“I remembered how they began, a parody for the newspapers. No one wrote about them now.”
Dystopia was one of my first favourite genres, the beginning of the path away from the books of childhood. I read Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, V for Vendetta. They were supple with metaphor; I saw for the first time the aboutness of novels, the currents that moved underneath the prose. There is a reason we teach dystopian novels to teenagers; the same reason young adult fiction is bursting with them. Adolescence marks the moment you begin to see around things, when the disquiet that’s been churning in your mind breaks clean and clear against the shore. Dystopia is a genre for the postlapsarian age; art for what you cannot unsee.
They was first published in 1977. It is the fourth book by the trailblazing queer English writer, editor and publisher Kay Dick, who lived with her partner Kathleen Farrell in Hampstead for over 20 years. In They – which the author calls a “sequence of unease”, though it sits somewhere between story collection and fix-up novel – an unnamed, ungendered protagonist moves around the English countryside with a group of artists and intellectuals, evading the predations of a mysterious group of philistines only referred to as “they”.
They have no government, no creed, no mercy. Calculating in their cruelty and methods in one moment and shockingly reckless and barbaric the next, they move on trawlers in the waterways and erect eerie towers on the coast where the defiant are sent to have their memories purged. They loathe art, people who live alone, excessive displays of emotion; they pilfer novels and paintings, they burn music scores and poetry.
They also punish anyone who resists. Unrepentant visual artists are blinded, shameless musicians made deaf. A sculptor has the broken glass from his sculpture pressed into his eyes. A children’s author walks shell-shocked, daily, into a pond, seemingly to extinguish the memory of being set on fire. Should they choose to continue their practice, “they [will] amputate your hands and cut out your tongue”, one of them tells the narrator. They hold the right arm of Jane, a poet, over flames for eight minutes, for the crime of moving towards her burning work. (“[Her husband] Russell had acted differently. ‘You’ve forgotten this,’ he had said as he hurled his recently finished fugue into the fire.”)
They is spare, troubling, eerily familiar. It evokes Yōko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales or Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men, occupying a space between dystopia and horror. The lush landscapes are haunted by profoundly unsettling details about the forces at work – “It was no good listening for footsteps,” the narrator tells us, “they wore no shoes” – and all of it a backdrop for endless questions about art: What does it mean to create for no audience? If you cannot read a novel any longer, is it enough to remember it? Is it more important to protect the artist or their work?
They sold badly enough that when Dick requested the paperback edition, her editor gently reminded her that authors had to pay for their own copies of their book unless their advance had been earned out. “I suggest that Penguin make efforts to sell more copies of They to cover this deficit,” Dick suggested in her peevish reply. She was not satisfied with Penguin’s sales or publicity efforts; it seemed to her that nobody at the house was committed to the book. And Dick was correct, in her own way. No one was quite ready for They: not the house that published it, not the readers who ignored it, not the literary critics whose reactions were middling to unbelievably sexist. Two years after publication, They was out of print. After her death in 2001, Dick’s literary executors approached numerous publishers, but all declined the opportunity to republish her work. When it was finally rediscovered – a chance encounter in which a literary agent happened to pick it up in a charity shop – it was impossible to order a used copy on the internet; my own is less a book and more a sheaf of frail pages held together by a memory of a spine.
The rediscovery of They is a happy ending, of course, but a happy ending to a sad story that holds its own metafictional reminder about the loftiness of creation humbled by the realities of the world, the clash of art and commerce. Artists do not have to be blinded or burned to be silenced; their suppression can be as simple as creating or maintaining economic precariousness and allowing books to fade away.
In an essay in the Paris Review, critic Lucy Scholes writes about the whiplash of encountering They after the rest of Dick’s work: “Reading it was like reading the work of an entirely different writer,” she says, describing it as a “complete anomaly in Dick’s oeuvre: a surreptitious late-career aberration, whose genesis is unclear, and which does not seep into what she writes after.” The observation recalls one of HP Lovecraft’s, in which he argues that there is no better evidence of the pervasive human dread that energises the literature of “cosmic fear” than “the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them.” What haunted Kay Dick? Financial precariousness? Frustrations with the creative process? She died in 2001 – a mere month after a terrorist attack set off one of our many current, parallel dystopias – but one can imagine that she would be just as troubled by many features of our contemporary lives: the economic violence, eternal wars, the flirtations with authoritarianism, the ongoing environmental catastrophe.
It is tempting to play the allegory game with They, the way we have incorporated the world-building of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games into the zeitgeist. Metaphors are easily abused; you have likely heard your ideological opposite invoke 1984 in their own defence, making (you are sure) the opposite point the author himself was making. And it is easy – and not wrong, to be clear – to affix the label of “they” on to the people who have specifically made the lives of artists and intellectuals hell: conservative politicians and reactionary pundits and pearl-clutching parents and cowardly institutions. This creates a top-down vision of dystopia in which blame exists elsewhere, outside.
But I don’t think Kay Dick would let us off that easy; censorious impulses and exasperatingly misguided discourse and soft bigotry are hardly the exclusive property of the right. The radical queer author of They had to be rediscovered by the whole world, after all. If your understanding of dystopia does not begin, first, with your own complicity – the way that you are they, even if you don’t want to be – you have missed the point. The thing about dystopia is you can bring it to a knife-fight, but you better not drop it, otherwise you might find yourself at the wrong end of the blade.
We are still in the middle of a pandemic. Once-in-a-lifetime weather events pass over us regularly; I have forgotten how seasons used to move. People who do not have to suffer and die suffer and die – not because of a lack of resources, but because of a lack of political will. Art is strangled: capitalism, commerce, governments, institutions, bigots, scolds, cowards. In this context, They feels nearly paralysing. What is to be done in the face of this loss, evil, calamity? Kay Dick tells us. Or, at least, she gives us an opening, a small and meaningful door: Jane, the poet. The one who had her right arm held over the flames for eight minutes, for resisting the loss of her work. She is, she tells the narrator, writing poetry again. Her right arm ruined, she is learning to write with her left.