Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Fiction has always been a place to explore socially critical, taboo, even transgressive ideas. Sensory extravagance and eroticism go all the way back through literary history, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers like the Marquis de Sade, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Franz Kafka brought the themes of sexual deviancy, social isolation, and proto-nihilism into the canon.
From there, the French jumped in: following in the wake of Emile Zola, writers such as Octave Mirbeau, Georges Bataille, and Albert Camus doubled down on the genre’s aspects of psychosexual exploration and social nihilism. Of course, once the French start making something look cool, everyone else begins clamoring for a piece of the pie.
Enter transgressive fiction: a genre defined by isolated, antisocial, and often mentally ill protagonists trying to break free of the confines and conventions of the mundane everyday. The genre hit its heyday in the late twentieth century, following the advent of American consumerism, brand culture, and the decline of socialism, but it’s still going strong today, with writers like Donna Tartt, Irvine Welsh, and Chuck Palahniuk keeping the tradition alive.Transgressive fiction deals with taboo themes and underexplored ideas.Click To Tweet
So how do you go about writing transgressive fiction? Well, there’s no hard-and-fast route to success, and a lot will depend on just how transgressive you want to be (are you going full Kathy Acker or just a bit Stieg Larsson?) but there are definitely some core ideas to consider. Beginning with…
Transgressive fiction was an easier task when there were more moral absolutes and absolute authorities to transgress against. What might once have been edgy is now par for the course, and even texts that pit isolated protagonists against monolithic corporate/consumerist structures have been done to death. No publishers are going to be sued for obscenity and no writers are going to be sent into exile in 2019 – literature is rarely still the stuff of moral panic.
As such, it’s important to consider how your fiction is going to be transgressive. Since many of the more conventional narratives of transgressive fiction have been pretty well explored (the ‘perhaps-mad social isolate bemoans meaningless world’ narrative pattern has been recurring since Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground,) it’s a good bet to focus on your characters rather than on external plot.
Character is vital in transgressive fiction. This is partly due to the genre’s odd proximity to true crime (both genres, despite one being fiction and the other non-fiction, rely on grimly fascinating characters of dark, frightening depth) and partly due to the fact that the key themes of transgressive fiction – escape, isolation, freedom, amorality, deviancy – are best expressed through a character’s internal life. How best, after all, to escape a bland, oppressive reality? By going inward, into the human mind.
Almost every transgressive protagonist worth their salt has led a pretty wild mental life: think of Humbert Humbert’s uncomfortable self-delusion in Lolita, of Patrick Bateman’s Thatcherite psychopathy in American Psycho, or of Sara Goldfarb’s grotesque TV visions in Requiem for a Dream. Even if your characters aren’t as out-there as these three, there should be at least some quirk or horrid observation that isolates them from their peers.Transgressive characters depend on vibrant inner lives to appeal to readers.Click To Tweet
But your characters’ mental illnesses/delusions/observations shouldn’t be plucked at random; in the three examples above, the characters’ ailments are presented as logical and understandable responses to the oppressive realities they face: Humbert is forced into deluded mental acrobatics so that he can continue to think of himself as an essentially moral, decent man, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary; Bateman’s obscene violence is presented in American Psycho as the natural result of 1980s business culture and ruthless American consumerism; and Goldfarb’s madness, a result of her addiction to diet pills and daytime television, is a grim refuge against the crippling loneliness of urban living.
As you can see, these myriad madnesses aren’t chosen arbitrarily – they’re carefully plotted devices that bind theme to plot. Your own characters should do the same.
One of the worst things a writer of transgressive fiction can do is to be shocking just for the sake of it. While transgressive writers haven’t historically shied away from exploring everything from incest to rape to torture, trying to be as graphic as possible for no real reason is just going to put readers off and make you look immature. Don’t be a Garth Marenghi – no one wants to hear about ‘blood, blood, blood… and bits of sick.’
Instead, make sure you’re doing something with graphic content. It’s okay to shock your readers, or to make them feel uncomfortable – indeed, this is your job as a transgressive writer – but the best transgressive fiction communicates discomfort by provoking the reader into self-examination or examination of the world they’ve taken for granted.Shock for shock’s sake immunizes your reader against actual, targeted insight.Click To Tweet
The murders of the homeless man and the prostitute in American Psycho, while certainly unpleasant, aren’t what are deeply uncomfortable – instead, discomfort arises when the reader realizes that this kind of violence is contextually normal, ordinary all across Wall Street. Bateman’s violence becomes a microcosm for the savagery at the heart of corporate America, which, of course, we’re all implicitly involved in.
So don’t just throw in shocking details for the sake of it – present them strategically, making them ‘about’ something larger.
Establishing distance between your protagonist and the oppressive circumstances they face can be a difficult thing to do – how, after all, do you meaningfully convey that a character is becoming increasingly mentally isolated?
Do you, like Dostoevsky, reflect your protagonist’s emotional isolation and pain with physical counterparts (the unnamed protagonist in Notes from Underground is both physically alone and in continuous physical pain – he suffers from liver pain and toothache) or, as in Irvine Welsh’s Filth, undermine your narrator’s own authority and the very confines of your story by pasting a separate narrator’s text over the page in isolated, wonky type? (In Filth, this narrator is a spiteful and reflective tapeworm living inside the story’s actual protagonist.)
These examples show how often transgressive fiction engages with framing. Think of the famously unreliable Humbert Humbert, the self-deluded and personality-swapping protagonist of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, or the bizarre and confusing collage of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School.Transgressive fiction doesn’t just confront the reader with taboo ideas – it renders the familiar world frightening, laughable, or disgusting.Click To Tweet
This is because transgressive fiction seeks, more perhaps than any other popular genre of fiction, to make the familiar not only strange but grotesque. The reader has to be made to see the commonplace or the accepted in an awful new light, and one of the best ways for writers to achieve this is to carefully manipulate how the plot is relayed and how the setting is presented.
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a great cinematic example of this impulse: the camera pans across an idyllic 1950s American suburb before zooming in on a manicured lawn, passing the gleaming blades of grass until all that fills the frame are huge, squirming insects devouring one another.
You should be on the lookout for opportunities to achieve similar feats – the oppressive world your protagonist is transgressing against should be familiar but, through careful re-framing, it should also be horrifying, foreign, or uncomfortable.
The answer, of course, is the unusual manipulation of language. Whether it’s Burgess’s Cockney-Russian hybrid Nadsat, Ellis’s excessive brand- and business-speak, Orwell’s Newspeak, or Welsh’s profanity-rich version of Scots, these writers all recognize the importance of language in shaping our experiences of the spaces we occupy.
Language is everywhere – it’s how we express ourselves, how we form our thoughts, and it forms the limits of what we can even conceptualize. Orwell’s regime in 1984 recognized this and oppressed its population by stripping away words, thus stripping away what it was possible to think. A Clockwork Orange’s droogs similarly recognized that linguistic rebellion was both meaningful and effective. Patrick Bateman, in American Psycho, found the brutal and meaningless verbs of his violent impulses echoed in the empty buzzwords and businesspeak of the corporate establishment. Welsh’s Scottish addicts find their experiences and futures limited by what they’re able to verbally express (basically just insults, swearwords, sex acts, and drug names.)
Your own transgressive fiction should consider language and register. Transgressive fiction is, as a genre, extremely character-focused, and language is intrinsic to who people (and thus characters) are. As such, you can’t ignore it – the language your characters use will play a huge role in shaping the worlds they flee to or invent. It will inform how they see themselves, their futures, and their contemporaries.
Forgive our transgressions
Transgressive fiction, with its rather gloomy outlook, finds itself in a bit of a market slump at the moment. In these dark times, more optimistic, empowering books seem to be filling bookshop shelves. Who will step forward and carry this faded torch high once again?
You, of course! Get sharp, get satirical, get interesting, and get out there. Find new ways to shine horrible, revealing light on our most beloved institutions. Someone has to.
What are your favorite works of transgressive fiction? Think I missed any important tips? Let me know in the comments, and check out How Understanding Cosmic Horror Can Improve Your (Love)Craft, How To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises, and Shakespeare Invented Words, Should You Do It Too? for more great advice on this topic.