'Your Edgy Zeitgeist Award Winning Black Comedy: Our readers’ report' by Emilie Collyer

Thank you for submitting Your Edgy Zeitgeist Wunderkind Award Winning Black Comedy Trailblazing Groundbreaking Funny Violent Pop Culture Seminal Genius Work of Genius for our consideration.

The piece elicited a range of responses.

On balance we are going to pass on your work. These decisions are often a matter of timing as much as anything and we couldn’t locate the piece within the current zeitgeist with quite the same confidence as you have. We wish you well with your writing.

Reader 1
The genius of this writer is in his genius. His reputation as an irascible genius precedes him and holds up in this work and its genius for showing the brutal genius of humanity in genius ways that remind us of the twisted genius of the male genius and how lucky we are to have such geniuses illuminating truths for us. I for one agree with the world’s best theatre critics I found in my Google search who hail this work as genius:

I doubt any more works need to be written, except perhaps more by this genius writer whose genius is undisputed.

Reader 2
Hey mate I was relieved to read this strong work written by a man. Don’t know if you’ve heard of the VIDA Count, ‘amusingly’ coined as an attempt to find out 'Which Magazines Are the Palest and Malest?'—I know, right. Anyway a couple of years back some smart fellas organised their own anonymous version of the count. They were rightly concerned about men being increasingly shut out of literary opportunities, access and doorways. Mate, I’ve tried to get in touch with these fellas, who called themselves Equality in Literature. I reckon your piece would be a ray of hope for them. But it looks like the poor buggers got so dispirited with the state of things that they’ve closed up shop. I’ll keep trying and I’ll keep spreading the good word. Don’t you give up either, mate. The world needs you.

Would nominate for the V.S. Naipul prize.

Reader 3
I loved it, man. It’s fucking funny as. Child abuse is funny because it’s true and it’s fucked up and we’re all fucked up, man. Fuck those uptight bitches who are all in your face about ethics and responsibility and the word having immense power to perpetuate models of corruption and violence dressed in the misguided guise of critiquing them. Fuck ‘em! They lost their sense of humour in around 1974. It’s a great fucking work, man. It’s fucking funny and you’re brilliant. I love that all the blokes are fucked up because we are, mate, we are! I love that they keep bashing his head against the table and at the end they just shoot the mother fucker right there, bang! In the fucking head. I love that as the audience you’ve got no fucking idea whose fault anything is or where the responsibility lies or why he was abused as a kid and what you’re saying about kids who were abused or why they were all abused as kids and what you’re saying about a society that neglects its children – none of that matters because it’s just funny as fuck and at the end, he gets shot, bang! Right in the fucking head. Keep going, man. Forget about these naysaying bitches. You’re onto something. Don’t get discouraged. After all, you’ve won awards, right, man? So you’re onto it. You know your shit. Keep doing what you do, man.

Reader 4
Still looking for a seminal piece of Incel literature. It’s woeful how absent decent, compassionate, detailed representations of this sub-culture are in our literary canon. Don’t think this piece is it, but this guy could probably do it. If he wants to submit something to that brief I’d definitely read it.

Reader 5
I wanted to like this I really did. I want to believe the hype. I want to be moved. I want to be certain. I want to be sure I am not just a boring prude who gets offended by violence. I read it again and again and again. I like men’s writing. It’s clear and straight like an arrow. I love it when I hear young women writers talk about wanting to write more like men. I understand that. I empathise with that. I tried. I really did. I tried so hard. It could just be that I didn’t understand it. I’m willing to suppose that. If others liked it then that’s probably the case. Men have been doing this much longer after all and they know what they are doing as writers and as readers. I just… I just… It made me feel weird. But I’m probably wrong. After all, look at this list of experts who know much more than me about theatre:

Reader 6
What is most interesting to me in this work is that which is not said. I return again and again to the man with the slicked back hair rifling through the sheets of paper. Delicate and thin, of a time when paper still meant something. There is nothing written on the pages but he goes through them again and again. He is seeking words but he is conjuring, for the audience, the stories of their own past and potential future. Those moments not recorded, barely remembered. The cupboards rising in size along the bottom of the stairs. The bush with the thick leaves. The climbable tree. The slanted slate roof perfectly dangerous for climbing. The small hole in the red brick wall through which the milk was delivered. The boy at the beach you flirted with, hoping desperately he would fall in love with you. So much so that you sat all day in the January sun and burned your shoulders to blisters. Someone’s mother was kind the next day and put a cool, soft cream on your angry skin. You saw the boy a few more times. He was mildly impressed by your sunburn. Was this the same place where you argued with your two best friends about cricket? They thought the Australian team was a bunch of hopeless losers. You weren’t sure why that made you angry. You never saw yourself as particularly patriotic but maybe you were more parochial than you thought. Your own unfinished stories on rice thin paper that you hoped would shine but laboured under something clumsy you could not discern. The same thing, perhaps, as the boy and the sunburn, your friends and the argument. The same thing that even now stops you short when you catch a certain angle of your face in a passing window. No. Surely not. I don’t live in there. Do I?

Other than these moments the play didn’t do much for me I’m afraid. But there is something there, unexpressed, that the writer may discover in time, if encouraged to develop his work in more interesting directions than presently on display.

Reader 7
Seriously. Why?

Reader 8
Some promise but somewhat tired trope of Misunderstood and Self Deprecating Just a Bit Too Smart for His Own Good Vulnerably Flawed Protagonist who is about to get caught up in a Surprisingly Violent Situation Not of His Own Making although perhaps it might be, after all the truth is not always what it would seem and our Protagonist is Somewhat Unreliable.

Reader 9
Subject shows obvious signs of inferiority complex as evidenced by a plot that focuses on disempowerment, dismemberment and suppressed rage that is only expressed via violent attacks on those weaker and more vulnerable. While this is not uncommon in the public life of men and the popular culture both created and consumed by men it is still cause for concern. Subject may benefit from interpersonal psychotherapy, structured socialising activities or indeed keeping the expression of such violent impulses contained to the privacy of their own home where they can masturbate, fantasise and enact such violence upon inanimate objects, rather than subject yet another group of actors and yet another captive audience to the well-trodden path of stunted Oedipal complexes upon which the vast majority of past and present literature, popular culture and narrative training is so tiresomely and exhaustingly based.

All the other ways of depicting the history of power, property, masculine domination, the constitution of the State, the ideological apparatus have their effectiveness. But the change taking place has nothing to do with questions of “origin”. Phallocentrism is. History has never produced, recorded anything but that. Which does not mean that this form is inevitable or natural. Phallocentrism is the enemy. Of everyone. Men stand to lose by it, differently but as seriously as women. And it is time to transform. To invent the other history.

—From Sorties by Helene Cixous

It should be noted that this critique is limited and complicated by my own upbringing surrounded by visual, linguistic and aural information that centralises penis envy as the original state of all humans and assumes a significant Freudian Influence on the 20th Century Mind, from Oedipus Complex Tropes in TV to The Oedipal Complex in Pop Culture more broadly and living in An Incredibly Freudian Culture that Doesn’t Believe in Freud Anymore.

Reader 10
Why is it set in a nameless totalitarian state? Is the writer from a totalitarian state? I’m not suggesting only writers who live in totalitarian states should write plays set in totalitarian states but if you are a writer not living in a totalitarian state and you are writing a plays set in a totalitarian state there is presumably a very clear statement you are wanting to make. In this instance the premise appears to be that all the characters are victims of the totalitarian state, whether police, victims or criminals as evidenced by the fact that all characters speak of having violent pasts and being abused by their parents or other adults in their lives. I am guessing this is an attempt to make a comment about how contemporary society is failing its children. However as this phenomenon in the real world is not limited to totalitarian states, but can be found in every kind of political and socio-economic society, I am left wondering as to the purpose of the metaphor in this instance. It appears to be nothing more than a setting which allows a protracted and violent police interview situation with a high number of faux cheerful threats and enactments of violence rather than any kind of pressing political statement.

As is common with many (mostly male) writers who have been assured again and again of their talent, their skill, the importance of their words, the result is work that suffers from a lack of internal interrogation. It is written simply because it can be. And because there is no impediment to these (mostly male) writers, what comes through in their work is a lack of care about the ideas expressed and the words chosen. It’s just so much noise and, having never been silenced, they seem to not fully appreciate the power and therefore the responsibility that comes with having a voice. If I may quote Audre Lorde’s essay 'The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action':

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?

I fear there is no danger of this writer dying from his silenced, internal tyrannies but he could do well to spend some time meditating on the words he does not yet have and even more so on what he actually, truly, deeply, needs to say.

Reader 11
I think the writer is confusing ‘black comedy’ with gratuitous and thinly veiled misogynistic and/or racist and/or homophobic and/or ableist violence. Is the secondary character’s description as a ‘retard’ supposed to be a comment on society or is it actually just the backwards, lazy, offensive slur it is coming across as? Keen to hear others’ thoughts on this.

Reader 12

Reader 13
Curiosity about the inspiration for this work led to some rudimentary Googling whereupon I discovered the playwright states that he set out to write something as dark and powerful as a fairy tale. While admiring the ambition I couldn’t help feeling some important steps in translation, interpretation, modernisation and ethics were missed.

I am going to borrow from pre-eminent writer and scholar Marina Warner who has made a life’s work of exploring fairy tales and myths in saying:

The literature of the imagination isn’t separate from ethical and political issues and facts; it develops in active dialogue with them, illuminates experience in history and now, and I believe its effects are overlooked and misunderstood, with sometimes dangerous consequences.

If indeed the playwright is making a serious attempt to engage with the structures, narratives, politics and ethics of fairy tales in order to reflect something cogent about our modern society then he would do well to heed the words of other notable authors that have been down this path before him. As Angela Carter notes in her essay ‘Notes from the Frontline’:

... most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode.

With this in mind I read the play under present consideration and must confess I was left wanting.

When would the shape of the bottle become apparent? What subtle or radical new flavour would I find within? At what moment would the explosion come at me?

I waited and hoped.

In vain.

The bottle has a familiar shape. The wine within is strange but only in a way that leaves a sour taste and makes me want to tip it down the sink. As for the explosion, well this eventually came about in a disappointingly literal way (a gun shot, a violent death).

No interrogation of power via fairy tale tropes; no investigation of gender or heteronormative behaviours which are the underlying foundation of all canonical fairy tales, bearing in mind, as Karen Seago acknowledges in her essay ‘“New Wine in Old Bottles”?: Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber of Revisioned Fairy Tales’:

… many of the features which feminist scholars (rightly) criticised in (popular) fairy tales are not inherent elements of the genre as such but are constitutive only of the canonical tales which represent just a small, and strictly edited proportion of traditional, or oral tales … [as] those tales which did not conform to patriarchal gender politics, [also] tended to be excluded’

I searched for connections and was hopeful upon a first glance. We hear a tale of two children tortured in different ways by adult caregivers in their lives. My mind floods with associations: Hansel and Gretel, The Woodcutters Daughter, Rumpelstiltskin, not to mention the plethora of fairy tale protagonists kicked out of home, treated poorly, left to die or sent to hopeful or deliberate deaths by step-mothers and evil queens (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Red Riding Hood).

And yet as I read the work under consideration once, twice, three times, I could not fathom the reference stories nor the contemporary twist. The adult caregivers have no apparent reason for the torture they inflict (such as desire for power or money); they are not meted out with either reward or punishment (except for swift deaths at the hands of their child); this part of the story acts as a back drop or rationale as to why one child writes stories (hundreds of them, most if not all unpublished but apparently with enough cache to attract the attention of police investigating crimes) and another kills people based on the torture described within these stories.

Is the provocation: violence begets violence? Writers are damaged? People with mild intellectual disabilities are a danger to society? Not everyone should be a parent? If you have a bad childhood you’re doomed so you might as well kill yourself and if you’re unlucky enough to live to adulthood you’re doomed anyway and will end up killing others or being killed either by yourself or others?

[NOTE: Perhaps I am giving too much benefit of the doubt]

I could not come up with a definitive answer to this and the harder I tried the more frustrated I became and yearned for the rigour of thought others have applied to this similar exercise as recorded about Angela Carter in the Seago essay:

…using the established format of the fairy story and filling it with newly produced content in such a way that the rigid constraints of the past are transgressed and open up ways for a new appreciation of a genre.

All up a watery drop that left me perplexed as to why I’d been asked to sip on this vintage when all it was going to leave me with was a blood stained floor.

Reader 14
It’s very … male writing isn’t it.

Reader 15
Your one female character appears to have no purpose in the play other than to serve as either a positive or negative projected fantasy of the male character(s). She has no agency and therefore perpetuates a demeaning stereo-type of women that they only exist in the world as bit part players in male story lines. And why is she described by what she is wearing and how she looks when none of the other characters are?
(Oh, sorry, this feedback is for another play.)

Your one female character appears to have no purpose in the play other than to serve as either a positive or negative projected fantasy of the male character(s). She has no agency and therefore perpetuates a demeaning stereo-type of women that they only exist in the world as bit part players in male story lines. And why is she described by what she is wearing and how she looks when none of the other characters are?
(Oh, sorry, this feedback is for another play.)

[Ed: This comment was repeated ad infinitum in the reader’s report, indicating the reader has read dozens if not hundreds of plays where this comment was applicable. We have presented the comment here just a few times for the sake of expediency.]

Your one female character appears to have no purpose in the play other than to serve as either a positive or negative projected fantasy of the male character(s). She has no agency and therefore perpetuates a demeaning stereo-type of women that they only exist in the world as bit part players in male story lines. And why is she described by what she is wearing and how she looks when none of the other characters are?
(Oh, sorry. Strike those apologies. This feedback is indeed for your play.)

[Ed: While the editorial team respect this reader’s feedback particularly in regards to the complexities of applying the Bechdel test to a work in which it is literally impossible to analyse due to lack of female characters, we have some concerns about the propensity of women to apologise when delivering criticism or critique and so provide this hopefully edifying list of resources for the benefit of all: Why women need to stop saying sorry in the workplace. Various advice columns, articles, training regimes, professional workshops, and How To Succeed In A Man’s World By Being More Like A Man self-help books and seminars that proliferate current discourse similar, but not limited to, these examples: Stop Over-Apologizing—How To Quit Saying Sorry So Much, When An Apology Is Anything But, This Email Tool Wants Women To Stop Saying Sorry, Sorry Language Shamers But Women Just Don’t Need Your New Email Policing, Women Should Be Sorry But Not Sorry That We Say Sorry So Much, Saying Sorry At Work, Women Stop Apologizing At Work, Women Work Apologise Exclamation, Just Not Sorry App Stop Women Saying Sorry Emails, What Happened When I Stopped Saying Sorry At Work For A Week, #sorrynotsorry]

Reader 16
Non-exhaustive reading list:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sara Ahmed, Hannah Arendt, Mariam Bâ, Mieke Bal, Hannah Black, Mary Beard, Mary Borsellino, Carmen Boullosa, Rosi Braidotti, Angela Carter, Sue-Ellen Case, Helene Cixous, Cheryl Clarke, Angela Davis, Aria Dean, Buchi Emecheta, Shulamith Firestone, Maria Irene Fornes, Roxanne Gay, Jack Halberstam, Suheir Hammad, Shere Hite, bell hooks, Luce Irigaray, Qiu Jin, Julia Kristeva, Celeste Liddle, Simi Linton, Audre Lord, Nivedita Menon, Aileeen Moreton-Robinson, Toni Morrison, Maggie Nelson, Flora Nwapa, Corbett Joan O’Toole, Laurie Penny, Adrienne Rich, Joanna Russ, Anita Sarkeesian, Setsu Shigematsu, Susan Sontag, Aisha Taymur, Kate Tempest, Li Tingting, Alice Walker, Marina Warner, Susan Wendell, Jeanette Winterson, Naomi Wolf, Audrey Wollen, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Reader 17
He’s not bad looking. One of those guys who’s aging pretty well. I’d probably fuck him. Can’t find information about whether he has children or not. Frustrating! That stuff is so easy to find out about women. Wily fucking guy keeping his personal life personal. Anyway. Assuming he is a childless man we can equally assume he doesn’t understand the true nature of love and has selfishly put his career before his non-existent children. But yeah, I’d still probably fuck him.

Emilie Collyer writes plays, prose and poetry. Her writing has appeared in Overland, The Lifted Brow and Aurealis, among others. Recent award-winning plays include Dream Home and The Good Girl which premiered in New York in 2016. For more of her work, visit betweenthecracks.net.