What Is Transgressive Fiction?
I mean, what am I talking about when I say transgressive fiction? (Seriously.)
I’ve read books that are called ‘transgressive fiction’ for over fifteen years, and as I grew more serious about my own writing, I did some digging to find more writers in this genre and techniques to enhance my own writing. I’ll say that finding information about transgressive fiction is difficult — it’s either virtually nonexistent, or hidden under so many Google pages that it’s hard to actually find it. The most common response I’ve read when a handful of bloggers have answered that question is a definition from Wikipedia and then their own redefinition.
I suppose I’m doing the same thing here, except I’ll leave out the Wikipedia definition because it’s not really important.
I figure though, if I’m going to write a whole blog about this genre — about its authors and books, about writing techniques, about ways to use this genre to change society — we should all understand what the genre is.
How I Got Into Transgressive Fiction
My first introduction to transgressive fiction was in high school. I’d read some Chuck Palahniuk (but that’s probably true for a lot of people). I’m not all that original. It started with Invisible Monsters because a music-obsessed friend of mine had learned that some of Panic! At the Disco’s songs were about this guy’s books and recommended it to everyone he knew after reading it. We haven’t talked in over a decade now and he unfortunately passed away last year, so he doesn’t know how much his recommendation changed the trajectory of my reading and writing life. I fell into a rabbit hole of Chuck’s books after that: Haunted, Fight Club, Lullaby… I fell in love with the weird, raw, and big fuck-you-critiques to society that I found in his writing.
I read somewhere that Chuck’s writing was called transgressive fiction, so that was it for me. That was the genre. Because I’d never read anything quite like his before, I considered anything that was similar- edgy, conversational, and experimental- transgressive after that. Eventually I’d find other books with similar tones or characteristics, but weren’t quite transgressive and would learn that it wasn’t just those things that made up transgressive fiction. So what was?
I finally came to learn what the word transgressive meant (I’ll admit that I wasn’t certain of the word on its own when I was in high school) and I’d realize that plenty of stories had transgression in them, but didn’t read the same way as Fight Club. Were they considered transgressive fiction?
Starting the Research
After reading Coco D’Hont’s book Extreme States: The Evolution of American Transgressive Fiction 1960–2000, I started doing a whole lot of research this year (2023) on transgressive fiction, social change, and a myriad of related topics. D’Hont argues that transgressive fiction reflects society but doesn’t change it. She might be right (particularly if we’re talking about the ‘kind’ of transgressive fiction that Chuck and his contemporaries write), but her claim felt like a challenge. Even if, when I thought about it, Fight Club obviously didn’t change corporate America or manhood, I guess I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted to think that writing could create movements and impact change.
Anyway, this prompted a deep dive into research to define the topic, connect things, and create a formula more or less, that will simplify writing transgressive fiction that actually creates social change. This blog will, at times, follow some of this research. In the meantime, here’s the beginning of that research in defining transgressive fiction.
Defining Transgressive Fiction
In D’Hont’s book, she refers to what Palahniuk, a face of ‘transgressive fiction’, has said about the genre he’s so famous for. D’Hont says, “He defined transgressive fiction as fiction “in which characters misbehave and act badly […] commit crimes or pranks as a way of either feeling alive, or […] as political acts of civil disobedience”, characterizing his own oeuvre as fiction that uses antisocial behavior to interrogate sociopolitical norms” (p1). Palahniuk has also said that this type of writing was no longer easily accepted or welcomed after 9/11 in 2001.
That being said, the base of my research has revolved around Coco D’Hont’s (2020) definition. She understands the genre as “A historically evolving type of fiction that takes on a specific form and level of importance during specific historical periods, changing along with the extra-textual sociopolitical shifts it explores” (p. 2). She argues that transgressive fiction isn’t just text that shocks or has socially unacceptable behavior, but that it develops social ideologies, and crosses between boundaries. Her view, however, still considers transgressive texts as simply reflecting society. D’Hont thinks it has the “potential to disrupt seemingly stable ideas, norms and conventions” (p. 5) but that it has “an unclear relationship to social activism” (p. 4). These two definitions seem to contradict each other.
D’Hont ends up expanding on five books she considers transgressive, one being Toni Morrison’s Beloved. During her analysis, D’Hont acknowledges Morrison’s thoughts on transgressive fiction: “Morrison herself effectively denounces any conceptualization of transgressive fiction as marginal or countercultural: her work and ideas have been shaped by public debate and continue to shape this debate in return… In Morrison’s case, transgressive fiction involves a long hard look at the forces that control its extra-textual society instead of a fictional move away from the limits those forces constitute” (p81).
To summarize these three understandings:
Palahniuk: Fiction that has characters who misbehave and commit crimes as political acts of civil disobedience.
D’Hont: Fiction that evolves and represents the sociopolitical shifts it explores.
Morrison: Fiction that analyzes the limits of the world.
While all of these definitions involve limits in some way, they still vary from each other. So I’ll look at a few more definitions…
The word transgression itself is defined as “An act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct; an offense.” Blogger Mckay, in his own post that works to define transgressive fiction, talks about how even the Bible shows transgression, giving an example of Eve eating the apple when told not to.
I would never read the Bible and fall in love with it in the way that I have other books more directly genre-d as transgressive fiction though. Why? What’s different?
Mckay also says, “The proclivity for violence and illicit behaviour by the protagonists of Transgressive Fiction are not simply destruction for destruction’s sake, but out of a deep yearning to feel emotion, be it good or bad, and re-connect with a part of humanity that once ostracised them in the first place” and I guess that’s how I’ve always felt about it too.
About a decade into me reading his work, Chuck Palahniuk was still writing. The more I read, the more it felt like his stories were overtly shocking for shock’s sake… when part of the reason I fell in love with his beginning novels were because of the deep critiques they made about society and its ills. I was no longer interested in the stories when they just felt like a show.
So Here’s My Definition
I’ve spent much time reading other people’s definitions of transgressive fiction, reading books labeled as such, and reading fiction books that had transgression in them that I’ve developed my own understanding of the genre transgressive fiction and use this understanding as I continue to write it and write about it.
I agree with Palahniuk when he talks about characters misbehaving and committing crimes as political acts of civil disobedience. I agree with Mckay when he says that characters’ illicit behaviors are to feel understood or achieve a greater social purpose. I agree with D’Hont in that through those actions, it explores the stuff going on in society, and I agree with Morrison that through the storytelling’s exploration, the author analyzes the world’s limits. I think all of this is true and combined, makes a more comprehensive definition. I don’t think that’s it though. I think that all of those things, combined with writing techniques and contemporary trademarks (like unreliable narrators with conversational/dialectical tones, for example), are what make the stories that are most widely recognized as transgressive fiction earn that label. They criticize, feel raw, and experiment. They are multi-layered and often times jump around. That’s how we get stories like Fight Club, American Psycho, and Monkey Wrench Gang.
I’ll say that it feels like transgressive fiction was a name someone just gave his or her own writing style and it kind of stuck as others decided they wrote similar stuff, but it never rose to the level of official genre that people recognize like romance, horror, or suspense. Most people don’t know what I’m talking about when I tell them my favorite genre is transgressive fiction. I also think an English and Creative Writing professor of mine was misled when I told her that too. She noted that many stories have transgression, and the thing is — they do. But it’s not just about that, right? There are so many stories that have transgression but also fall under other genres. Mckay notes this too when he says that it often hides under bigger genres, but I think the books that get identified as transgressive fiction are as such because there isn’t really another genre they can fall under. While many stories include transgression (transgression often aligns well with conflict stories need, after all), what is referred to as transgressive fiction seems to be so much transgression and criticism, that that’s the whole point of the book, that it’s a genre in and of itself. It stands on its own.
With this understanding, my blog explores transgressive topics, creative writing techniques, examples of transgressive fiction, and how to use contemporary transgressive fiction for social change on the topics us writers are criticizing.
Join me on this journey of the real, raw, and wretched.