• Natalie Nider

Is it Transgressive or Unconscionable?

Those who chose to write transgressive fiction will often find readers, critics, and other writers dissecting their work in great depth. It's because transgressive fiction tends to deal with unconventional ideas or especially controversial subjects ... thus having a tendency to rub some people the wrong way and forcing people to delve deeper.

Usually, the pattern goes something like this:

There's an ethical dilemma in the written work. This ethical dilemma is received by the reader and they can't seem to shake the feeling that whatever it is has just crossed the line between transgressive and stumbled into unconscionable. Hopefully, this said reader then takes it upon themselves to look into the author to determine whether or not the author actually approves of the unethical behavior that they wrote about.

I use the word hopefully because most of the time people just make the assumption that the writer agrees with the perceived amoral things that they've written and then the author never gets a chance to explain that just because they wrote about it, doesn't mean that they think that it is right.

Transgressive fiction is a realistic genre. However extreme that may get pushed, transgressive fiction deals with things that have happened, are happening, or could happen realistically. We can't help it that life has plenty of fucked up inspiration to draw from. That's what we do.

But what I want to talk about today is that process that readers *should* do with transgressive fiction when they come into a situation where what they're reading makes their skin crawl because it's a drastic ethical issue that demands their attention -- before they just assume the author believes what they're writing is morally okay.

Yes. We write transgressive fiction and our genre lives in the gray area of ethical debates. But there is a line between transgressive and unconscionable.

Is the writer writing about [this thing] for its realistic value ... because it does happen, and transgressive fiction deals with realism?

Or is the writer writing about [this thing] because they're transferring a sick fantasy to paper? For the lack of a better term, jerking off on a page. Or are they writing about [this thing] because they aim to praise or dismiss this awful thing?

For the sake of this discussion, to clarify ... the drastic ethical issues I am using as examples for this include sexual assault, murder, pedophilia or anything that is within that level of extreme. This post is in no way to say that you cannot write about these things but that there's a difference between writing it for it to be transgressive/realistic and writing it to be a part of the problem.

Transgressive VS Unconscionable

As always, transgressive can be defined as anything that breaks societal norms, expresses unorthodox ideas, or -- in the words of J.G. Ballard,

"I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror."

Transgressive Fiction is generally uneasy or uncomfortable in the subjects that get a spotlight. That's the point.

But when I say unconscionable, I don't mean the run-of-the-mill controversies.

For context, unconscionable means: not right or reasonable, unreasonably excessive.

Writing a rape scene is transgressive so long as it doesn't start to give the impression that the author is approving of rape culture or projecting a fantasy on the reader. It's not unconscionable so long as the author doesn't create a fictional manifesto sympathizing with a rapist, how the victim deserved it, or start giving the feeling that they would like to rape someone.

That becomes unconscionable and not transgressive because now there is an entirely different undertone. An undertone that is no longer about shedding a light on fucked up shit that happens in life. Instead, it's an undertone that says: Hey, I'm okay with this. There's nothing wrong with this picture. This asshole is in the right and you, the reader, should agree with me. I might even want to do this myself.

As for the authors projecting a sick personal fantasy on the reader through fiction, that's an entirely different problem that doesn't deserve an outlet in any form.

Now, this doesn't mean that we need to stop writing about rape, how it happens, or even about both perspectives. It does need to be discussed. It's important that people understand that men, women, children are raped every day and that their abusers are evil people that deserve nothing less than castration. Transgressive Fiction is the glorious genre that it is because it is one of the few if only, genres that really show the horrors of reality without sugar-coating it.

Rape, pedophilia, murder ... these are some of the most prominent subjects that have a plethora of ethical issues attached to them if handled without care.

It's transgressive when it's done right. It's unconscionable when there's an attempt being made to justify it.

Figuring It Out

The first step in figuring out the author's intentions on whether or not they are shooting for transgressive or inadvertently being unconscionable is to check with yourself. You read the damn story, after all. What was the impression that it gave you, whether it be correct or wrong?

Did it bother you because it's a grotesque subject and it just made you uneasy because it's a horrendous thing that should demand a reaction from you?

Or did it cross into the barrier where it's not just that it's a bothersome subject but that it feels as though the author has some kind of agreeable attitude toward the event/premise?

And what I mean by that is, whether the story is written in first or third person, does the author manage to communicate that [this thing] is justifiable.

The character justifying their actions is a given. That's how real people operate. But does the author justify the characters' actions?

Now, of course, we cannot go by feeling alone. We can't start pointing fingers at authors because something in their stories made us feel some type of way. Assumptions don't do anyone any good and it doesn't get any answers either.

This is what I propose after the conversation with yourself about how you feel the story was intended:

Reach out to the author and ask respectfully.


Often times the author will not have a problem opening up the dialogue on the subject and telling you exactly how they feel about it. They did write it, after all. I can almost guarantee you that they'd talk about it with someone who had read their work and had questions.

Ask them if they agree with the ethics of what they've written, why or why not, and go from there. Either they're perfectly sane and tell you that of course I don't want to do [this] to someone or want to justify someone else doing that. Or ... maybe you shouldn't give them any more money or time. Either way, you'll have an answer and will have had a conversation furthering the subject that maybe inspires you to write about it in a transgressive manner yourself.

Final Thoughts

I adore transgressive fiction, everything about it. It's raw, it pulls no punches, and most importantly ... it doesn't lie to the reader. That's not to say that transgressive fiction doesn't have its moments. Nothing is perfect.

I believe that it's important for both writers and readers alike to understand the difference between transgressive and unconscionable. Readers need to understand the difference so that they can make educated opinions on someone's work however gritty it may be before making assumptions. Readers also need to know the difference between the two because they're inevitably going to run into both. Writers need to understand the difference because it literally makes all of the difference as to whether or not they are writing for realism or if they are writing for fantasy.

*** I would like to know your thoughts on the matter. Reach out to me in the comments or via social media. ***

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