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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 or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressive fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social, or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with taboo subject matters such as drugs, sexual activity, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime. The genre of "transgressive fiction" was defined by Los Angeles Times literary critic Michael Silverblatt. Rene Chun, a journalist for The New York Times, described transgressive fiction thus:
- 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.
Transgressive fiction shares similarities with splatterpunk, 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 transgressive 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 pungent 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 extravangance 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.
On 6 December 1933, US federal judge John M. Woolsey 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 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 (see 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 entire underground of transgressive fiction 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 than ever before. 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.
The early 21st century saw the rise of writers like Rupert Thomson, R. D. Ronald and Kelly Braffet with their protagonists further pushing the criminal, sexual, violent, narcotic, self-harm, anti-social and mental illness related subject matter taboos from the shadows of the transgressive umbrella into the forefront of mainstream fiction. Ronald's novels The Elephant Tree and The Zombie Room are based in the fictional city of Garden Heights, providing a fresh, contemporary melting pot to showcase the amalgamation of UK and US cultural and societal dissatisfaction and frustration, that had previously been portrayed very differently.
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.