Every time I tell someone I write transgressive fiction the first question I get is, “What’s transgressive fiction?” If we’re talking in person, I explain it as best I can (usually not very well). But if we’re emailing I send them the definition cut and pasted from Wikipedia:
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.
Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressive fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social, or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with taboo subject matters such as drugs, sexual activity, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime.
That definition is actually a very good one. It definitely covers all the bases. However, every time I send it to someone to explain the kind of fiction I write, I feel weird.
No, I don’t write about incest and pedophilia. But I DO write about all the other stuff. And it doesn’t seem to matter if I write memoir or actual fiction, it all comes out the same. If someone reads any of my creative work it’s got my sticky artistic fingerprints all over it.
The other thing that makes me feel weird is that I never chose to write transgressive fiction. I didn’t sit down one day and say, “Wow, what an interesting genre. I think I’ll explore that.” It just happens to whatever story I’m writing, even if I think the story is starting out pretty normal.
Initially, it didn’t seem that unreasonable. My first book, Between the Shadow and Lo, is a memoir in the guise of fiction, all about my crazy alcoholic years in Seattle. I did a lot of horrible things. Of course that book could be labeled transgressive fiction. But then, I kept writing. My next two memoirs—focusing on time periods when I wasn’t drinking anymore—also turned out to be transgressive fiction. So then I moved away from memoir. I had an idea to write a novel about a teenage boy in the 1980s. I started writing and everything seemed normal. Until his stepfather, who happened to be a necrophiliac, entered the picture.
My short stories are like this too. No matter how innocent my ideas are in the beginning, they always morph into the absurd, the grotesque, and the obscene.
After all these years, I’ve finally accepted that this is just the way I write. But…it still feels lonely.
Because there are very few other female transgressive fiction writers out there.
Yes, I know they do exist. I am well aware that Kathy Acker has her own cult following and people recognize her genius. And I do know there are others, but…it’s not the same as it is for the guys.
William S. Burroughs. Chuck Palahniuk. Bret Easton Ellis.
I’m willing to bet that those of you who looked at Kathy Acker’s name and said, ‘huh?’ almost immediately recognized Bill and Chuck and Bret without me having to explain who they are or what they’ve written.
That’s because Bill and Chuck and Bret all broke into the mainstream. Every one of them has gotten wide enough exposure that even if a reader isn’t a fan of transgressive fiction they may still pick up Fight Club or American Pyscho out of curiosity, or be assigned Naked Lunch in a college course on counterculture.
Kathy Acker is probably the best-known female transgressive fiction author ever, and I didn’t learn about her until I found an extremely off-the-beaten-path book group in San Francisco that met in the basement of an artists’ co-op and was made up of six people, three of which dropped out, leaving me and only two others to meet every week.
The other side of it is that people who enjoy transgressive fiction seem to have a certain kind of disposition. To be more specific: people who like transgressive fiction find gross stuff funny. I still remember, ten years ago, sitting on a bus reading a story by Bill Burroughs about a guy who was attached to a magical anus that talked and made jokes. The guy created a vaudeville act around his anus, but then the anus rebelled and started trying to take over. I sat on the bus and just cackled as I read this story. As I got off the bus the driver good-naturedly asked me what I had been reading. There was just no way I could tell him.
I have always found weird, gross shit funny. And I have met quite a few women who share my twisted sense of humor. But in mainstream society, I think it’s assumed that only men laugh at things like fart jokes. Or magical talking anuses. So, most of the marketing for transgressive fiction is aimed at men, and not just because of the type of humor it endorses. It’s also a genre that can easily be seen—from the outside—as hyper-masculine.
Charles Bukowski is glamorized as a hard-drinking, emotionally-jaded man. But if you read and study a lot of his work, you’ll see that he was actually a very sensitive soul. William S. Burroughs is embellished as a nihilistic hardcore drug addict, but if you read the volumes of his letters, you can see that he was sensitive too, and suffered greatly. I have been told that “no feminists like Charles Bukowski” but I am a feminist, and I love him. I have also been told that he was a misogynist. But I have never gotten that feeling when I read his writing.
I don’t have any big sweeping statements to say about all this. I can only offer my own experience and say that, as a female author who writes transgressive fiction, it’s lonely at times. And it’s awesome. And it feels weird. I can only say that readers should actually sit down and read a writer’s work and listen to their own intuition about how they feel about that writer, instead of listening to others who have already made their judgments.
I can only say that I know for certainty that there ARE women out there who find fart jokes and magical talking anuses funny.
And I am one of them.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as a raging alcoholic in her 20s. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.