The Truth in Transgressive Fiction
Updated: Mar 29
Transgressive Fiction is notorious for creating literature from exploiting illicit and taboo aspects of society. Dirty Realism is no different. Call it shock value, call it a flair for the dramatic. I call it aggressive realism. Transgressive Fiction has the ability to tell the truth while under the guise of fiction.
I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror. J.G. Ballard
In a nutshell, J.G. Ballard exposed one of the biggest motivations of Transgressive Fiction: to take people's own fucked up narratives and give it back to them. In order to do this, there must be more truth in transgressive fiction than people realize.
The phrase art imitates life could not be more true for this particular genre of literature.
Transgressive fiction borders on realism in the ways that it reflects life.
The term fiction does not mean that it is entirely untrue.
Fiction, by definition, means literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.
Just because the story or characters are imaginary does not mean that they are not rooted in truth.
Of course, the same can be said for many genres but especially in transgressive fiction because of its underlying realism despite fictional characteristics.
Simply put, there is truth in fiction. There is no question about that but what we should be asking is what kind of truth? This varies story to story.
Explicit Truth VS Conceptual Truth
When we talk about the truth in fiction we have to understand that there are two different kinds of truths:
First, true in the way that parts of it actually happened.
Second, true because the ideas or themes are grounded in reality no matter how fictitious the story is.
I call these two types of truths explicit truth and conceptual truth.
Explicit Truth is straight-forward.
Charles Bukowski is a great example of this because in much of his writing he talks about his own experiences and the experiences of those around him. The unambiguity in his work is why his writing can be considered explicit truth.
In Bukowski's poem My Father a reader can experience this,
my father always said "early to
early to rise makes a man healthy,
it was lights out at 8 p.m. in our
and we were up at dawn to the
coffee, frying bacon and
my father followed this general
for a lifetime and died young,
and, I think, not too
taking note, I rejected his advice
became, for me, late to bed and
now, I'm not saying that I've
the world but I've avoided
numberless early traffic jams,
and have met some strange,
one of whom
myself--someone my father
His father is real, the memories of his father are real, and what he took away from his father is real.
My first book, Between the Shadow and Lo, is a memoir in the guise of fiction, all about my crazy alcoholic years in Seattle.
Conceptual truth is a tad more complicated.
In short, the concepts of the story or certain elements are true while the rest of it is imaginary.
In Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club he uses fascism and capitalism (two very real things) to drive the story. However, Tyler Durden is not a real person.
Fascism and capitalism are the leading concepts of the novels while the people and events are made up.
The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock also contains conceptual truth.
The people and events aren't real but experience of it being a difficult place and the location itself is real. Knockemstiff, Ohio is on a map.
Pollock as been quoted stating in The New York Times,
Knockemstiff had a reputation for being a really rough place.
When I started writing, I took that and cranked it up a few amps.
In The End
The question isn't whether or not Transgressive Fiction contains more truth than fiction.
The genre as a whole relies on reality itself or elements of it to tell a story.
The question is whether not a specific story contains explicit reality or conceptual reality.
This question is what makes the genre so compelling.
Transgressive Fiction as a whole in grounded in reality more than it is in total fiction.
What do you think? Tell me below in the comments.
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.