What is Transgressive Fiction and Dirty Realism?
Updated: Mar 29
What the hell is transgressive fiction?
That is the question ... everywhere.
It's a complicated question because there are only so many ways to go about answering this and more often than not the description in my head comes out of my mouth in a sort of verbal chicken scratch.
I could give a whole history lesson on Transgressive Fiction and Dirty Realism. I could tell you that one of the earliest examples of Transgressive Fiction would be Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1866 novel Crime and Punishment. I could even tell you how one of the gods of Dirty Realism is none other than Charles Bukowski.
Hell, I could even pull out a dictionary and go that route:
Transgressive Fiction is in relating to fiction, cinematography, or art in which orthodox cultural, moral, and artistic boundaries are challenged by the representation of unconventional behavior and the use of experimental forms.
There is no dictionary definition for Dirty Realism. I checked.
It's realism with a splash of controversial or uncomfortable (dirty) themes, scenes, dialogue, etc.
But I am not going to do either. Not entirely at least.
Transgressive Fiction is dominated by the fiction realm whereas dirty realism tends to lean towards the poetry scale. However, neither are confined by either prose or poetry.
Modern cult favorites such as American Psycho, Fight Club, and A Clockwork Orange are all within the realm of these gritty satiric genres.
Authors Charles Bukowski, Chuck Palahniuk, Raymond Carver, Franz Kafka, Tobias Wolff, and Bret Easton Ellis all fall into these genres.
(Personally, I feel like there are a ton of authors that fit the bill as far as definitions go, but we will get to that in a later post.)
In this case, any piece of writing or any author that has challenged societal norms in a way that was unorthodox can be labeled as transgressive fiction or dirty realism. Fiction, semi-fiction, or poetry that portrays the stories to the reader as grotesquely honest, uncomfortable, or just plain dirty ... but still realistic.
When characters fuck up with flair, now that's when it becomes great literature.
*cue the dictionary, or Google for that matter*
Transgressive fiction is a genre of literature which focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways.
Dirty realism is a term coined by Bill Buford of Granta magazine to define a North American literary movement. Writers in this sub-category of realism are said to depict the seamier or more mundane aspects of ordinary life in spare, unadorned language.
When in doubt, Wiki it.
Now for my own personalized definition of these genres *cracks knuckles*
Transgressive fiction and dirty realism often go hand in hand. Either can be defined as any piece of writing that uses illicit and/or taboo themes in order to voice raw, gritty, and often uncomfortable messages. The popularity of this genre often relies on the shock value that its themes create.
The storytelling is unorthodox and something about it is fucked up.
So fucked up we can't look away.
That's what makes it the most compelling kind of literature out there.
I am constantly saying that everyone loves a good trainwreck.
These genres are full of them.
Why do we want to read about trainwrecks?
Because they are dynamic, they are complicated, and they are messy. They are interesting and you almost get a more in depth view into the characters or people.
It relies on the fact that it is uncensored. There is nothing more relatable or enthralling as a story that doesn't censor itself or really give a fuck if everyone approves of it or not.
It's a maverick genre.
At the very least we all adore a great story about an anti hero who says what we are all thinking but that not many of us will ever admit.
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.