From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Transgressional fiction or transgressive fiction is a genre of literature that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who use unusual and/or illicit ways to break free of those confines. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressional fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social and/or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with abnormal psychology and taboo subject matters such as drugs, sex, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime.
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 Lautreamont'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 existentialist 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, Judge John M. Woolsey overturned the federal ban on James Joyce's Ulysses. The book was banned in the U.S. due to what the government claimed was obscenity, specifically the (approximately) 90-page sex scene, depending on the version. Random House Inc. came to the United States District Court to battle the claim of obscenity and be granted permission to print the book in the United States. 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1950s, American publisher Grove Press, under publisher Barney Rosset, began releasing decades-old novels that had been unpublished in most of the English-speaking world for many years due to controversial subject matter.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 literary establishment to weigh the merit of literature that would have once been instantly deemed pornographic (see Miller test).
Grove 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, often homosexual, 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. These trials, all of which Grove Press won, 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. Its author claimed it as a morality tale.
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.
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.
Notable works of transgressional fiction
This is a short list of works of transgressional fiction that are of considerable popularity and/or influence:
- American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
- Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
- The Contortionist's Handbook by Craig Clevenger
- Crash by J.G. Ballard
- The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
- Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland
- Junkie by William S. Burroughs
- Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer
- Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
- Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
- Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
- Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.
- Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland
- Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
- The Lazy Boys by Carl Shuker
- The Toy Collector by James Gunn
- Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
- Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
- The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey