Appealing ‘Shock Value’ of transgression literature | | Chuck Palahniuk (on transgressive fiction)1 “The most successful books now serve us as sedatives, confirming the values and worldviews their readers already hold. They’re the books we read as sleeping pills at bedtime. When was the last book banned? Oh, how I miss the great book bonfires of my Christian youth! That’s when books had some power! When they had to be burned like witches. ” In all its ambiguity, transgressive fiction is a genre of selective taste.
This sub genre within the world of contemporary popular fiction was first identified or rather labelled in 1993 by the critic Michael Silverblatt2, in an essay in the Los Angeles Times. He defined it 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 literature, thus, presents a protagonist who breaks all the rules of social normalcy. The taboo subject matter of this genre confronts the reader with the loathsome, sometimes violent, diseased and debauched members of their social milieu. Transgression, of course, operates in many domains and on many levels beyond the definition prescribed by Silverblatt. In literary studies, texts that deploy formal and linguistic disruptions familiar to readers of avant-garde fiction might be said to be transgressive.
Robert R. Wilson, for example, exclusively emphasizes structural and linguistic elements such as subversion of plot expectations, exploratory treatment of literary conventions, and generative word play in defining a certain category of literary transgression, venturing that transgression can even become perhaps, indeed, it must become the criterion by which to distinguish postmodern (and modern) literature from its precursors.
Critic James Gardner3 has defined this other class of transgressive fiction as a literature of self-defined immorality, anguish, and degradation [that] is constantly waxing and waning in our culture. This variety of transgressive literature fixates on graphic scenes of child molestation, sodomy, and murder. Add sexual torture, necrophilia, and extravagant, even gratuitous violence to Gardner’s short list and still one has not fully accounted for the presence of the transgressive in a sizeable body of serious contemporary literature.
Before this branch of literature was labelled as “transgressive” in the 1990s, to create a sub-genre within the world of contemporary fiction, predecessors such as William S. Burroughs with his prolific novel Naked Lunch sparked much controversy in the late 1950’s and even faced obscenity charges due to their graphic and explicit nature with no holds barred. Authors like Burroughs, Anthony Burgess and Hunter S.
Thompson birthed a revolution in creative writing with a cold disposition to social norms. The main character of Naked Lunch was an unusual narrator for the time, with the first-person narrative of anti-hero William Lee, a junkie evading the police in search of his next fix all the while getting involved in casual and immoral sex acts along with vapid hallucinations, leading the reader into moral ambiguity and chaos.
The book faced much censorship and was banned from many bookstores and libraries for its “obscene” content. Thompson came along later with a similar, semi-autobiographical novel in the sixties entitled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in which the characters experience acid trips and other events similar in content to Naked Lunch, though maybe more comprehensible. That being said, transgressive fiction is certainly not a twentieth century contemporary phenomenon.
The first piece of transgressive literature is probably Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, a tale of the sexual exploitation and slaughter of teenagers, written from his cell in the Bastille in 1785. De Sade’s book detailed something as perverted as coprophagia along with incest, sacrilege and sodomy long before any of these things manifested themselves in common cognition. De Sade’s books were banned more than once. J. D.
Salinger’s 1951 coming-of-age novel Catcher in the Rye was probably the first sign of what was to become of modern fiction, of all of the pieces produced in Salinger’s time, following the urban escapades of notoriously angst-consumed teenager Holden Caulfield, a novel that would eventually lead to a more controversial, updated version about 80’s youth called Less Than Zero, written by a nineteen-year-old Bret Easton Ellis. Another worthy mention would be
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, going into the fascinating psychological mess of an obsessed pedophile. The protagonist in this genre is typically seen as a victim of the society the novel attacks, with the character being himself both morally and emotionally depraved typically, and thus books belonging in this genre are typically written in the first-person perspective to let the reader see the mind of the character in his or her true colours.
Often casually indulging in drugs and mindless sex and violence, the protagonists usually have some moral conscience hidden beneath the viciousness made obvious to the reader, and will often carry the plot along attempting to make some amends for their actions or improve upon the world they live in through often socially unacceptable means.
A prime example of this would be in Chuck Palahniuk’s satire of American consumerism, Fight Club, in which the protagonist and narrator becomes so anti-American toward the country’s consumerist ways that he becomes involved in an underground terrorist organization dedicated to revolutionizing America by destroying credit card companies. Satire is a also common companion of transgressive fiction. Commenting on society is usually accompanied by black humour and witty dialogue in an attempt to get the social message across to the reader and expose the ridiculousness of the world.
American Psycho, the dark satirical novel by Bret Easton Ellis explores the self-absorbed materialism of the typical Wall Street yuppie lifestyle while simultaneously exposing narcissistic protagonist Patrick Bateman’s inner psychopathic rebellion through his murderous ways both subtly hidden from and ignored by his colleagues. Patrick will often make references to his truly monstrous rage by bringing up darkly humorous opinions or statements regarding his true feelings in conversations.
At one point he is asked what his job entails by a woman in a nightclub and in all deviant honesty answers, “Oh, murders and executions mostly”, but due to her refusal to believe this is what he says, the girl implies she heard him say “mergers and acquisitions”. Thus the behaviour of Bateman’s true nature goes unnoticed by the society he both loathes and revels in. And between his heinous sexual acts and ruthless murders, ironic chapters are devoted to Bateman’s critical opinions and expressed love for the discographies of popular 80’s musicians such as Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News.
Transgressive fiction of course deals with graphic and sometimes painstakingly detailed depictions of violence and sex, usually in an attempt to show what society can do to the minds of these characters. The authors usually are targeted as people who simply indulge in shock value, but most, if not all, insist that the vivid descriptions and violent scenes are there for social and often political reasons.
In order to target the society effectively, according to the transgressive writer, the reader is required to see what the society is like in the worst way possible, almost as a wake-up call. The question is, why would the public even opt for a kind of literature that can turn so grotesque? One answer to this is the obvious shock value, but apart from that, is the fact that people are intrigued and scared by reading what all they could be capable of, if they submitted to the animal inside of them and did what society condemns.
Readers don’t want gritty, mundane realism anymore. It’s all about escapism. Transgressive fiction deals with the problems most of the reading public is eager to avoid. Not only could the transgressive be a potent agent of revolutionary change, its detection could also be harnessed as a powerful lens by which to detect the hegemonic interests of the dominant culture. One should rather quickly come to realize that study of the transgressive might yield illuminating perspectives indeed, and it would seem an appropriate focus of literary inquiry.
As more generations have come into existence since the birth of the genre, transgressive stories have found increasing acceptance into an increasingly open society. With more desensitized youths and the events of terrorism and war in a post-9/11 world, the genre has much to be explored in revealing the lives of many disaffected modern individuals and their moral crises in a post-Empire America. And with its rise in popularity at the end of the 20th century, transgressive fiction provides even further opportunity for the budding writers of today.
It just needs to be reawakened. Works Cited Schuessler, Jennifer. Personal Interview. 26 September 2011. Silverblatt, Micheal. “SHOCK APPEAL / Who Are These Writers, and Why Do They Want to Hurt Us? The New Fiction of Transgression” Los Angeles Times. 1 Aug 1993. Gardner, James. “Transgressive Fiction. ” National Review (17 June 1996): 54-6. “This Transgressive World”. Graves, Ben. HubPages. 8 May 2011. Web. 7 Apr 2013.