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Transgressive fiction

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Transgressive fiction is a genre of literature which 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.[1]

Literary context[edit]

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.[1]

Michel Foucault's essay "A Preface to Transgression" (1963) provides an important methodological origin for the concept of transgression in literature. The essay uses Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille as an example of transgressive fiction.[2]

Rene Chun, a journalist for The New York Times, described transgressive fiction:

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.[3]

The genre has been the subject of controversy, and many forerunners of transgressive fiction, including William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr., have been the subjects of obscenity trials.[4]

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 incisive social commentary.[5]


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).[6] French author Émile Zola's works about social conditions and "bad behavior" are examples,[7] as are Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels Crime and Punishment (1866)[8] and Notes from Underground (1864)[9] and Norwegian Knut Hamsun's psychologically-driven Hunger (1890).[10] 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.[11]

A simpler, more literal example of transgressive fiction is Kate Chopin's The Awakening, in which a married woman, feeling confined by the gender constructs of her society and pressures imposed upon her by her family and friends to be keen in her duties as a mother and wife, leaves her family and pursues extramarital relationships.[12] Commenting on gender roles of the late 19th century, The Awakening faced major criticism for its depiction of a woman being unfaithful to her family, despite the fact that Chopin had written several similar short stories prior to Awakening's publication. It is now considered to be a landmark of early feminist literature.[12]

The early development of the genre was anticipated in the work of early 20th century writers such as Octave Mirbeau, Georges Bataille, and Arthur Schnitzler, who explored psychosexual development.[13][14][15]

On 6 December 1933, US federal judge John M. Woolsey overturned the federal ban on James Joyce's Ulysses.[16] 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.[17] Random House Inc. challenged the claim of obscenity in federal court and was granted permission to print the book in the US. Judge Woolsey's explanation for his removal of the ban is often quoted: "It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned."[18]

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).[19] 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).[20] Similarly, the author Vladimir Nabokov published Lolita in 1955 to a great deal of controversy due to the hebephilia that occurs between the book's main characters, Humbert Humbert and Lolita. The transgressive nature of this subject has made Lolita a book often found on the list of books banned by governments[21] and the list of most commonly challenged books in the United States.[22]

Grove Press also published the explicit works of Beat writers, which led to two more obscenity trials.[23] The first concerned Howl, Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poem which celebrated American counterculture and decried hypocrisy and emptiness in mainstream society.[24] The second concerned William S. Burroughs' hallucinatory, satirical novel Naked Lunch (1959).[25] 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, and sex workers and its crude, slang-inspired prose.[26] Last Exit to Brooklyn was tried as obscene in the UK.[27] 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.[28]

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;[29] Kathy Acker, an American known for her sex-positive feminist fiction;[30] and Charles Bukowski, an American known for his tales of womanizing, drinking, and gambling.[31] 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 US.[32]

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.[33] 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.[34] Other influential authors of this decade include Bret Easton Ellis, known for novels about depraved yuppies;[35] Irvine Welsh, known for his portrayals of Scotland's drug-addicted working class youth;[36] and Chuck Palahniuk, known for his characters' bizarre attempts to escape bland consumer culture.[37] 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.[38]

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.[39] 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.[40]

In the UK, the genre owes a considerable influence to "working class literature",[41] 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.[42]

Notable works[edit]

Henry Miller

William S. Burroughs

Georges Bataille

Vladimir Nabokov

Hubert Selby Jr.

J. G. Ballard

Ryu Murakami

Katherine Dunn

Kathy Acker

Bret Easton Ellis

Dennis Cooper

Irvine Welsh

Matthew Stokoe

  • Cows (1998)

Chuck Palahniuk

Alissa Nutting

Blake Butler

  • 300,000,000 (2014)

Elle Nash

Chris Kelso

Nikanor Teratologen

  • Assisted Living (1993)

Jason Tanamor

  • Anonymous (2013)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Word Watch — December 1996 from The Atlantic Monthly
  2. ^ Foucault, Michel (1963). "A Preface to Transgression." "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 August 2014. Retrieved 10 May 2015.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ The New York Times — April 23, 1995, pp. 49, 52
  4. ^ Judson, George (10 August 1997). "Naked Lunches and Reality Sandwiches: How the Beats Beat the First Amendment". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 April 2020.
  5. ^ Silverblatt, Michael (1 August 1993). "SHOCK APPEAL / Who Are These Writers, and Why Do They Want to Hurt Us? : The New Fiction of Transgression". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  6. ^ Wolff, Ian (January 2015). "Cruel Songs". Weekly Alibi. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  7. ^ Nelson, Brian (29 September 2013). "Émile Zola and the integrity of representation". OUPblog. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  8. ^ Thomson, Ian (15 November 2021). "The Sinner and the Saint review – the story behind Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  9. ^ Caro, Tony (18 July 2018). "The Transgressive Spiteful Side of "Notes from the Underground"". Dostoyevsky Reimagined. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  10. ^ Gioia, Ted (29 February 2016). "Knut Hamsun's Hunger". fractious fiction. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  11. ^ "Gothic Literature". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 11 May 2022.
  12. ^ a b Vaye Watkins, Claire (5 February 2020). "The Classic Novel That Saw Pleasure as a Path to Freedom". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 December 2023.
  13. ^ Orthofer, M.A. (19 March 2015). "Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau". Complete Review. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  14. ^ Brooks, Peter (12 February 1978). "Shocker in '28". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  15. ^ Gay, Peter (11 July 1999). "Sex and Longing in Old Vienna". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  16. ^ "On this day…6 December". James Joyce Centre. 6 December 2013. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  17. ^ Corrigan, Maureen (26 June 2014). "'Most Dangerous Book': A Rich Treasury Charting James Joyce's 'Ulysses'". NPR. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  18. ^ McGrath, Charles; Galchen, Rivka (9 June 2015). "How Would 'Ulysses' Be Received Today?". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2020.
  19. ^ Menand, Louis (4 December 2016). "Banned Books and Blockbusters". The New Yorker. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  20. ^ Machlin, Sherri (25 September 2013). "Banned Books Week: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller". New York Public Library. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  21. ^ "Banned & Challenged Classics". American Library Association. 26 March 2013. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  22. ^ "Banned Book: Lolita". Politics and Prose. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  23. ^ Glass, Loren (30 September 2011). "Counter-Culture Colophon Part II: Grove Press in the 1960s". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  24. ^ Goodin, Brittany (26 June 2014). "Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Birth of a New Generation of Literature". The Artifice. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  25. ^ Miles, Barry (5 September 1993). "Inside the Outsider". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  26. ^ Hamilton, Denise (11 March 1988). "From the Shadows, a Legend Reappears : Mainstream Recognition Catches Up With 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' Author Selby Once Again". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  27. ^ Leone, Ryan (26 October 2014). "Hubert Selby Jr's American Dream". Beatdom. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  28. ^ Chun, Rene (23 April 1995). "Naked Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2020.
  29. ^ L. Ulin, David (16 September 2014). "Visionary with a sharp edge". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 30 April 2020.
  30. ^ Thornton, Jonathan (13 December 2021). "Pirates, Punks, and Quests: The Transgressive, Transformative Slipstream Novels of Kathy Acker". Tor.com. Retrieved 11 May 2022.
  31. ^ Kirsch, Adam (6 March 2005). "The Transgressive Thrills of Charles Bukowski". The New Yorker. Retrieved 30 April 2020.
  32. ^ Gioia, Ted (29 September 2014). "When Science Fiction Grew Up". conceptual fiction. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  33. ^ Grimshaw, Mike (25 September 2002). "Cultural Pessimism and Rock Criticism Bret Easton Ellis' Writing (as) Hell". CTheory. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  34. ^ Abcarian, Robin (12 June 1991). "Boomer Backlash : * Generations: What's it really like to be twentysomething? Douglas Coupland's new novel is a biting portrait of life after yuppiedom". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 30 April 2020.
  35. ^ Garner, Dwight (24 March 2016). "In Hindsight, an 'American Psycho' Looks a Lot Like Us". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 April 2020.
  36. ^ Macfarlane, Robert (20 August 2006). "Pain Spotting". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 April 2020.
  37. ^ Curtis, Bryan (22 June 2005). "Chuck Palahniuk's leap of faith". Slate. Retrieved 25 April 2020.
  38. ^ Williams, John (23 March 2001). "Elizabeth Young". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  39. ^ Newton, Maud (22 May 2006). "Interview with Rupert Thomson". Maud Newton. Retrieved 22 April 2020.
  40. ^ Levin, Greg (18 April 2018). "Interview with R.D. Ronald, Transgressive Novelist for All and None". Greg Levin. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  41. ^ Romero, Dennis (26 June 1996). "Adding a Little Grit to Modern Novels". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  42. ^ Spencer, Scott (13 September 1987). "Love Me, Love My Porsche". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 May 2022.


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