It takes slog to write an article, even more so a full length novel, but at this stage of the writing game you are in control. If you change your mind about something or are not sure of your facts you can scrub it and start afresh. When you are in your private world anything goes. I guess this is why many people put a protective arm round their work and don’t give in to requests by family and friends to “offer an opinion.”

Publishing for the world to grind its teeth on your words needs courage. Great courage. Especially if you are writing something that is likely to be deemed as controversial, a definition of which is: - of, relating to, or characteristic of controversy, or prolonged public dispute, debate, or contention; polemical. In other words you take an opposing view from the mainstream.

Let’s say you write a book on Fairies in Icelandic Folklore. If your narrative is supporting them then you risk ridicule by most of the world who don’t believe in the supernatural. If you argue they don’t exist, you risk the wrath of many Icelanders who set up road blocks to protest against a new construction which might disturb them. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/icelanders-protest-road-would-disturb-fairies-180949359/

See, your writing will be controversial to somebody the moment you wave your ideas above the parapet. We all want our books to be noticed in this screaming marketplace and that’s where the trouble begins. Too much bad language, sadomasochism, abuse and violence, bits from other writers slipped in and awful writing will draw attention to your work but not in the way you might want. High content is the mantra for novelists at the moment and sod the writing style. High content can mean writing a story about LGBT issues from a strong religious point of view with the character stating that gay people can be “fixed,” or it can mean sharing with the world a different kind of love.  Just writing about gay relationships can drain the blood from the cheeks of some publishers. Not everyone is prepared to take the risk of upsetting their regular readership.

Even the memoir is not without risk. Not everybody has enough stories in their life to warrant mass readership so maybe a little embellishment here and there isn’t going to harm anyone. Let’s say I write about being captured in the Middle East and held hostage. It’s partially true as I was held against my will by my former husband but that isn’t as dramatic as being held by the Druze militia or Al Shabab.

 Do I ham it up for my reading public and hope I don’t get found out? Not me but others might. Controversy sells especially today when there are facts and “alternative facts”. Lying seems to be de rigeur.

A book like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is considered a brilliant piece of fiction although opinions differ on the quality of the writing. He blended facts with fiction thus rattling the cages of historians with its alleged swarm of inaccuracies. I swallowed the whole story as a truth which shows how gullible I am.

Many publishers steer clear of controversy as a) it is unlikely to appeal to a wide readership if they can’t relate to the issue and b) fear of bad publicity. Having said that is there no such a thing as bad publicity but book retailers are risk averse. They like books on their shelves that are tried and tested and have a following: crime, romance, thrillers, and cosy village sagas with a soupcon of naughtiness.

What does that mean for writers? Should we stick to what’s safe just to get a publishing deal or should we risk writing from the heart about what matters to us but dress it  down to make it more palatable?

Andrew Smith’s powerful  novel, The Speech, is fiction woven around the very real but controversial Enoch Powell, who in the author’s own words, is usually perceived as a two dimensional character. Instead he chose to flesh him out as more rounded and therefore believable, balancing weaknesses against his strengths without underplaying his evil rhetoric against immigrants.

 All characters no matter how heinous their actions and behaviour are multi- dimensional but readers who have knowledge of Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech would not want to recognise some of the MP’s finer qualities. A classics scholar with a brilliant mind, he was as quoted in his obituary as, “hated by many, loved by many, but never regarded with indifference.”

What makes The Speech such a compelling read is that we are drawn into the fictional lives of some characters from that era who were affected directly and indirectly by the harm executed by Powell. We experience and feel the harm he did by firing up racism and intolerance.  

I too have staked my claim as a controversial writer. The Cruelty of Lambs is about the uncomfortable subject of domestic abuse which maybe doesn’t affect the majority of people but, let’s face it, we all know or suspect somebody that might be a perpetrator or victim but we prefer to turn the sound up on the TV than worry why the shouting next door has suddenly stopped and the kids are crying. 

My new novel, The Future Can’t Wait also challenges controversial themes; mother-daughter estrangement, terrorism and psychic addiction. Published by Urbane Publications September 2017. Some of us feel a strong urge to bring truth into the open and hang the consequences.

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Domestic Abuse - lives behind the statistics

Domestic Abuse – there are lives behind the statistics

Domestic abuse has always provoked a headline or two, mainly along the lines of the horror of physical attack; black eyes, broken limbs, fractured ribs. With a woman on the receiving end, afraid and confused. According to Refuge – and these are horrific statistics - two women are killed every week and one in four women will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetimes. Yet only 35% of these crimes are reported to the police. And while women make up 81% of those that are abused – at least as far as statistics can tell - let’s not forget that there is a story which revolves around the remaining 19%. These are men. As with all statistics, numbers and ‘facts’ can always be debated, but we’re all agreed abuse is unacceptable and abhorrent in any form. But why does the issue of abused men seem to receive far less attention? 

I have tracked press reports and talked to agencies who run helplines for men who find themselves being abused in some way. More often it is in the form of emotional and psychological abuse. This is difficult to define as some would say put-downs, belittling, and undermining a partner is a potential by-product of any relationship under strain - but where do you draw the line? Suppose it is insidious, continuous and relentless, attacking the man’s sense of self-worth – for example, when he loses his job and has difficulty finding another. ‘You’re a useless (word of your choice)’ might be said in the heat of the moment or triggered by fear of outside pressures (such as not being able to pay the mortgage or rent) but when this escalates to some sort of ‘punishment’ then the fear is men are far more likely to withdraw, and are unable to talk to anybody about it. Unless there is ‘physical’ evidence to show the police, feedback has suggested that men fear more than women that they won’t be believed.

And don’t get me wrong. This is not a simple case of my siding with men against their female aggressors. I am against all forms of abuse: physical, mental, emotional, financial and sexual towards any living being. As a survivor of sustained emotional abuse over 12 years I can speak from all too vivid experience. For me the trauma hasn’t healed despite calling on the help of therapists and healers.

So, as a female survivor of abuse, why should I want to write about men? Maybe it’s because I once hit my now ex-husband when I could no longer cope with his choice of ‘punishment’ - the silent treatment. The rage came from a place I didn’t know existed and was clearly exacerbated by other concerns. My children were suffering badly, and my mother chose not to have treatment for her cancer, losing the will to live as she watched our family being slowly destroyed. Whatever my reason for lashing out, there was no excuse for giving into such a loss of control and attempting to hurt a fellow human being.

It would be easy to say that I write about men as victims to assuage my guilt. Not so. I write about the 19% because it’s clear they don’t have much of a voice of their own – or if they have it’s not being heard.

In the last twelve months, there have been a growing number of press reports about women attacking men in some way, yet claiming they were the abused, they were the victims. I came across such a man in Birmingham. He was gesticulating wildly towards a controversial sculpture in bronze - The Real Family - shouting ‘where’s the father? Is this how you see men? Dispensable?’ I won’t add the expletives. He told me his story which at first I found hard to believe until he dug out piles of court papers bleeding with red highlights (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2814642/Sculpture-real-family-unveiled-Birmingham-Turner-Prize-winning-artist-boasting-two-single-mothers-children-Kyan-Shaye.html ).

It seemed that the court accepted that over a two-year period his wife had covered him in bruises, taken an axe to his motorbike, then disappeared overseas with the children, finally filing for divorce and driving him to a mental breakdown – yet he was cast as the ‘provoker’, a villain, and he was still unable to be part of his children’s lives.

I had no business judging two people I didn’t know, and of course I had no way of knowing the truth behind every aspect of his story and whether he was a party to this horrendous chain of events or not. But the devastation in his eyes told me of the lasting pain abuse can cause.

Man or woman, if you are reading this blog, ask yourself some searching questions.

  • Is there verbal abuse in your relationship? Who belittles who? Public, private or both?
  • Are there acts of jealously and possessiveness and control – taking away car keys, wallets, isolating your partner from family and friends, constant questioning, checking private mail?
  • Controlling how the other person spends their money, keeping your partner short of money so they must beg or plead, or any act which provokes a loss of dignity?
  • Acts of manipulation … If you do/don’t do this, then this will happen. Are there threats of physical violence, withdrawal of support, disengagement, days, months or as in my case, years of the silent treatment?
  • Refusal to co-operate or communicate to sort out problems?

Men say they don’t speak out because they feel ashamed that they’ve allowed themselves to be beaten down, yet they are not inclined to retaliate. They worry about what will happen to their children. Will their partner turn on them? While we might think men have got the resources to walk out, in fact that’s not always the case. Financial assets are usually jointly owned and the children need a home. Can he afford to rent a flat or a room on his own and still contribute towards the family? What might his family, religious group, colleagues, employer deduce? That he’s not fit for work? Yes I know this applies to women as well. I’ve been there remember? I had to bail my ex-husband out of near insolvency (as well as run my own business) and help my children through it all. But I so desperately wanted to sort it out properly for all our sakes, including his, and I regret the day I lowered myself to his level and lashed out. I was lucky that he didn’t take it any further. And let me ask you – who was the abuser and who the victim? Me for lashing out? Him for provoking me? Who would a court empathise with? The mother desperately trying to keep her family safe and together and snapping under the incredible pressures caused by her partner? Or the husband who was struck, apparently for no other provocation than not speaking his mind?

Not easy is it, to look behind the statistics and find the real story, the truth. That’s why I wrote The Cruelty of Lambs. So you can be the judge as to who the perpetrator is and who the victim is. It’s not clear cut at all. Wherever your judgement falls I think we’re all agreed that abuse, whatever the form it takes, whoever the victim, is completely unacceptable in any society. And we must use every resource at our disposal to ensure we are never led by statistics, but by our concerns for the people behind the numbers.

Some agencies providing help, advice and support:-

ü  Men’s Advice Line 0808 801 0327  www.mensadviceline.org.uk

ü  Refuge ( men and women)  0808 2000 247 www.refuge.org.uk

ü  Mankind Initiative 01823 334244  www.newmankind.org.uk

ü  Men’s Aid 0871 223 9986 www.mensaid.co.uk

ü  Women’s Aid  0808 2000 247 www.womensaid.org.uk

ü  The Forced Marriage Unit   020 7008 0151

ü  If you feel you need help with your own abusive behaviour you can contact Respect 0808 802 4040.

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