Transgressive Fiction

Naked Lunch

Lady Chatterley's Lover

Transgressive fiction is a genre of literature that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressional fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social, or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with taboo subject matters such as drugs, sex, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime.

The term ‘transgressive fiction’ was coined by Los Angeles Times literary critic Michael Silverblatt. Rene Chun, a journalist for ‘The New York Times,’ described is as, ‘A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.’

The genre has been the subject of controversy, and many forerunners of transgressional fiction, including William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr., have been the subjects of obscenity trials. Transgressive fiction shares similarities with splatterpunk (hyperintense horror with no limits), noir, and erotic fiction in its willingness to portray forbidden behaviors and shock readers. But it differs in that protagonists often pursue means to better themselves and their surroundings—albeit unusual and extreme ones. Much transgressional fiction deals with searches for self-identity, inner peace, or personal freedom. Unbound by usual restrictions of taste and literary convention, its proponents claim that transgressive fiction is capable of meaningful social commentary. There is also some overlap with literary minimalism, as many transgressive writers use short sentences and simplistic style.

The basic ideas of transgressive fiction are by no means new. Many works that are now considered classics dealt with controversial themes and harshly criticized societal norms. Early examples include the scandalous writing of the Marquis de Sade and the Comte de Lautréamont’s ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ (1869). French author Émile Zola’s works about social conditions and ‘bad behavior’ are examples, as are Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels ‘Crime and Punishment’ (1866) and ‘Notes from Underground’ (1864) and Norwegian Knut Hamsun’s psychologically-driven ‘Hunger’ (1890). Sexual extravagance can be seen in two of the earliest European novels, the ‘Satyricon’ and ‘The Golden Ass,’ and also (with disclaimers) ‘Moll Flanders’ and some of the excesses of early Gothic fiction.

Early 20th century writers such as Octave Mirbeau, Georges Bataille, and Arthur Schnitzler, who explored psychosexual development, are also important forebears. In 1933, a federal judge overturned the federal ban on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ The book was banned in the US due to what the government claimed was obscenity, specifically parts of Molly Bloom’s ‘soliloquy’ at the end of the book. Random House Inc. challenged the claim of obscenity in federal court and was granted permission to print the book in the US. Judge Woolsey who presided over the case is often quoted explaining his removal of the ban by saying ‘It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned.’

In the late 1950s, American publisher Grove Press, under publisher Barney Rosset, began releasing decades-old novels that had been unpublished in most of the English-speaking world for many years due to controversial subject matter. Two of these works, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ (D. H. Lawrence’s tale of an upper class woman’s affair with a working class man) and ‘Tropic of Cancer’ (Henry Miller’s sexual odyssey), were the subject of landmark obscenity trials (‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was also tried in the UK and Austria). Both books were ruled not obscene and forced the US courts to weigh the merit of literature that would have once been instantly deemed pornographic (the Miller test).

Grove Press also published the explicit works of Beat writers, which led to two more obscenity trials. The first concerned ‘Howl,’ Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem which celebrated American counterculture and decried hypocrisy and emptiness in mainstream society. The second concerned William S. Burroughs’ hallucinatory, satirical novel ‘Naked Lunch’ (1959). Both works contained what were considered lewd descriptions of body parts and sexual acts. Grove also published Hubert Selby Jr.’s anecdotal novel ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ (1964), known for its gritty portrayals of criminals, prostitutes, and transvestites and its crude, slang-inspired prose. ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ was tried as obscene in the UK. Grove Press won all these trials, and the victories paved the way both for transgressive fiction to be published legally, as well as bringing attention to these works.

In the 1970s and ’80s, an underground transgressive fiction community flourished. Its biggest stars included J.G. Ballard, a British writer known for his strange and frightening dystopian novels; Kathy Acker, an American known for her sexually-blunt but still-feminist fiction; and Charles Bukowski, an American known for his tales of womanizing, drinking, and gambling. The notorious 1971 film version of Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ contained scenes of rape and ‘ultraviolence’ by a futuristic youth gang complete with its own argot, and was a major influence on popular culture; it was subsequently withdrawn in the UK, and heavily censored in the USA.

In the 1990s, the rise of alternative rock and its distinctly downbeat subculture opened the door for transgressive writers to become more influential and commercially successful. This is exemplified by the influence of Canadian Douglas Coupland’s 1990 novel ‘Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,’ which explored the economically-bleak and apocalypse-fixated worldview of Coupland’s age group. The novel popularized the term ‘Generation X’ to describe this age demographic. Other influential authors of this decade include Bret Easton Ellis, known for novels about depraved yuppies; Irvine Welsh known for his portrayals of Scotland’s drug-addicted working class youth; and Chuck Palahniuk, known for his characters’ bizarre attempts to escape bland consumer culture. Both of Elizabeth Young’s volumes of literary criticism from this period deal extensively and exclusively with this range of authors and the contexts in which their works can be viewed.

In the UK, the genre owes a considerable influence to ‘working class literature,’ which often portrays characters trying to escape poverty by inventive means while, in the US, the genre focuses more on middle class characters trying to escape the emotional and spiritual limitations of their lifestyle.


One Comment to “Transgressive Fiction”

  1. Reblogged this on Gemma Hawkins and commented:
    This is my kind of fiction.

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