Why We Need Hidden Heroes
By winning the Oscar for Best Picture, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape Of Water shifted the status of outsiders to the inside. Its liberal credentials are revealed in a variety of ways, from the fully fleshed out key roles taken by a voiceless woman, a middle-aged gay man and a black cleaning woman to the setting of a Cold War America ruled by thugs, but it keeps its agenda backgrounded, allowing the film to concentrate on its unusual plot.
So it’s worth recalling that Del Toro was himself once an outsider. His films did not follow Hollywood conventions. In films like ‘Cronos’ and ‘Mimic’ he chose grandfathers and children instead of leading men. He’s one of many creative people who careers I’ve followed and become fascinated with over the years. You could call them the hidden heroes; writers, artists, directors and performers who come onto your radar because of brave, unusual work.
I became a huge fan of the nonlinear narratives in novels, loving difficult works by Brigid Brophy, Ann Quin and BS Johnson partly because postwar literature had reverted to neo-Victorian narratives (from the likes of Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch and Anthony Powell) partly because the experimentalists ignored the traditional unities of time, place and action in their writing and followed more psychological paths.
But we know what happens to avant-garde geniuses; their best ideas are borrowed without acknowledgment, their novels are misunderstood, misrepresented or ignored. And the picture is complicated by critics who point out that the more brazen experimentalists are perhaps less radical than they imagine, while some traditional novelists subvert through subtler means, hiding radical ideas within conventional styles.
Alan Sillitoe’s ‘Travels In Nihilon’ is as radical as any Johnson novel. Johnson managed to get the last word in at his own death (he slit his wrists at 40 after leaving a note that said; ‘This is my last word’) but other writers learned from his pointed exclusion of the mainstream by keeping readers on their side.
This is where the hidden heroes become especially interesting. There are a great many who hide in plain sight. They exist in music and onstage with writer/performers like Patrick Wolf and David Hoyle, in films directed by Alex de la Iglesia and Andrés Baiz, in books by Kate Atkinson and Ali Smith.
Ms Atkinson is particularly intriguing because she has been embraced by the establishment more completely than any other late twentieth century writer. She’s an MBE who has received a huge number of awards from established bodies, she writes about England, history and family lives – yet much of her work, had it been published in the era of the postwar experimentalists, would have been regarded as avant-garde. From the beginning she has been confident enough to experiment with narrative and temporal structure without alienating the reader. And as such a writer should be, she is occasionally as book-hurlingly annoying as Brophy at her most excessive.
The composer Richard Thomas, who scored the controversial ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ also created a series of mini-operas critiquing modern society, based on popular TV formats. They were brilliant, innovative, full of social comment – but Kombat Opera (as it was known) did not trouble the elderly audiences of network TV. Thomas could get reactionaries frothing yet still stays below the radar, perhaps because he has yet to fully settle in a direction that the public can grasp.
An opposite problem afflicts formerly outrageous outliers; redundancy. Colin Higgins, who wrote the novel ‘Harold & Maude’, turned his book into a film that spawned a cult, so it’s easy to forget the bleak Vietnam subtext to the original story that made it so subversive. Harold, faced with conformity or death, chooses the latter, and in one barely remembered scene disgusts a general with his description of killing. Now, decades later, the play is running in the West End with the indomitable Sheila Hancock as Maude, and despite her sparkling, energetic performance (at 85) the play does not work because what was once an outrageous flight of fancy has been turned to whimsy by the hard realities of the 21st century.
In the same way that JG Ballard seemed unable to open his mouth without accidentally or intentionally courting controversy, so all of the above found outlets for their own peculiarities. And their work can often make for far greater enjoyment than the traditionalists.
So, today’s challenge for you; which experimental, unusually structured, or downright odd writers would you add to the list?