Last week I wrote an article for Epigram on why the University of Bristol is wrong to attempt to censor my controversial story, ‘Nights at the Disco’. Here I want to discuss what it was that made the story so controversial, and whether or not the debate around it has been fair.
Alys-Mary Gorton, the student who initially reported the blog, said this:
“I just wanted to report someone who semi-anonymously blogged about raping women in local places. It just was not clear enough what the author’s intentions were from posting this so, in the interests of women in our community, I saw it fit to report it.”
The university, concerned that the story would “bring the university into disrepute”, then asked me to take it down.
‘Nights at the Disco’ is primarily about the contemporary male psyche. It is a dark satire because, through the absurd character of Charlie the narrator, it satirises the alienation, inadequacy and frustration that are so often a part of the male experience in our society. He takes all these problems to their extreme: he spends all his time alone, he suffers from anxiety and he takes drugs and rapes women to satisfy himself. Charlie is actually more a caricature than he is a character. These issues are satirised to absurdity because I believe the present situation is absurd.
When Sarah Williams wrote last week that “it was not clear the story was a satire”, she hadn’t grasped this. I’m not necessarily saying she should have, because I didn’t spell it out. Good fiction doesn’t do that.
And neither did I want to make it immediately obvious that it was a story. That the reader is not initially sure whether they are reading fact or fiction is exactly what I wanted.
I very deliberately made the first half “read like a diary entry”, as Sarah says, because I wanted to shock people into wondering whether I, Benjie Beer, was telling the truth. In so doing, I wanted to force people to question whether people they assumed they could trust are capable of committing acts of sexual violence.
Do you see why I did that? Because the blank honesty makes the reader wonder how honest both they and their friends are about the workings of their minds. And, of course, the majority of rape cases are committed by people the victim thought they could trust. ‘Lolita’ makes you wonder if there is a sexual deviant in all of us and I wanted ‘Nights at the Disco’ to do the same. The personal blog is the perfect medium through which to shock people like this and, judging by your horrified reactions, it worked.
This is exactly what fiction should do – make you question everything. I’m delighted that it worked so well, so well in fact that I have a band of angry critics and a university after my head.
It is of course perfectly obvious that whether or not you appreciate this technique is a matter of taste. By ‘appreciate’, I do not mean ‘make you feel good’. I mean whether or not it shocked you into questioning what the truth is, which my critics have made abundantly clear it has.
But in order for this to work, it must have an element of surprise. A trigger warning or introduction ruins the effect.
So why is there now a trigger warning on the story?
This is a tough question for fiction and art more generally. Should we always be warned of what we are about to see?
On the one hand we could potentially be protecting people from unnecessarily unpleasant experiences, while on the other we are ruining the effect that gives the art its meaning. By ‘unpleasant experiences’, I don’t mean the intended unpleasantness of ‘Nights at the Disco’. I mean something like a PTSD relapse. Although I find it unlikely that my story would actually do this to someone, I have added a trigger warning just in case – unfortunately at the detriment of the storytelling.
Although the overall effect will now be less powerful, this still isn’t to distract from the point of the story. I really want to send this home.
‘Nights at the Disco’ is supposed to be unpleasant. It is supposed to be insensitive, nasty, disturbing, ugly and tasteless, not only in the narrative but in the way it is presented. It is designed to grip the reader by the ankle and dangle them above a roaring fire until they are made to see the horrible things that are burning there. In order for you to truly see the problems I am trying to show you, you need to feel it too.
So that explains why I find Sarah Williams describing my story as “tasteless” such a compliment. But why else were the whistle-blowers so concerned about the ‘diary-like’ writing and the way it read as “a step by step guide to rape’?
There are three possible answers to this: 1) they think I’m a rapist myself; 2) they think I’m encouraging others to rape; 3) they think I’m trivialising rape and thereby making it more likely.
All three are ridiculous. The story is no more likely to encourage rape than ‘American Psycho’ encouraged people to become serial killers. And the idea that I’m laughing at rape or confessing genuine crimes is just plain silly.
Gorton also said that I should “apologise for the confusion over the post which was caused by your inability to properly explain or justify the male perspective in this narrative which has been interpreted in a negative way”.
Of all the criticisms I have received, this is the one I have to make the least apology for (which is really saying something). In fact, I think this accusation is sexist. She would not be demanding this of me if I was a woman.
My story is primarily about male insecurity. It is therefore told from the perspective of a man. Making me justify this would be like making Sylvia Plath justify writing ‘The Bell Jar’ from the perspective of a woman. This isn’t a case of ‘one gender is in more urgent need than the other’, it’s simply that this particular story happened to take one particular view on one particular topic. There will be other stories that take other views on this topic. If I included all potential viewpoints, ‘Nights at the Disco’ would be an article, not a story.
And now for the really tasty thing in all this: the university’s concern that I will bring them into ‘disrepute’.
There are two takes on this. The first is that, because I have written a story of quality high enough to attract attention like this, they should be proud of their student’s achievements. Universities are, after all, supposed to be places where we experiment and question. The second is that it makes the university look like a place of nefarious activities.
Although that’s an extreme conclusion to come to, it is part of the point. Again and again, this story is about insecurity, drug abuse and sexual violence. These things exist across the world, and of course they exist in a university. It also encroaches on the issues of loneliness and mental illness, which are serious issues amongst young people at the moment.
And we need to have a conversation about rape. Part of the reason I wrote the story is because I’ve heard a hundred instances of rape happening in Bristol, and the university has done next to nothing about it.
A recent graduate contacted me a few days ago on this issue, and I’ll let her words do the talking:
“Claiming that the work could bring disrepute to the university seems to be your only concern. It seems from your wording that the reputation of the university is more of a priority than the safety of the students. In fact in the first term of my second year in 2014, we were told girls were not allowed to walk home at night in Cotham due to the many reported incidents of sexual abuse – no action was taken by the university apart from the patrol cars at night and some emails. Some are arguing that Benjie’s work is insensitive to the victims. It seems to me Benjie is the only one addressing a culture that has become the norm in our community. As a university you allow in freshers week students to rate the new students out of ten, claim they are going to ‘fresher fish’ and encourage binge drinking as a result of which many young girls become victims of sexual abuse. Benjie’s protagonist is simply highlighting this attitude that as a university you seem to have accepted.
There are too many reports of sexual abuse at the university. I suggest you put the effort into supporting the victims and reprimanding the students who have actually committed crimes rather than a writer of a short story.”
That my blog tells readers I go to the University of Bristol is therefore a good thing. It helps the story as a work of political fiction, and it points a finger directly at the people who aren’t doing enough to stop the issues it raises.
Again, it is a shame that the whistle-blowers didn’t get all this from the story, but as I say it’s a matter of taste. And, of course, being a matter of taste, they were silly to report it. But it is a greater shame that the university wants to cover its tracks on an issue that is more serious than it wants to acknowledge.
This ought to explain what ‘Nights at the Disco’ is about and why I’m standing by it. I’ve made a case for its artistic merit, so now let’s have a debate about the issues it highlights.
( PS. I must say though that after the furore of the last week, I’m a bit disappointed that the story that caught everyone’s attention was this one. It’s far from the best thing I’ve written. In fact, what you see on my blog is a first draft, because I was too bored to re-write it. Next time I inspire controversy, I’d like it to be because of a better piece of work.)