Transgressive Fiction History

But where does the Transgressive Fiction come from?

Thérèse Dreaming, by French-Polish painter Balthus


Many believe that the term Transgressive Fiction is coined in 1993 by Los Angeles Times literary critic Michael Silverblatt. His article "Shock Appeal: Who Are These Writers, and Why Do They Want to Hurt Us?" Silverblatt characterized transgressive writers as those who "deliberately include unpleasant content to provoke the reader" and believes that there are reflections of the imaginative libertinism of Sade in this new trend. However, as a critic, he states his concern about why books featuring violent sex, are widely appreciated "while a figure like Ellis is vilified."


In my idea and as Silverbatt explains, it was Michel Foucault's essay "A Preface to Transgression" (1963) that offers an important methodological origin for the concept of transgression in literature. Foucault uses the Eye by Georges Bataille story as an example of transgressive fiction.


No matter who coined it, Transgressive fiction roots in the literature of the past. Marquis de Sade, Émile Zola, and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels, especially Crime and Punishment, have been described as Transgressive. But it was the 20th Century authors who came to be known as the pioneers of the Transgressive Fiction.


In general transgressive arts share some themes that deal with psychological issues and mental illnesses. We can see such themes in the work of Dadaists, Surrealists, and Fluxus-related artists, such as Carolee Schneemann. In literature, Albert Camus's The Stranger, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground are other examples of transgressive classic literature because of their existentialist style. American beat writers can also be counted as transgressive.


Since the late 1990s, a new group of transgressive artists has emerged that transforms their arts into extra violent acts such as the Canadian artist Rick Gibson by making a pair of earrings out of human fetuses and ate a piece of the human testicle or in China Zhu Yu, who became famous when he posted pictures of himself eating what seemed to be a human fetus or Yang Zhichao for extreme body art.


So, this genre according to coco d'hondt is a "violation at its core: violation of norms, of humanistic enterprise, of the body."


In the history of Transgressive Fiction, what we need to consider is going against the norms of society and the shock value. That is why many works from the past cannot be transgressive according to today's social changes. For example, "The Well of Loneliness" by Radclyffe Hall in 1920s, by a character name Stephen Gordon created the literature's first modern lesbian protagonist. In that period, all copies of the novel destroyed following its 1928 U.S. obscenity trial. Today, Hall's frank perspective in early 20th century towards sexual orientation and sexual identity would not be condemned to that level.


So, it is important to mention that many works that count classic today, considered controversial previously and harshly criticized societal norms. As I mentioned in my previous article about Gustave Flaubert briefly, there are other scandalous writing of authors in the past worth mentioning such as John Cleland "Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" (1749) by Charles Baudelaire "The Flowers of Evil" (1857) , Fyodor Dostoyevsky's existentialist novels "Notes from Underground" (1864) and "Crime and Punishment" (1866), the Marquis de Sade and the Comte de Lautreamont's "Les Chants de Maldoror" (1869), Knut Hamsun's psychologically-driven "Hunger" (1890) and Émile Zola's works about social conditions and bad behavior in "Germinal"(1894).


It was not only 18th and 19th centuries to condem writers for speaking the truth. in 20th century which was the dominant period for transgressive movement, many authors went through trials and being banned. On 6 December 1933, Judge John M. Woolsey overturned the federal ban on James Joyce's "Ulysses" and this book was banned because the government believed that it was obscenity. Other examples, D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (1928), Radclyffe Hall's "The Well of Loneliness" (1928), Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" (1934), "Howl and Other Poems" (1955) by Allen Ginsberg.


After the 50s, banning books because of graphic explanation of reality didn't stop. "Last Exit to Brooklyn" by Hubert Selby Jr.

was published in 1964. It is a dark collection of six shockingly contemporary short stories of murder, gang rape, and poverty. This book spent four years in the British court system before it was finally declared not to be obscene in 1968. More recent, I can mention of "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy published in 1996. She earned her an obscenity trial in 1997 in India's Supreme Court as the government claimed that the book occasional sex scenes corrupted public morals.


Let me tell you, it is still an ongoing matter of fighting against norms for many transgressive fictions or even the ones that include slight aspects of such genre. Penguin Publication website in an article named "A surprising list of recently banned books" list a great example of recently banned books. Such as Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002), Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (2007), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2009), Beartown by Fredrik Backman (2016), China Dream by Ma Jian (2018).


Well, it seems that our society is becoming more sensitive toward anything that can offend anyone by any mean. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885) that once was a book to be read in most of the schools around the world, in 2019, Two New Jersey lawmakers introduced a non-binding resolution calling on school districts in the state to remove novel from their curricula.

Because they believe that this novel highlights a racial slur and its depictions of racist attitudes can cause students to feel upset, marginalized. Or the case of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960), a school board in Ontario, Canada told teachers to stop teaching it because it is "violent and oppressive" to black students and its trope of a "white savior" makes its black characters seem "less than human".


I don't agree with any type of racism but I believe our generation is becoming more sensitive toward everything. Such trials reminds me of the great Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang who buried 460 scholars alive in 213 BC, before burning all the books in his kingdom so he could control how history would remember his reign. Is it what we will redo over and over again?


Fun Fact:

Did you know that Thérèse Dreaming by French-Polish painter Balthus painted on 1938 counted as a a controversial painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has caused quite the stir in late 2017s, with more than 11,000 petitioning to have it removed from public view? The work was expressed as suggestive as showing a young girl daydreaming while her underwear is exposed. Even the cat lapping up a bowl of milk besides her was believed to be another potential layer of oblique remark.

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