Transgressive Popular Fiction

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Appealing ‘Shock Value’ of transgression literature

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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...
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