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.


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