But is it Transgressive? The Checklist
Updated: Mar 29
Even after we know what Transgressive Fiction is we can still get caught up on what makes a piece of literature transgressive enough to be considered transgressive fiction. How controversial? Who do the characters need to be? Is this book or that book transgressive? How do we know?
Transgressive Fiction can be tricky at times and unless the book is directly listed as transgressive fiction it can be difficult to know.
This is my nine point checklist of making the process easier to decipher whether or not a piece of writing is truly transgressive fiction.
1. It's Written by a Man
Transgressive Fiction tends to lean on the masculine side of things and more often than not when we discuss writers of the genre it's mostly populated by men.
Not to say there aren't female writers in transgressive fiction. Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, Lauren Sapala, Tanya Thompson, and myself are just a few women in the genre to mention. But when we break down the numbers, for every one woman writing Transgressive Fiction there are probably at least five male writers to match.
2. It's Illicit, Taboo, or Controversial
It almost goes without saying but it is still worth putting out there.
Transgressive Fiction is transgressive because in some way or another it is transgressive.
When a work of fiction has elements that are taboo, illicit, or even controversial it usually becomes transgressive fiction regardless if that was the intention.
What would be illicit?
Illicit is something 'forbidden by law, rules, or custom.' Illegal drugs, prostitution, murder, and assault are just a few examples that apply to the law.
When something is illicit because of custom it could be anything from the sexual elements to how many curse words are frequented in the writing.
You'll often find in fiction that a book won't get called illicit unless it does something that I've mentioned in an explicit manner.
Just because someone in the book gets murdered or does drugs doesn't immediately make it transgressive. It becomes transgressive once some level of detail or focus is applied to it.
What would be taboo?
What makes something taboo is a little complicated because it has to be taboo for the time period the book is being written. Deciphering whether or not an element of a story or the whole story is taboo requires that you look at that and then also the taboo element itself.
One of the most consistent of them, sex is often taboo but throughout the years the way that it is taboo changes.
John Donne's poem To His Mistress Going to Bed is a great example of sex as being taboo because the poem was written around the mid 17th century and it's about a woman stripping off her clothes before doing the deed. Transgressive for the time period because that would have been considered smut for the time. However, if the poem has been written the same way in 2020 it wouldn't necessarily be transgressive.
Sex isn't the only thing that can be taboo or has ever been.
Drugs and alcohol continue to be taboo but again, the way that they are changes.
Just a few years ago marajuana was still an extremely taboo subject. Today it could still be in some circles but not like it used to be -- thanks to the world jumping on the health benefit train it has become much less taboo than it used to be.
Today hard drugs continue to be taboo. A story about a herion addict is much more transgressive than someone who smokes the occasional joint.
There's plenty of things that can be taboo it just takes a little bit of time to look at the time period that took place when it was written. That applies to books that didn't come out long ago either. What's the no-no's of the time, what are the subjects people stray away from, what is not acceptable by society? Those are the questions that you'll want to ask yourself.
What would be controversial?
Anything can become controversial as soon as it offends a group of people and/or can spark a debate in some way. Controversy is another one that comes and goes with the times just like whether or not something can be taboo. What was controversial a few years ago or a century ago could not necessarily be today.
Marquis De Sade is a well enough example of controversy.
He was a transgressive writer in the later 18th century who became a massive icon of transgressive literature. He was infamous for his libertine sexuality and depiction of sexual fantasies that often involved violence -- both of which involved women and children in his works. In his real life he had multiple instances of sexual crimes against women, children, and young men. Not to mention the words sadist and sadism are literally derived from his name.
I live for controversy but this is one of those rare instances where I draw the line.
Pedophilia culture isn't up for debate, it's fucking disgusting and the fact that it was also true to his personal life is worse.
See? I have sparked a debate and now that equals controversy, my friends.
In my experience, there are only two ways to find out if a book is truly controversial today.
- Find a group of diverse reader folk and blackmail them into reading the book to tell you their thoughts. If most, if not all, of the readers come back to you with a strong heated opinion then BAM ... it's probably the controversy that made them heated, not the blackmail.
- Or look up book reviews, critic reviews, or get into social media discussions about the book. You'll get the idea fairly quickly if it is controversial or not.
3. You Refrain From Recommending it to just anyone.
And by anyone I do mean the friends and family members who would likely throw you an uncomfortable intervention because you recommended to your father that he should read Chuck Palahniuk's Choke.
You recommended it because you completely forgot the down and dirty sex scene in the first few pages and now you feel shame for somehow traumatizing your father because YOU (his daughter) being the one to recommend the book to him.
Good thing my father didn't take my reading recommendation too seriously that week because he never read it. I wasn't ready for that conversation.
Same kind of instance can apply to anyone.
If you wouldn't recommend that your mom, your father, your grandparent, or misunderstanding friend read a certain book, it's probably for good reason ... because it is transgressive fiction.
4. It's Uncomfortably Honest ... almost too honest.
Too much information comes into play a lot in transgressive fiction and I welcome it with open arms for the most part.
Transgressive Fiction doesn't skimp out on nasty or uncomfortable details. What you see is what you get.
At times transgressive fiction can feel almost intrusive as if you're reading the author's journal and you weren't meant to read that part.
But you were. You were meant to read it, that's why it made past the editing phases.
Transgressive Fiction often puts into words what most of us are thinking but will not say aloud or what we do but won't openly admit or discuss. It's raw and honest and that's what makes the genre so amazing. But greatness comes at a cost and sometimes a page will make the reader nervous laugh or throw up a little in their mouth.
We love the genre nonetheless.
5. Existentialism and/or Nihilism
Transgressive Fiction is about as realistic to real life as you are going to get. With that, comes in philosophy. Whether or not a piece of transgressive fiction is blatantly trying to philosophical is irrelevant ... in some way or another transgressive fiction has a way of looking into existentialism, nihilism, or both.
Nihilism, a good as place as any to start.
Nihilism is the belief that nothing matters.
It's pessimistic, negative, but it has a point when you are looking at the bigger picture: we all die so what is the point?
One of the biggest nihilists that we use as an example is Nietzsche, who ironically enough was not a nihilist at all but rather wrote about the dangers of this philosophy.
When nihilism shows up it could appear in any of these three ways:
Moral Nihilism - The argument that moral facts cannot exist ... i.e. killing someone is neither right or wrong, having an affair is neither right nor wrong, and so forth.
Metaphysical Nihilism - The argument that we cannot have spiritual facts ... fun example, if we didn't live in reality at all and that all of this is just an elaborate computer simulation.
Existential Nihilism - The theory that life does not have meaning and nothing matters or has value.
Last but not least, Existentialism.
If Nietzsche wasn't a nihilist then what was he? An existentialist.
Although it may or may not take it as far as an existential crisis, the pool of existential questions and emotions are no stranger to transgressive fiction.
Existentialism focuses on questions that dispute nihilism's theories.
What is the point of life or existence if nothing matters?
What is the purpose of all of this?
How do we cope with the fact that we are all going to inevitably die?
In short, existential understands that life and existence matters to some degree but how and why are the answers it strives to find.
What it has to do with transgressive fiction
It's supposed to sort of mind fuck you a little bit or to at least give more thought after the last page.
No one reads Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and not think about how incredibly fascist America is.
The same thing applies to all other transgressive fiction authors, they all have something profound to show the reader and they do it in a simple way. They don't jump on top of a soap box to preach, instead they show you the story and expect you to take something away from it or an experience. It will stick with the reader even after the story is over.
Either life, existence, what have you matters or it doesn't ... but it compels you to find the answer yourself, transgressive fiction merely poses the question.
G.C. McKay, a fellow transgressive author, says it perfectly here.
They're not airplane books that you just pick up, piss through, and then throw away and never think about again. They're books that really touch and affect you in ways that you probably can't really expect. G.C. McKay
Transgressive Fiction has mastered the art of creating stories that border on the philosophical with
Existentialism and Nihilism as its dominant muses.
6. A Dose of Shock Value
It probably isn't transgressive fiction if it doesn't have some level of shock value splashed in there ... or completely drowning in it.
Shock value is exactly what it sounds like, to provoke a reaction of sharp disgust, shock, anger, fear, or similar negative emotions. Although, I somewhat disagree with the negative emotions part. Nobody said Wikipedia definitions were perfect.
Shock value doesn't have to negative, it can be positive Shock value is just executing something in a way that demands an immediate reaction from someone experiencing it. In this case, that someone would be the reader.
7. It Has Been Banned, Challenged, or still is
I almost don't want to read a book unless it's been banned or challenged at some point. I have a thing for literary rebellion. I have a whole blog post about banned books here.
If a book has been challenged, banned, or very well still is either of those things amongst bookstores or libraries there's a damn good chance that it is transgressive fiction.
If you have noticed, there's something of trend with this lovely genre of ours. It can be offensive, controversial, disturbing, shocking, illicit, taboo, inappropriate ... all of the things that books get banned and challenged for.
It's not the genre's fault, it's just misunderstood.
8. It's Misunderstood
Welcome to the Transgressive Fiction Therapy portion of our post today. Feel free to grab a box of tissues and take some time to understand one of the most misunderstood genres of literature.
Transgressive Fiction gets a bad rep -- what with all of the illicit and explicit content, how shame goes straight out of the window, and the consistent controversy.
Transgressive Fiction has a tendency to get written off as smut and unnecessarily vulgar when if the people who oppose the genre the most could open up their eyes they would see what transgressive fiction is really all about ...
I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror. J.G. Ballard
With being unfortunately misunderstood, the transgressive fiction genre also has become seriously underrated. Since people write the genre off right away some of the best writing has been cast aside to never see the light, to be forgotten about, or to never get the recognition it truly deserves.
If you have a particular book that you are holding in your hands and asking yourself if it is transgressive fiction and find yourself thinking
I don't know why everyone has something bad to say about this because it's one of the best I've ever read.
It's more than likely transgressive fiction.
9. It's A Cult Favorite
Contradictory to my last checkmark, most cult favorites in the world are actually transgressive fiction.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess , Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson ... there are too damn many to count.
I'll bet that if you can name a cult favorite that has yet to over stay its welcome it's almost a guarantee that it is transgressive fiction.
If you have decided to dive in headfirst into the world of transgressive fiction and needed some help figuring out whether or not a book or poem is a part of the genre I hope that this post was helpful to you.
About the Author
Natalie Nider is the author of her upcoming short story collection
For My Amusement and creator of
She has turned her love of Transgressive Fiction and Dirty Realism into a passion.
She lives in Pennsylvania with her family where she can often be found writing or staring into an eggshell wall thinking about it.