Thomas Sutcliffe: Horrors that never grow stale

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The Independent Online

I had a terrible time trying to decide what my dissertation should be about when I was in my final year at university, dithering about with various subjects until the deadline for submitting a title was finally on top of me. In the end I came up with something tactically vague about Jane Austen - reasoning that I could tighten up the small print later and that it would, at least, be a positive pleasure to do the basic reading. And ever since then, in a kind of academic esprit d'escalier, I occasionally find myself struck by dissertation subjects that seem immeasurably superior in every respect but for timing. Just a couple of decades earlier and they would have done very nicely indeed.

The latest one occurred to me last week, after one of those coincidences that occasionally occur in cultural consumption. I'd just finished reading Patrick McCabe's new novel, Winterwood, when I went to a screening of Todd Field's Little Children, and since both are concerned with the subject of child abuse and paedophilia it was hard not to avoid the sense that I'd stumbled into some strange kind of arts festival - one devoted to the cultural treatment of this reliably provocative subject.

But was it, as the conspiracists like to say, really just a coincidence? Wasn't there a dissertation topic here - in the sudden ubiquity of a subject that was virtually invisible in popular culture only 50 years ago? Indeed, so recent is the vogue for child abuse as a literary and cultural theme that it wouldn't really have worked as a dissertation subject even if it had occurred to me. There wouldn't have been enough examples to warrant more than a short essay - whereas now you could fill a book.

On the face of it this is simply the consequence of a new subject emerging into the light - a cultural change driven not by artists but by social workers and psychiatrists. As the crime is acknowledged, so it becomes possible for writers and dramatists to extend their reach a little. Where Henry James had to restrict himself to dark hints in The Turn of the Screw, later writers can shine the light a little more fully. And perhaps you would find that there was a simple correlation between the prominence of the subject in public storytelling - newspapers and television news - and its spread in the creative arts. Any dissertation writer would be wise to start with the soaps - the most nimble mechanism we have for converting social issues into shared narratives - and it would presumably be relatively easy to pin down the moment at which the subject first arrives on the small screen.

I doubt, though, that this explanation would really do justice to what paedophiles and child abuse supplies to writers and film-makers - something so gratifying that the subjects have achieved the status of tiresome cliché (in some expressions) almost as soon as their novelty faded. You'd need plenty of fingers to count the plays in which the turbulent tensions of the first half are revealed in the second half to be the consequence of some festering sexual trauma at the hands (and worse) of Daddy. At the same time, fictional paedophiles themselves have tentatively advanced from being a mere apogee of evil or external threat to becoming an explorable psychology.

Alan Bennett's wonderfully unsettling monologue Playing Sandwiches would be a brave early example - risking accusations of exculpation to see that it might be a tragedy to be a paedophile as well as to fall into the orbit of one. In their way both Little Children and Winterwood do something similar. They take the emotional torque of child abuse - the visceral righteousness it will arouse in nearly every reader or viewer - and twist it suddenly in an unexpected direction.

That's one explanation of the subject's recent prominence, I guess - that it is a dependable power source for a work that might otherwise feel wan or exhausted. But I suspect it also has something to do with the way that it has restored the power of the secret. The skeletons in the closets of 19th-century literature - illegitimacy and adultery - had lost much of their potency by the end of the 20th. Why lurk in the closet at all, in fact? These weren't revelations that could reliably destroy a family any more - however disruptive they might prove.

Child abuse, however - either as a hidden wound or a secret sin - still has a seismic power. No one is going to say, "Can't we just be adult about this?" or, "Really, who cares about such things nowadays?" It isn't susceptible to sophistication or insouciance - and as such it's irresistible to artists who want the old-fashioned pleasure of a forced revelation.