The rediscovery of Kay Dick’s 1977 novel, They, seems somehow appropriate to its portrayal of marginalised and censored artists: out of print since its initial publication, it was found by a literary agent in an Oxfam shop in Bath last year and is now available once again, garlanded with praise from a panoply of contemporary authors. It is an unusual novel in not really being a novel, more a series of short stories connected by the world in which they are set, and presumably by a narrator, or at least a narrative voice. The world it presents to us is one where art is increasingly disapproved of, books and artworks destroyed, and artists pushed further and further to the edges of society when not being coerced into conforming.

In the opening story, ‘Some Danger Ahead’, this occurs stealthily.  “They took another book last night,” the narrator tells us:

“They never came when one was in the house. In their view confrontation was an unnecessary waste of energy, a luxury they withheld.”

By the end of the story, however, we are made aware of the implicit violence which lies behind this as Claire is taken away to be blinded:

“She went beyond the accepted limit. She continued to paint.”

Artists are tolerated to an extent, but examples are made of those who resist. When they throw a poet, Jane’s, work into the fire she instinctively reaches out to save it: “…they held her right arm over the flames for five minutes.” If the punishment is not physical, it is some form of brainwashing. When the narrator gets a new neighbour in ‘Pebble of Unease’ he will not speak to her:

“When it rained he sat with his back to the window. Clearly he had been desensitized.”

When Fiona returns from ‘treatment’ in ‘A Light-hearted Day’ she doesn’t recognise anyone: “Our presence made no impact on her.” Even toleration comes at a price as we discover in ‘A Pocket of Quietude’ where Hurst has set up a refuge for artists in an old mill – “It’s a matter of survival, not of suicide.” His survival, however, comes at the price of betraying the artists he invites to stay with him, his main aim being to protect their work rather than their lives. This, at least, distinguishes him for the largely interchangeable writers, painters and sculptors which populate the rest of the stories. The atmosphere is similarly rather monotone, varying only from the general unease of feeling under threat to moments of pleasure at the beauty of nature. Strangely, there is little relating to artistic creation which is taken as a given, as if Dick’s audience were also artists – and, indeed, in the novel art seems only to be produced to be appreciated by artists.

In her foreword, Carmen Maria Machado claims that it is too easy (though not wrong) to “affix the label of ‘they’ onto 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” and we should cast the net more widely to include all “censorious impulses … and soft bigotry” This reading of the novel strikes me as only possible if you are a) not British and b) have very little awareness of the 1970s. In the first place, to a British reader the novel is heavily class based. The artists have ‘unobtrusive’ servants and cooks and not once, despite the outlawing of art suggesting it may not be a reliable source of income, do they worry about money. Even childhood memories are strong class indicators:

“Tea was a return to childhood with homemade scones, dishes of jam, plates of bread and butter, watercress, boiled eggs, seed- and ginger-cakes.”

Dick’s much praised descriptions of nature in fact convey a proprietary attitude, as if the countryside exists as a place of contemplation and can only be appreciated by the few – she explicitly refers to walking in the country as an ‘extension’ of art.

And ‘they’ are, of course, the working classes, threatening the established order with their disposable income – particularly the young. Wherever any threatening characters develops a little individuality in the novel (not often) they are ‘youth’s or children. Their viewpoint not only does not exist in the novel, but we are told they would not be able to articulate it anyway.

“They jabbered like savages, indecipherable gang vocabulary.”


“They have reduced speech to a minimum, to such an extent that they can barely articulate their words.”

They are seen as feral and violent – a dog is killed as a warning; at one point children have to be stopped from drowning a fox. It is a novel in which the young are feared, and the poor are little better than animals – “like locusts.” No surprise, then, that television is a focus of criticism, explicitly linked to the brainwashing facilities:

“The only light comes from the television screens, kept on all the time.”

Opera is (apparently) “a dangerous art” (“It suggests too many freedoms.”) but pop music is to be condemned.

Rather than a hymn to non-conformity (quite ridiculous when the artists conform as much as ‘they’), the novel is an ugly reactionary psychodrama portraying the subconscious fears of an ageing writer against a world where her assumed privilege is under threat. More sadly, it is largely an artistic failure as its strengths (the sense of unease, the ambiguous threat) are simply repeated ad nauseum becoming less interesting with each story. For a much better novel conveying the fear of society breaking down prevalent in 70s Britain  I would suggest Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, written three year earlier; and for a dystopia where memory is threatened, the much more recent The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is far superior to this largely unnecessary book.


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6 Responses to “They”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I have a copy of this on the shelf and am tempted to read it fairly soon given your critique, which seems very well thought through and articulated, I might add. You’re right, it’s a book that’s been highly praised from several quarters, but I’ve seen one two sceptics too (e.g. John Self). The Memory Police is an excellent book, so I’m glad to see you mentioning it in your piece!

    • 1streading Says:

      You may well like it, but I couldn’t help but see it as very much a product of its time. Its vagueness does allow a certain amount of reading your own meaning into it.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    How interesting, Grant. I’ve only seen universal praise for this, so am happy to hear your take on it. The class thing is very interesting and the somewhat predictable attitudes on display here would certainly undermine any reading of it as particularly revolutionary. Thank you – I had been thinking I might read it, but bearing in mind the size of the TBR I’ll wait till I stumble across a copy in my book travels…

  3. Julé Cunningham Says:

    A thoughtful and interesting perspective on the book, and you are quite right, Carmen Maria Machado’s description is very US-focused. A post from a writer who writes really well about fear and paranoia will be going up later today. I think I’ll stick with his work.

    • 1streading Says:

      I would agree there are plenty of contemporary writers writing well about the fears of the present – I’m not sure we need to read them into a work from the past when they are not really there.

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