One of the ideas that keeps cropping up on several literary sites I follow is that of the “transgressive.” Goodreads defines transgressive fiction as “Books that contain depictions of behavior that violates socially acceptable norms, often involving taboo subject matters such as drug use, violence, incest, crime.” At Goodreads “Best Transgressive Fiction” site, these works are the top 5 in transgressive fiction:
- Chuck Palahniuk, The Fight Club.
- Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
- Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
- George Orwell, 1984
- J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
One of the others on the list (and hence the image above) was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I understand includes significant episodes of rape (male and female) and violence.
I have to admit that, apart from 1984 I’ve not read anything of these five. In the extended list are titles like Crime and Punishment, The Stranger, and Slaughterhouse Five. This suggests a few things about the attraction of such works. One is the acknowledged fact among writers that an evil character generally is far more interesting, and interesting to write, than a good one. Another is that the transgressive often seems to be acting against oppressive social norms or controlling circumstances. In 1984 the transgressive is an attempt to throw off the yoke of oppressive tyranny.
I also suspect that it may sometimes be attractive to explore what it is like to do things we don’t have the courage to do, or would never think of, except in our imaginations. We often wonder why a sociopath, or psychopath does what s/he does.
What troubles me is what seems to me a growing preference for the transgressive over the virtuous, in fiction, and perhaps in life. In matters of sexuality, it seems that the effort is to extend the “normative” to whatever one wants to do, with even consent optional. I understand this is a statement against hetero-sexist hegemony. Yet whether we consider sexuality, violence, substance use and abuse, or criminal acts, one has to ask whether the celebration of crossing boundaries is always a good thing. Are there any reasons for norms beside an exertion of power by a dominant group?
This is something I’m wondering about. I’m not sure I want to say more because I suspect there is much I don’t understand. But I’ve often written about “the good, the true, and the beautiful” and I wonder if making the transgressive to be a kind of good, or truth, or beauty is to destroy the meaning of goodness, truth, and beauty.