Writers are striving ambiguously to shape their voices. One reach is to express ourselves the way that we want. The other is to write with an audience in mind. They’re potentially compatible terms.
In writing workshops there’s an ongoing conversation about “form”. Those in this conversation talk about things such as: economy of prose, world building, world building bashing, cutting adjectives, and active writing.
All of these discussions are about one thing: what makes good writing.
These conversations may guide writers to writing better but they can discourage experimentation in the medium if they are taken to be unbreakable. Even calling them rules—I don’t know to what extent this term is used in academia—I’ve made a few keyword searches and found “rules” attached to the “elements” of writing fiction. Phrases such as “the rules of good writing” draw up a number of places to read about them.
The shortest list of rules I’ve seen are five in number, The New Yorker lists eight: show don’t tell, write three dimensional characters, choose a point of view, give your characters motivations, write what you know, keep it interesting: boredom is contagious, revise, trust yourself—are damaging because such an adherence suggests we’ve learned all we can, which would mean that we are concerned only with what’s produced in the Americas and Western Europe, of the French, Italian, German, and English traditions, really, and most of US readership appears to discard the experimental material within it.
Reading is a matter of taste not a matter of form. It’s good to be familiar with these “rules” but as guidelines which could be observed or discarded. Following any of them is up to whether they’re right for your project. There’s that anecdote of Picasso that he could draw like the classical masters at six but it took him a lifetime to learn how to draw like children. Our rules always appear with the “trust yourself” caveat at the end. When in doubt follow your instinct.
To write good fiction know how to do what you’re supposed to do but don't do it all of the time. The rules are only worth following if they’re right for the work. Rules that are meant to be broken are a safe adoption, but writers may find it liberating to refuse them all together. What do these “rules” mean for writing fiction?
For followers of Oulipo tightening the boundaries of the pen is a way to release brilliance. Georges Perec’s procedural-referential masterwork La Disparition (A Void) from 1969 was written without the letter ‘e,’ and it’s a passionate, exciting story lacking the afterbirth of a tedious exercise. The difference between Oulipo’s guidelines and The New Yorker’s is in why rules are applied. The former is a challenge, a call to artists—as long as they’re French or Francophones who also speak the language—to release the wild energy of their mind in some formula of their own insistence—while the latter is a method of fitting a paradigm. Our writers write movies in novel format. We’re imagists now. Cinema has influenced our storytelling and the screen is in our brains.
Since its possible to write long fiction that doesn’t follow the rules—Joining M. Perec we have Will Eaves, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Laszlo Krasznahorkai who have all avoided the rules, as well as fellow Oulipo alumni: Raymond Queneau, Jean Lescure, Anne F. Garréta, Valérie Beaudouin, all of them created their own guidelines to write their books.
Those mentioned who have applied their own guidelines outside of a literary group—Eaves, Brooke-Rose, and Krasznahorkai—have all written novels that tell more than show, Brooke-Rose works more in ideas than character, and neither she nor Krasznahorkai write lines that look like how we’re taught to write—or appreciate writing—in the States. The rules are implemented to curate taste. We’re learning to write what people of earlier generations want/ed to read. In order to be taught, creative writing required a science in support of it.
It’s not rules that matter or the writer’s decision to follow or not follow them that readers care about—what those people we are learning to work for care about—those underground and mainstream—is believability. Believable writing is charismatic and strong. Whether it’s a play where characters are killed in act one and return in act two as if there was no burden in assassination, or Jane Austin’s: let’s confided in someone about who we want to fuck, then talk to the person we want to fuck for a long time before we fuck them—logical-realist display of humankind: there is an audience for all of it until the apocalypse. A writer may write any way they want and say something true about people. It’s not that writing must “properly” be expressed in a single way in order for it to make a statement about humanity, nor there a type of writing that is the only way to make a realistic portrayal of humanity, its that the writer must convince the reader of what is stated on the page.
I want to talk a little about writing for theater. This is a medium with a tradition of critique much older than fiction. The criterion for theater is rigid and deeply set—be as creative as you want within these physical limitations. However, critics of the genre are particular of the sort of thrust a play that’s right for the stage has. In short, a play should have characters with desire, linear story-telling, brisk pacing, and a message.
Sarah Kane wrote about death. Her work uses the aforementioned criteria and puts her characters into hideous situations. It’s strongly symbolistic and low-realism showing humanity in its primal, confused, violent state where victims are un-martyred and there is no justice for the perpetrators. She wrote five plays. In three of them characters are embedded in abstract scenarios. Blasted begins naturalistically and develops its abstract qualities over the first three scenes and concludes reconditely, with a disgusting act as well as a mundane one thrown in for good measure. The death drive is there, moving through her characters. Death is in all of her plays. It doesn't just happen to the characters, her characters are focused on it, hyper-expectant of it happening to them, and some desire to expedite it. Other themes in her work include: violence, cruelty, pain, loneliness, redemptive love, unrequited love, torture, anxiety, domestic violence, mortality, death as a character, and minimalism.
Stylistically the work is minimalist in structure and dialogue. By structure I mean the format which dialogue is written into.
Take Blasted: three characters, the author’s states four things in an opening note:
Square brackets for clarification of text
Rounded brackets contain stage directions that function as lines
A slash indicates the beginning of the next line
Grammar facilitates the line without conforming to grammatical rules.
The play’s set in Leeds but the city isn’t represented in a recognizable way. The UK is not even represented in a realistic way. A war is going on and Leeds is being bombed. Influenced by the Bosnian War, death surrounds and seeps into this play.
We have Ian, 45, a war correspondent, and Cate, 21, a “lower middle class Southerner with a London accent” and a stutter. They’ve checked into a hotel room in Leeds which is under attack. Death is mentioned on page 10 where Ian laments his mortality. Soon after we find out he’s dying of cancer. The setting is too forceful for Cate even in the beginning. Described as a vegetarian—sometimes a symbol for irrational concern of wellbeing—she sucks her thumb and is called stupid by Ian. Both of these characters are pre-transformation when we meet them. By the end of scene one Ian rapes Cate. After this Cate goes to the bathroom and Ian lets a soldier in the room. Then the room is destroyed when the building is hit by a mortar.
After they rouse following the mortar blast, the soldier tells Ian about the horrible things he’s done in wartime, raping and killing mostly—then he rapes Ian, sucks out his eyes and eats them. Cate’s presumably in the bathroom while this happens. Cate comes out of the bathroom when the soldier’s dead holding a baby a woman gave her and leaves to feed it. The baby dies. They bury it in the floor of the hotel room. Later, alone again, Ian retrieves the baby from its grave and eats it then crawls into the floor where it had been buried so only his head sticks out. Cate returns again to have a meal with gin and feeds Ian a bit of it. He thanks her and the play ends.
Blasted is a story of transformation. First there is the transformation of Ian from aggressive, bare knuckle brawl type journalist who talks tough, drinks heavily, and rapes his young companion—to an intimidated, violence and rape loathing interviewee during exchanges with the soldier—Ian is aghast at Soldier’s horrible report, tells him he is, and distances himself from the solider’s type of killing—Ian’s killed in wartime but never cruelly, only shot people in the head out of mercy—not committed crimes like the maniac solider who’s robbed, tortured, raped, and murdered people without processing the horror of his actions—then Ian becomes one of the soldier’s tales of brutality in the layered assault against him. The soldier’s on a self-loathing path to despair to be sure, Ian’s the target of his final heinous act.
Ian, a character with a name we may identify with—is bad. The solider, a figure with no name—who seems deliberately not human—is evil. I reject the word inhuman as a qualifier for the soldier. Inhuman acts are carried out against people all the time by people who do inhuman things to their targets. “Inhuman” is too often associated with the human. Ted Bundy was a human being who committed inhuman actions. The soldier is not human and the difference is what is not human may not be human. The soldier does mention he had a girlfriend and his pathos for her fate at the hand of other soldiers’ brutality suggests he’s human—but so might the actor who portrays him. The soldier also tells Ian horrible things he did to a girl of twelve and her father and brothers before he attacked them. The initial thrust of the solider is a relentless force of brutality—first descriptively, then physically. The soldier is a transformation. At one point before the action in the play he was a man who became a solider and then committed brutal actions against others during a time of war. The soldier we meet in the play is a post-transformation. He is the action of insane war violence rather than a person. This character turned berserk war criminal who terrorizes an unsuspecting victim in their hotel room then rapes them. We’re dealing with a grand idea in this play where the brutal action onstage is a metaphor for domestic violence.
Brutal action —> domestic violence.
Kane said: “one is the seed, the other the tree.”
Scene two opens with flowers scattered across the floor symbolizing Ian’s rape of Cate. From this point we see some treatment of Cate’s rape by Ian in the way they address each other—Cate stares at him with hatred—Ian says: “don’t worry, I’ll be dead soon.” We see Ian during his changes while Cate is absent: beginning at the end of scene two, going through all of scene three, and the first half of scene five, Ian changes; with the soldier and by himself. The initial change happens in the exchanges with the soldier in scene three, followed by his despair as a blind starving man while he is alone in scene five. When Cate returns in scene four she says: “everyone in town is crying.” When she returns in scene five carrying food and a bottle of gin with blood running down her legs, she is absolutely spent. She too has changed. Noting the blood on her leg, she has possibly been raped a second time—or possibly not attended to her menses—it’s not clear. Either or both is change to be sure—but it’s not part of her change the author makes clear—her final change comes when she eats the sausage and drinks the gin she’d brought with her then sucks her thumb. From these actions we see she is defeated by the horror she’s endured. Aside from the near starvation which leads to her eating the sausage she someone got while out, the change that happens to Cate mostly happens off stage. It’s curious that all of the change Cate undergoes happens when we cannot see it. Her rape, the woman giving her a baby, her experiences outside, are all invisible. We see the effects of the change about her but we don’t see her going through the change. We don’t see violence against Cate. It's also interesting that Kate is not present when bad things happen to Ian.
With Cate out of the scene we can see what evil does to bad. There is no description of the soldier. We know that he is carrying a sniper’s gun but he could be played by a robot and it wouldn't be an off-script directorial decision. He is in obvious power immediately upon entering the play. They meet in a surprise to both of them after Ian—nonplussed during a round of knocking back and forth on the hotel room door with whomever is on the hallway side, opens the door with a racial curse ready to fire at his intruder and is immediately disarmed and humbled by Soldier’s force as he enters the room. It’s pure menace. Ian hands over the bacon he’s holding which the soldier eats and demands more in a virulent chant of “got any more?” We know right away the soldier is mad, violent, and starving. He’s not there to keep order or to arrest the attention of the soft civilians staying in the hotel on to the harsh facts of war—he’s bringing the war to them. Then he calls Ian’s scheme out by noting the bathroom door and saying: “she in there?” He can smell the sex they’ve had and it’s a short few moments when he sodomizes Ian.
Near the end of scene two Cate leaves the room to bathe and stays inside the bathroom for all of scene three when several key moments of the play happen. In the end of scene two we get the entrance of the soldier and three begins after the hotel room has been hit by a mortar. Now the room is bomb wrecked and Cate is ostensibly in the next room having a bath. Not only is she protected from the shock of the mortar she is protected from the harassment of the sodomizing soldier. Ian’s transformation is immaculately depressing and pathetic. The play shifts from naturalism into abstraction during the bottom of scene three. Enter Soldier at the end of two and we get a transaction from realism to abstraction. From here until his death we are witness to the will of Soldier. Soldier makes his transaction with Ian’s rape in scene three. We see both characters ring out their hatred—Soldier in his assault on Ian and Ian’s assault wringing the self-loathing-tough-guy-man-of-reason-rapist-monster-hate-figure out of the man, leaving a frightened shadow of what he had been behind. Then that shadow of Ian tries in vain to redeem himself of the horror he’s just experienced. It’s a transaction of brutal neo-realism without winners. Both Soldier and Ian crave their own death. Soldier promptly blows his brains out. Scene four begins with him dead. But Ian is in agony. Live a person living during the tribulation; he curses, shits, cries, digs out and cannibalizes the dead baby that had been buried in the floor, tries to shoot himself, choke himself—but he cannot die. In despair he crawls into the hole up to his neck and prays for death to come. This fearful ringer Ian’s gone through is the feminization of his character.
There are four rapes in this play. Two factual, one possible, one metaphorical: Cate’s in scene one, Ian’s in scene three, Cate’s when she returns in five, and the general rape of the female sex, respectively.
In a way the action of scene one harkens back to midcentury western culture where women notionally became “hysterical for no reason,” overreacted against their male partners, screamed, cried, fainted, stayed with their rapist, and took verbal abuse like aspirin. It’s all in this play in the first scene and a half.
By setting Leeds on fire with bombs Kane made reference to the Bosnian War, which ended three weeks before this play premiered at the Royal Court Theatre. By using three characters and one room where there is never more than two living characters with speaking parts—Soldier is dead when Cate returns to Ian in scene’s four and five, the baby Cate holds dies shortly after her return in four—in the room at the same time, Kane creates intimacy—of the tender moments of Ian and Cate where Ian is trying to seduce her, Cate’s fellatio of Ian—before she bites him—of violence: Cate and Ian’s rape, their discussions of breakfast meats, Cate’s questionable mental faculties are written into the verbal abuse Ian levels at her—Cate watching Ian writhe in cancer induced crippling pain—Soldier and Ian’s discussion of war crimes—Ian’s despair and cannibalism of the baby, etc. The war violence, bomb, Soldier, verbal abuse, rape bring the horror of war to the domestic front. War is an act of rape on the human psyche—a metaphor of rape, the physical rape of victims committed by soldiers, the demoralization of its terror stricken participants—Kane is saying domestic violence is terrorism. They are inversions of each other. War is rape and terrorism on a grand scale, domestic violence is rape and terrorism on an intimate one. To have a problem with the violence shown in this play is healthy. To dismiss it for its violence is to ignore or not know the reason it was written.
Kane’s plays are filled with longing and anxiety. Her character’s flirt with death, seek it, get it. Mortality is the condition, anxiety is the symptom, the death drive is the action in Kane’s work. Death is the anxiety creating demon in Kane’s plays. She shows it in how the characters talk about it, how they value their own lives as if their expendable, worthless, or burdensome. Ian longs for it, calling the dead baby a “lucky bastard.” Hippolytus in Phaedra’s Love welcomes it with open arms while he is gutted at the end. Graham tells Tinker: “I want out” at the beginning of Cleansed and receives a fatal does of heroin injected through the eye. There’s no happiness in her plays, its been buried somewhere else. You can feel the loathing of life in Blasted’s clipped, fractional sentences, it palpitates in the characters self-loathing, willingness to kill or be killed.
The unseen violence done to Cate is emblematic of the violence that’s not seen in domestic abuse. The effects can be seen but the violence itself is hidden behind a bedroom door. Sarah Kane said that the she knew she wanted to have two people talking in a hotel room but she did not know what the play was about until she saw a woman talking about her experiences in the Bosnian War on television. From that point she knew that the play was about domestic violence. You can't do justice to the subjects without portraying brutality. Confrontational exam in theater it's supposedly meant to provoke new behaviors out of people. At least it provides discussion, even if those in discussion are initially unsure of the reasons why they disapprove of the work their discussing. It needn’t have the balance of natural life within its pages—war doesn't stop with signed peace treaties—it’s in homes all over the world.
Graham, Saunders. The Apocalyptic Theatre of Sarah Kane, University of Heidelberg
Kane, Sarah. Complete Plays London, Methuen, 2001, pp. 1-61.
Wayne, Ted. “Eight Rules for Writing Fiction,” The New Yorker June 6, 2013.